Welcome to Gateways To Drinkery, where The Takeout offers an entry-level course on our favorite libations, and some suggestions on where to start drinking them.
The lowdown: It’s a familiar scene: a person standing in front of a beer case in a supermarket looking slightly bewildered. Their brow furrows in concentration as they squint to see past the frost on the door. They consult their phone, then put it away. This person is attempting to buy craft beer, and it’s clear they have no idea what they’re doing, or even where to begin describing the taste they’re searching for. Hefeweizen is the beer for this moment.
Hefeweizen, also known as weissbier (or even just “wheat beer”), is great because it’s easy—easy to drink, easy to like, and easy to talk about. While the first wheat beers were brewed more than 6,000 years ago by the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, the style as we enjoy it originated in Germany around the 12th or 13th century, in the region known as Bavaria. Despite the hundreds of years that have passed since its German reimagining, not much has changed about how it’s made. Hefeweizen must be at least 50 percent wheat and 50 percent malted barley (although the proportion of wheat is often higher than that), and it has a characteristically cloudy appearance due to the fact that it’s typically unfiltered and has plenty of yeast floating around inside of it.
While IPAs are often considered difficult for even expert craft beer drinkers to appreciate, hefeweizens are the opposite. They’re fun, unpretentious beers, incredibly well-suited for drinking outdoors, in great quantity, with or without food. If you’re the kind of person who likes to drink beer while eating sausages, sitting at a picnic table, surrounded by people having a great time, you can’t go wrong with ordering a hefeweizen.
The taste: Hefeweizen is an excellent gateway to craft beer because it’s both easy on the palate and substantially different from the pale, thin beers that dominate the market. Due to their unfiltered nature, hefeweizens pour cloudy with a gorgeous orange-yellow glow and produce a beautiful, thick, fragrant head. Drinkers should expect a smooth mouthfeel accompanied by a pleasant effervescence resulting from a fairly high degree of carbonation. Flavors and aromas of citrus, banana, and clove are dominant, with the taste of green apple and bubblegum also along for the ride. It’s also not unusual to encounter elements of pepper and spice. Low levels of bitterness and plenty of bright notes make hefeweizen a good choice for those who prefer their beer on the refreshing side. Deeper flavors also tend to creep in as alcohol content rises, and some drinkers may taste stone fruit, vanilla, biscuit, and malt.
The gateway: The best place to start with wheat bears are the classics straight from Germany. Weihenstephaner makes a wonderful hefeweizen redolent of banana that’s matched by the aroma of cloves. Another solid German brewery is Schneider Weisse, whose entire catalog of beers is wheat-based. Having to pick one Schneider beer over another is near impossible, but if you’re looking for a pour of something that exemplifies the basic tenets of wheat beer, the amber-colored Tap 7 Mein Original is the way to go. Perhaps easier to find than either Weihenstephaner or Schneider, however, is the Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse, which is produced by Spaten-Franziskaner and owned by global beer empire Anheuser-Busch InBev. Despite the bottom-of-the-barrel reputation of its corporate overlords, Franziskaner’s hefeweizen is lovely, a full-bodied golden pillar of beer with an aroma reminiscent of stone-ground mustard.
The next step: While hefeweizen and weissbier are good ambassadors, things can get more intense the deeper you’re willing to dig. Both Weihenstephaner and Schneider Weisse produce wheat beers of greater complexity than their standard (but excellent) offerings. These beers fall into the dunkelweizen category (which translates as “dark wheat”) and tend to be more powerful and flavor-intense. The Weihenstephaner Vitus is a powerhouse, a darker, cranked-up version of their standard hefeweizen with flavors of banana bread, malt, and cloves. The Schneider Weisse Aventinus is also one of the more remarkable wheat beers you’ll likely ever consume. At 8.2 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) it’s on the more powerful end of the spectrum, and you can expect deep flavors of raisins and plums matched by cherry, malt, and spice (plus the expected bananas and cloves).
It’s also worth noting that not every wheat beer of quality comes from Germany. In the United States, Sierra Nevada makes a fruity hefeweizen called Kellerweis year-round, and you can find other quality hefeweizens from breweries such as Tröegs, Jailbreak, and New Glarus. And as always, don’t shy away from trying whatever wheat beers your local brewers are cooking up.
Talk like an expert: If you want to sound like you really know your hefeweizen, talk about “esters”—the compounds produced by yeast and bacteria that result in fruity flavors—and “phenols,” which create aromas such as clove and smoke. And if you really want to drop some knowledge, you can also specifically mention isoamyl acetate, which creates the taste and aroma of bananas and bubblegum, or the rolls-right-off-the-tongue “4-vinyl guaiacol compound,” which is where those notes of clove come from. The particularly well-educated will also be sure to mention that these flavors and scents, while desirable in hefeweizen, can indicate bacterial infection if they show up unintentionally in other styles of beer. Hefeweizen isn’t the only variety of beer that takes advantage of these flavors, but if you ever take a sip of a banana-flavored beer that’s definitely not supposed to taste that way, your beer is likely infected.
Also, to a purist, a slice of lemon or orange is not an acceptable addition to a pint of hefeweizen. The product is damn-near perfect as it is, and that slice of filthy bar fruit isn’t going to add to your experience, no matter what your bartender tells you.