It’s true that the Northwest has a reputation for rain. It’s the one thing people who’ve never been there think they know about the area. The reality is that Seattle and New York City get about the same amount of rainfall a year. In the Northwest, what people mistake for rainy weather is mostly just cloudy weather.
It’s no surprise then that in 1986—when most mass-produced beer in North America came in two basic shades: light and dark, but always crystal clear—patrons at a small Portland, Ore., bar, the Dublin Pub, took a shine to a thoroughly cloudy beer brewed locally by brothers Rob and Kurt Widmer. The Widmers were already making German-style Altbier and Weizenbier (“wheat beer”) for the Dublin when the owner at the time, eager to expand his offerings, asked the duo to make a third beer for him. The Widmers only had two fermenters, and necessity being the mother of invention, they simply left the Weizenbier unfiltered and impressively cloudy, thus making Hefeweizen.
Of course, the Widmers didn’t invent Hefeweizen. It’s a German creation—the name, pronounced HAY-fuh-vites-in, means literally “yeast wheat.” It’s long been a favorite in southern Germany, where the practice of making beer using wheat is thought to date back to the 11th century. The Widmers did, however, introduce and popularize an Americanized version of this very unusual-looking and distinctive-tasting beer.
Most beers are brewed with predominantly barley malts, but Weizenbier (alternately known as Weissbier, which means “white beer”), whether filtered or unfiltered, is made with at least 50 percent wheat malts, a substitution that produces a light-colored, cloudy beer. If the yeast and proteins are filtered off, you get a lovely deep golden and refreshingly crisp Weizenbier. Leave all that cloudy goodness and the results are still refreshing and light, but the beer takes on a citrusy, bready complexity. At least that’s what the American version of Hefeweizen tastes like—the kind that’s served with a slice of lemon, to the chagrin of Germans and some North American beer purists.
Yeast from the east
German Hefeweizen is, in many ways, completely different from the American version popularized by the Widmers, due to the fact that it’s fermented with a different strain of yeast, which produces striking banana and clove flavors. In fact, there are those who argue that what many Americans consume as Hefeweizen is no such thing. “To me a Hefeweizen is a Hefeweizen,” says Verne Lambourne, one of two brewmasters at Vancouver, B.C.’s Granville Island Brewing, “which means you use the proper yeast strain, which will give the beer its fruity, spicy flavor. If breweries aren’t using that yeast, it’s not a Hefeweizen—it’s just a cloudy wheat beer.”
The Widmers didn’t set out to alter the recipe for Hefeweizen. Back in 1986 they simply didn’t have the facilities necessary to deal with multiple yeast strains. They improvised with what they had and customers liked it. “I think that one of the hallmarks of craft brewing is to push the envelope of style and respect tradition but not be restricted by it,” Rob Widmer says. Theirs may not be a true German-style Hefe, but it’s become the pre-eminent American-style Hefeweizen.
Yeast, that great fermenter, is an essential part of making any alcoholic beverage. It transforms carbs—potatoes, fruit, grains, sugar—into ethanol, a consumable form of alcohol that delivers that delightful feeling of well-being we humans so love. Top-fermenting yeasts—such as those used in craft ales—work at higher temperatures and produce a fruitier, sweeter beer than their bottom-fermenting counterparts used in drier-tasting, cold-brewed lagers. There are, however, different strains of top-fermenting yeasts that produce different results in the brewing process. The top-fermenting Bavarian yeast Torulaspora delbrueckii, which Lambourne refers to as the “proper” Hefeweizen yeast, produces phenols and esters that impart the banana, bubblegum and clove flavors in German Hefeweizen.
Traditional German Hefeweizen is not, however, easy to make, according to Charlie Papazian, author of several home-brewing books and president of the Brewers Association. “German-style wheat beer is actually one of the most difficult styles to brew,” he explains. “Partly because it requires the special yeast, but also because without the right equipment and temperature controls any one of the flavors can get over-accentuated and throw the beer out of balance.”
Hop to it
The yeast used in American-style Hefes—usually a strain of a typical ale yeast such as Saccharomyces cerevisiae—adds more to the appearance than the flavor. These beers get their crispness and fruity, citrusy tang mostly from the use of wheat. Leaving in the yeast and protein particulates does add to the complexity (and provide some bready aromas and a fuller mouthfeel). But it’s a more prominent use of hops—which accentuates the inherent fruitiness—that makes them distinctive from and a little more robust than the German version.
Rob Widmer believes Widmer Brothers’ treatment of hops is one of the defining characteristics of their Hefe. “It has more hops than other bitter beers, but because it’s unfiltered, it has other stuff in there to balance the bitterness,” he says. “The hop we use is that classic craft brewer hop, Cascade—made famous by Sierra Nevada in their Pale Ale—so you get that really nice citrusy, lemony flavor and aroma, but it’s balanced and smooth.”
