The basics: Hefeweizen

A variety of Hefeweizen and weissbier options from Germany and the U.S.
Love it or hate it, hefeweizen is a ubiquitous traditional style, making up more than 10% of German beer exports, according to Jeff Alworth in “The Beer Bible.” (James Figy)

I try not to be too controversial, but here goes: I like hefeweizen. 

I don’t love the style. I don’t plan special trips to breweries just because they have a new one on tap. But I also don’t scoff if someone suggests one. It’s refreshing, pleasing to the eye and delightfully fragrant with the prominent notes of banana and clove.

What was surprising in writing this article was the idea that hefeweizen is often a love-hate style. To me, it’s a middle-of-the-road summer beer, something for everyone. But Dave Berg, brewmaster at August Schell Brewing Co., has encountered some pretty extreme opinions.

A foamy head of Hefeweizen beer
Hefeweizen falls under the weiss beer umbrella due to its light color and cloudy appearance. However, not all weiss beers contain wheat. (James Figy)

But I’ll say it again: I like hefeweizen.

Hefeweizen is a type of weiss beer, with “weiss” meaning “white” in German. And I know they didn’t have Pantone back in the 1400s, but the liquid appears generally hazy yellow. The name hefeweizen denotes yeast (“hefe”) and wheat (“weizen”). Not every weiss beer contains wheat, but every weizen does. 

The style has existed for half a millennia, starting as a peasant beer that was fermented in open vats. The flavors of banana and clove, along with the billowy head and signature wheat glass, are the most iconic elements of a hefeweizen. 

However, no banana or clove is added during brewing. The traditional flavor profile comes from esters created by heirloom yeast strains, open-air fermentation and a special rest to boost the release of ferulic acid. Also, a range of other flavors can often be present, such as vanilla, anise, apple, lemon and more.

Beyond some solid Bavarian imports, local brews have major followings, too. 

Just last year, Utepils Brewing Co. caused a kerfuffle by an April Fool’s Day social media post suggesting its Ewald the Golden had passed away. Fans of the beer, and even some distributors, were calling the brewery to ask why it would make such a bad decision.

As it turns out, another Minnesota brewery deserves the credit for the style’s resurgence stateside. When Schell’s released its first batch of Hefeweizen in 1984, it was the first brewery in the U.S. to create not just that style, but any wheat beer, since Prohibition.

To understand why, I spoke with Berg about all things weizen. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, focuses on the challenges of crafting a good hefeweizen and tradition that draws so many people to Team Love.

James Figy: How does Schell’s Hefeweizen stick to — or depart from — the traditional definition?

A can of Schell's Hefeweizen
Schell’s Hefeweizen was the first wheat beer to be brewed commercially in the U.S. after Prohibition. (August Schell Brewing Co.)

Dave Berg: At their core, these are beers brewed with wheat. We try to stay close to the traditional German methods, so our Hefeweizen uses at least 50% wheat and traditional yeast. For us, the remainder of the malt bill is two-row malt. If you’re looking for a little deeper color, a touch of Munich would be appropriate.

There are some nontraditional changes. We skip the decoction, and it’s not open fermented.

JF: Are there any unique challenges to brewing a great Hefeweizen?

DB: The toughest part is getting the correct balance between the clove and banana flavors. The clove is caused by the yeast converting ferulic acid to 4-Vinyl Guaiacol, which is an aromatic phenol. 

The banana is a yeast-driven ester, isoamyl acetate. Esters are affected by many things — temperature, yeast growth and hydrostatic pressure to name a few. Thus, it’s important to understand your yeast, pitch the correct amount, and ferment at the correct temperature.

I know some folks are terrified of open fermentation, but I spent the first six years of my professional career with only​ open fermentation. So it’s not particularly concerning or difficult to me — we just don’t have open fermenters.

JF: Schell’s Hefeweizen became the first wheat beer brewed in the U.S. after Prohibition, according to your website. That’s mind blowing. Why do you think it took so long for them to come back and catch on?

Two Schofferhofer weissbiers in Germany
Fun story: Drinking beer in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia in 2019, I was asked by the bartender, “One, dunkel? Or, two, weissbier?” I replied, “Two,” thinking that indicated the second option. Turns out, it indicated the quantity, too. (James Figy)

DB: First, lagers returned and then ales much later! Still, there wasn’t really a great demand for more niche styles. And hefeweizen is kind of a love-hate style. There really isn’t a middle ground, so it doesn’t automatically have a mass appeal. 

JF: Do you think there’s any hope to see related styles break through too — weizenbock, dunkelweizen, rauchweizen, etc.?

DB: Obviously, brewers make all of those styles today. Snowstorm 2010 was a weizenbock. But once again, as a love-hate style, they will probably only pop up as seasonals.

JF: As an ale with such a long tradition, do you see anyone pushing the boundaries and really innovating?

DB: Quite frankly, no. A number of people add more hops or dry hop. But that’s not really innovation. It’s just adding more ingredients.

For myself, I don’t really need the style to be any different than it is. There’s a reason it’s been made for as long as it has been.

JF: Final question, and it’s a big one. Do you drink your hef’ with a slice of citrus?

DB: I think you can guess my answer.

Mankato Magazine May 2023 beer column on Hefeweizen

James Figy is a writer and beer enthusiast based in St. Paul. In Mankato, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University and a World Beer Cruise captain’s jacket from Pub 500. Twitter and Instagram: @JamesBeered

This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Mankato Magazine.


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