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.


What is beer poking?

Beer poking at Utepils Brewing Co.
Beer poking caramelizes residual sugars in a malty beer and creates a foamy, marshmallow-like head.

Countless chemical reactions take place before that first delicious drop of beer touches your tongue. Carefully planned and monitored by the brewer, this science remains beyond the consumer’s control.

But one piece of brewing alchemy you can do, even after bottling, is beer poking. This involves taking a red-hot iron and plunging it into a glass of malty beer. 

Why poke perfectly good beer?

There are two main reasons, and the first is straightforward: “Because it’s fun,” said Dan Justesen, president of Utepils Brewing in Minneapolis.

The second is about science and taste. The hot iron caramelizes residual malt sugar left over from the brewing process, Justesen explained. At the same time, it activates the CO2 to create a billowing foamy head, not unlike a marshmallow atop the cold beer.

“It’s kind of like a hot fudge sundae,” Justesen said. “When the hot fudge is still warm and you’ve got that cold ice cream, you get those two sensations at the same time. So we’ve not only changed the beer itself, but we’ve also given you a sensory overload.”

When did beer poking start?

While it may be trendy – and very Instagrammable – it’s not new by any means. 

The practice originated in Germany in the Middle Ages. Per Weihenstephan, the world’s oldest brewery, the Bavarian blacksmiths of yore didn’t appreciate how their beer became slushy during winter, so they tried to warm it using a hot poker, fresh from the forge. Thus was born “Bierstacheln,” which translates to “beer spiking.”

A propane burner with beer poking equipment heating up.
While a campfire can work, a propane burner makes it easier to poke multiple beers in a row and reduces carbon buildup on the poking iron.

It gained steam in Colonial America as well, according to 1571°F, a Wisconsin company that sells beer-poking kits. Colonists would poke their Flip – a mix of rum, ale and sugar or molasses – to beat New England’s bitter chill.

Even in Minnesota, it’s not novel. August Schell Brewing Co. deserves the most credit. Beer poking has been a mainstay at Schell’s Bock Fest since the annual event started in 1978.

“New Ulm as an old German town, we had a lot of old-timers that didn’t want cold beer,” said Ted Marti, president and CEO of Schell’s. “They literally had little warming irons to warm up the beer, so we took it a little farther with the fire poker and the fire.”

A perfect cold weather activity, beer poking has grown across the state. Maybe it’s because breweries adapted their patios for social distancing during Minnesota winters and needed something exciting. Whatever the case, it’s not just for a brewery’s anniversary or major event anymore.

Breweries that focus on German styles – Schell’s, Utepils, Waldmann Brewery in St. Paul, Lupulin Brewery in Big Lake, etc. – regularly offer beer poking. But it can also be a fun addition for your next bonfire or camping trip.

How to poke beer

Remember to use common sense. Wielding red-hot irons and drinking alcohol could be dangerous. Because the process is fun, you might end up poking and drinking several beers in short order. Consider designating one person to be the poker.

Dan Justesen of Utepils shows off the poking irons, customized with brewery tap handles.
Dan Justesen of Utepils shows off the poking irons, customized with brewery tap handles.

Step 1: Get your gear. Kits on the market, like those from 1571°F, have compact irons and other attachments. You might be tempted to use your fireplace poker, but it will prove unwieldy and difficult to heat.

Step 2: Choose the right beer. Bocks are ideal, but any malty style will work. Justesen has poked nearly every beer Utepils serves and really enjoyed how it changed the Hefeweizen. Just stay away from hoppy beers, which lack the necessary sugars.

Step 3: Crank up the heat. A campfire will work, but you could consider a propane burner. Justesen swears by it because the blue flame gets the iron hotter and prevents carbon buildup.

Step 4: Fill your glass and drink it down to about two-thirds full. This will provide room for the foam and allow you to taste the difference caramelization makes. 

Step 5: Submerge the iron into the beer. Be careful not to touch the glass. Leave the iron in for a few seconds, then slowly remove it. Justesen lets it linger at the top for a better foam taste. In and out, it should take about 10-15 seconds.

Step 6: Enjoy quickly. You’ll have time to take a picture, but to taste that marshmallowy foam, you shouldn’t wait long.

This was my experience, at least, in the snowy beer garden outside Utepils’ Fernweh Taproom. Justesen plunged the iron into a pint of Minnator, a rich 7.8% ABV Dopplebock. The liquid bubbled out from the hot poker. Then a lovely tan foam welled up and over the side.