This may be a clue to the origin of the lemon slice that accompanies most pints of Hefeweizen served in the States—an origin as hazy as a pint of Hefeweizen itself. Widmer figures this practice started at the Dublin Pub where the owner originally served the Widmers’ Weizenbier with a slice of lemon, a habit he continued with the Hefeweizen. When that beer caught on via the bartenders and waiters from other restaurants that drank at the Dublin Pub, adding lemon—thereby enhancing the beer’s prominent citrus flavor—became de rigueur.
Keine zitrone, bitte!
Adding a lemon slice to Hefeweizen is not tradition in Germany, though a certain style of Weizenbier (Berliner Weisse) is mixed with a variety of sweet syrups, so it’s not like German beer drinkers are too precious about adding fruity flavors to their beer. “In north [Germany] I have seen it, but very rarely,” says European beer expert Ron Pattinson of the lemon garnish. “In the south, it would be seen as sacrilege to put anything in beer. [However], Germans do make a Radler [the beer equivalent of an Arnold Palmer] with Hefeweizen, mixing it 50-50 with lemonade.”
Though Hefeweizen was first brewed in Germany, the country still drinks more bottom-fermented, filtered Pilsners. But wheat beers still enjoy varying degrees of regional popularity. “Thirty years ago Weizen was [almost] unknown in the north,” says Pattinson. “[Now] it’s quite a trendy drink [there], slightly more expensive than standard Pilsner and mostly drunk by the young. The situation is slightly different in the south, where it’s still the traditional drink of grannies.”
The beer seems to be consumed by a wider audience in the U.S., but perhaps because in the American version the flavors are so approachable and easy-drinking, without the strong hoppy bitterness typical of many craft beers, Hefeweizen has sometimes been erroneously dubbed a “girlie beer.” And topping it off with a slice of lemon, well, they might as well just throw in a little paper umbrella, too, right?
Rob Widmer says that’s nonsense. Though he himself only rubs the rim of the glass with the lemon slice and then discards it, he has no problem with the practice of adding a squeeze of lemon to a pint of American Hefe and doesn’t think it diminishes its appeal to men. “Lemon is a nice flavor enhancer,” he points out. “But it’s personal taste. If you like lemon, it works. If you don’t like lemon, the beer certainly doesn’t need it.”
Granville Island’s Lambourne is staunchly against adding lemon to a German-style Hefe. “To me the beer has enough flavor without it,” he says. Customers at the brewery’s Taproom, however, have the choice. “We do serve it with lemon, but we ask people if they have a preference. We get a lot of tourists from the States, and they’ll definitely want a lemon. German tourists don’t.”
Whether or not you choose to drink it with lemon or prefer the exotic clove and banana flavors of the German version more than the citrusy American version, there is definite consensus on how the beer needs to be served when enjoying it at home: All the yeast and protein particulates that may settle in shipping need to end up in your glass. Unlike wine sediment, which is an unwelcome addition, you want to decant every last drop in that Hefeweizen bottle to give it the distinctive cloudiness. This is where the fullness of the beer’s distinctive flavors lie. Start by pouring about two-thirds of the bottle into a glass and then, as the folks at Left Hand Brewing so eloquently suggest, “swirl the bottle to unleash the aromatics,” and empty its deliciously hazy contents.
There is, of course, a specific style of glassware you should be pouring that Hefeweizen into, if you’re so inclined. The traditional Weizenbier glass, which originated in the Bavaria region in southern Germany, holds a 500-milliliter bottle (that country’s standard size) with plenty of room for the thick, white head that wheat beers are known to produce. It’s narrow at the bottom, curvy toward the middle and slightly narrowed again at the rim. “The Weizen glass is like a champagne flute,” says Pattinson, “designed to retain and highlight the high level of carbonation and help it form a dense head.”
That carbonation is a result of bottle conditioning, whereby yeast is added to the bottle of beer before it’s capped to create a secondary fermentation. Though Hefeweizen is hazy and unfiltered before the extra yeast is added, bottle conditioning is an important step in creating that classic cloudy look. And while other styles of beer taste better on tap, bottled Hefe offers at least one advantage—a zippier bit of carbonation.
Draught Hefeweizen is, in fact, a relatively new phenomenon in Germany. “Until the 1990s it was only ever a bottled beer,” says Pattinson of the German version. “In taste, [draught and bottled] are essentially the same.” Widmer Brothers, however, first introduced their American version on tap and only started bottling it several years later. Rob Widmer agrees that the differences between the two are minimal. “If they are of equal age and have had the same treatment, bottles and draught are indistinguishable. In taste panels, I get fooled all the time.”
Draught or bottled, there’s no small amount of irony in the fact that a cloudy beer has become a summertime favorite. Though brewed year-round in Germany (and by several craft brewers in the States), Hefeweizen is very popular as a seasonal beer. Its light fruitiness and zesty carbonation make it perfect for warm-weather drinking. “I think it’s just proven to be a really good thirst-quenching summer beer,” Lambourne says.
“I think people really appreciate the fruity-yeasty character without it being excessively bitter,” Papazian says. “It’s a friendly style. You can start a love affair with wheat beer pretty quickly.”