It was New Year’s Eve 2021, and people warming up around the large fire ring glanced up from their beers and conversations about the year passing, the one ahead. They asked Justesen questions, then wanted a turn.

Each time was magical. None of us had a hand in crafting those beers, but we could all play a part in their transformation.

Mankato Magazine March 2022 issue

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 March 2022 issue of Mankato Magazine.

All photos by James Figy.

Minnesota women brewing change

Team Nevertheless brewed its collective beer for International Women’s Day 2023 at BlackStack Brewing. (James Figy)

Less than one in four. That’s how many brewery owners identify as female, according to the Brewer’s Association. Considering the first brewers in history were women, today’s gender gap in the industry is glaring. 

“Being a woman in brewing means being one of a few,” said Jordan Nordby, lead brewer at Utepils Brewing.

Jordan Nordby and Ariel Keeton, brewers and founders of Team Nevertheless
Team Nevertheless was founded by Jordan Nordby (left) of Utepils and Ariel Keeton of Pryes. (James Figy)

“I see it as a position to lead and light the way for more women in the future. It means making things more accessible and better for future women brewers, for authentic equality.”

As a way to celebrate and support other women working in brewing, Nordby and Ariel Keeton, brewer at Pryes Brewing Co., formed Team Nevertheless. 

The group started when Keeton and Nordby, while talking at a Christmas party at Fulton Brewing, counted how many women they knew who worked in brewing in Minnesota. At that time, they could name just eight. That number stuck with Keeton.

“One day, while sitting on the brewdeck, waiting for my mash to finish up, I had an idea: find all the women in our state who brew beer and continually make beer together. I ran the wild idea in my head past Jordan and our friend Shannon (Stroh), a brewer at Surly, and both thought it was a great idea,” Keeton said. 

“I spent months contacting every brewery in the state I did not personally know anyone at. At that point, there were 16 of us scattered throughout the state, 12 of which made it to the very first brew: Nevertheless.”

Team Nevertheless collectively brews two beers each year. One is released on International Women’s Day, March 8, and the other sometime in the fall at the host brewery’s convenience.

“We chose to do two brews per year as a means of not only staying relevant, but also to show we are not just limited to one day per year of being important within this industry,” Keeton said. 

Ariel Keeton measures out hops for the “We’re Not Waiting” Keller Pilsner. (James Figy)

“Two beers per year means that two women every year get the opportunity to create and name her own beer. This is a task not frequently given to women in the industry. Brewing is a combination of science and art, and the Nevertheless series of beer is a means of celebrating each woman’s beer creation.”

The group made the first beer at Badger Hill Brewing in Shakopee where Keeton brewed for four years before recently joining Pryes in Minneapolis. She started in the industry as taproom manager at the now-shuttered Harriet Brewing.

“The two brewers that were working at Harriet at the time noticed my interest in learning the production side of the industry, thus filling my free time with information and hands-on learning experiences,” she said. “… I went on to become the assistant brewer and assistant taproom manager for Tanzenwald Brewing Co. in Northfield.”

Nordby’s path to joining Utepils five years ago was very different. “I wanted to do something interesting with my chemical engineering degree that did not involve sitting at a desk all day.”

Brewers from Utepils, Pryes and BlackStack join to make a beer for International Women's Day 2023
Jordan Nordby and Ariel Keeton stand on the brewdeck with this year’s host brewer, Bella Ludwig, production manager at BlackStack. (James Figy)

Being part of Team Nevertheless has had a huge positive influence on Nordby’s experience as a brewer. She can turn to the group for support or advice, and it’s there for others, too, whether seasoned pros or relative newcomers.

“For any women who are interested in joining the beer industry, it is important to know that it will not always be easy, but once you find the company culture that you thrive in, it is worth it,” she said. “Team Nevertheless will be here to support you in any way we can.”

Keeton offered similar advice. There’s always room to learn and grow, but don’t doubt yourself. Trusting your knowledge and abilities is critical as a woman in brewing. 

“When I started in this industry, there were five women in the state of Minnesota that brewed beer,” Keeton said. “There are now 25 of us, and we aren’t going anywhere.”

What’s the beer for International Women’s Day 2023?

This year, Team Nevertheless brewed We’re Not Waiting in January at BlackStack Brewing.

The Keller Pilsner, an unfiltered Pils that requires less lagering time, will be on tap March 8 at BlackStack’s St. Paul taproom.

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 March 2023 issue of Mankato Magazine.

Engineered to Refreshment

Believe it or not, drinking and writing about beer is not my full-time gig. But beer still finds me, even in my day job at a global automation technology vendor. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s a German company.)

One of our top engineers, Matt, is also an avid homebrewer. As a resident beer buff, I often get to try his test batches and offer feedback. One day we discussed how many brewers start out in engineering, listing several examples. The conversation was brief, but the idea lingered.

Engineers, of course, are details people. But there must be more to it, right? And do many folks involved in beer making actually come from engineering? I tracked down some Minnesota brewers with engineering backgrounds to find out.

How many engineers are in brewing?

A non-exhaustive list of Minnesota breweries with engineering professionals includes August Schell Brewing Co., BlackStack Brewing, Lost Sanity Brewing, Tin Whiskers Brewing Co., Uncommon Loon Brewing Co., Urban Growler Brewing Co. and Utepils Brewing Co. This excludes folks from broader STEM fields and those who received brewing engineering degrees but don’t identify as engineers.

Deb Loch, head brewer at Urban Growler, in the brewhouse
Deb Loch worked in biomedical engineering for 20 years, including eight years at Medtronic, before becoming master brewer at Urban Growler. (Urban Growler Brewing Co.)

The list highlights people like Deb Loch, master brewer at Urban Growler in St. Paul. She put in 20 years as a biomedical engineer and product manager, then received a degree in brewing and went to work at Northern Brewer, the homebrew supply store. 

She noticed engineers made up a good share of customers and often focused on gear more than others. That made sense to Loch.

“When I transitioned to brewing, I never transitioned out of engineering,” she said, adding she’s an analytical, problem solver by nature. 

“It wasn’t like I stopped doing any of those things. I just applied it to a different situation.”

Why do engineers make good brewers?

Two key themes were process and measurement. These are critical for recipe development, reliable production and fixing issues with ingredients or equipment, said Schell’s brewmaster Dave Berg, a former aerospace engineer.

Tin Whiskers beer glass
The exclusive dimple glass was reserved for members of Tin Whiskers’ Robot Collective group.

“In the brewhouse, we measure temperatures, volumes, pH, specific gravity, to name a few. In fermentation, we measure temperature, pH drop, specific gravity drop, the time it takes to reach attenuation,” he said. “Knowing what your targets are and what to do for something out of specification is critical for consistency.”

Brad Klatt, co-owner and head brewer at Uncommon Loon in Chisago City, sees the craft’s multidisciplinary nature as another key reason. “Brewing contains a number of mechanical, chemical, electrical, controls/automation and microbiology sciences,” said Klatt, who retired after 36 years in engineering to open the brewery.

Collecting data at each step and using that to enhance the brew is also critical, said Jeff Moriarty, founder and president of Tin Whiskers. The downtown St. Paul brewery also draws on Moriarty’s electrical engineering career in its branding, with a pint-wielding robot mascot and beers titled Short Circuit Stout, Reverse Breakdown Maibock and the Bot IPA series.

“Brewing beer is also very science-based,” Moriarty said. “I like to think of it as engineering, but with beer instead of electronics.”

How to enjoy beer like an engineer

Are there any lessons non-engineers can apply when tasting beer or homebrewing? Pretty much all of the engineers-turned-brewers responded something like: Sure, but why?

Jordan Nordby, lead brewer at Utepils in Minneapolis, emphasized her chemical engineering knowledge wasn’t her most important tool. “It is having the mindset to know that things can always be improved and being able to see those opportunities when they present themselves,” she said.

Still, Nordby suggested homebrewers add a light lager or blonde ale to their rotation. These seem simple but don’t hide mistakes well. Stick to the recipe, don’t dump in extra hops, taste carefully and make intentional changes, she said.

“Do you want to know how different yeasts change the flavor of beer? Split your wort in half and ferment each half with a different yeast,” she said. “There are a lot of ways to experiment with recipes. But it is important to make sure you have the basics down first before going crazy with styles.”

The engineers’ main advice was to calibrate your palate. Don’t limit yourself to specific styles. Try to describe what you’re tasting. And always remember to enjoy each new drink and brewery — don’t turn it into a science fair.

As Klatt put it, brewing is highly technical, but beer itself remains more ethereal.

“While engineering is an important skill set, equally important is appreciating the art and beauty in crafting beer,” he said. “I’m continually in awe of the miracle that combining four simple ingredients – grain, hops, yeast and water – can produce such a magical beverage.”

Mankato Magazine April 2022 issue

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.

This article originally appeared in the April 2022 issue of Mankato Magazine.

Update: Tin Whiskers unfortunately closed in May 2022.

The basics aren’t basic: Pilsner

Josef Groll had a big head. Arrogance was one of the brewer’s defining characteristics. His own father dubbed him “the rudest man in Bavaria.” But even Groll couldn’t have imagined — when he brewed the first Pilsner on October 5, 1842, in a small Bohemian city — his new pale lager would become a global mainstay.

The people of Pilsen, in what’s now Czechia, recruited Groll to create an alternative to the terrible ales they regularly dumped. They built a state-of-the-art brewery, now called Pilsner Urquell. Czech Pilsners retain much of the sweetness, hefty Bavarian malt mouthfeel, spicy bitterness from Saaz hops and golden color of the original.

Fair State Pils can with a full pilsner glass next to it
Fair State Pils draws on aspects of the north German and original Czech Pilsner. (Fair State)

In the late 1800s, advances in refrigeration and yeast accelerated the style’s popularity. Pilsner spread, adjusting to local tastes, agriculture and water. First it moved south into Austria and Bavaria where it spawned the Helles lager. Then it went north, creating the crispier northern German Pilsner and another spinoff: Dortmund export.

What about now? Unfortunately, Pilsner is no longer seen as Groll’s revolution, but too often as a macro style that breweries carry as a gateway to more exciting styles.

In this column, I want to occasionally revisit the basics, highlighting a Minnesota offering that’s a standard bearer of the style. For Pilsner, I spoke with Niko Tonks, founding brewer at Fair State Brewing Cooperative. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, runs the gamut between what the beer was and what it might become again.

James Figy: Are Pilsners nowadays just something for the not-a-beer-drinker to sip?

Niko Tonks: Pilsners, in particular, are gaining ground. We always have Pils in the taproom, and when we have a second Pilsner, it often moves faster than IPAs at that time. But Pilsner is just one kind of pale lager. The lager in general has further to go. 

JF: You once said brewers, rather than being beer snobs, prefer pale lager. Why?

NT: Taste among brewers is a diverse thing. But it’s a truism that the longer you’re in the industry, the more likely you drink pale lager at the end of the day, oftentimes not even craft beer. 

At a base level, it tastes good, and you can have two or three. If you’re working in the “kettle sour mines” all day, cutting bags of fruit puree into a fermenter, you’ll probably crave a “regular beer.” On a technical level, Pilsners require consistency and are difficult to do well. That’s another truism.

JF: What makes Pilsners so difficult?

NT: The old story is there are fewer things to hide behind. That’s true to an extent. Material selection is important, but that applies to any style. Really, reaching the pinnacle of IPA is as hard as getting to the pinnacle of Pilsner. 

Fair State Brewing Cooperative's taproom in Minneapolis
Fair State Brewing Cooperative is a Union brewery with a Northeast Minneapolis taproom and St. Paul brewhouse. (Fair State)

But the opportunity cost is huge: In our peak season, we could put two or three batches of IPA through a tank in the time it takes to do one of Pils.

We use some old school, continental techniques, too. Much American brewing equipment isn’t set up for them, though many new breweries are building in these capabilities. You need to do a temperature program mash or decoction if you want to get to the next level. 

And we keep Pils simple, which is the nature of the beast. As a brewer, you have to resist complicating recipes for beers like this.

JF: Which pale lager ancestor does it most closely resemble?

NT: Fair State Pils is a mashup of the Czech and northern German versions. It’s maltier and less dry than the latter because we use Bohemian Pilsner malt. But we pair it with a lot of classic German aroma hops from the Hallertau region of Bavaria, so it’s more bitter and hop aromatic than the former. We aimed for an authentic continental style.

JF: Why have you focused so much on craft lagers, like Pils, Crankin’ Foamers, Union Lager and Vienna Lager?

Exterior of Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Minneapolis
While Fair State received early attention for its sour program, including the ubiquitous, hibiscus-infused Roselle, the brewery’s focus remains on low-ABV lagers and other easy-drinking styles. (Fair State)

NT: Our concept when we opened in 2014 was to make low-alcohol beers. Early on, our sour beers got more attention, so we leaned into that. And we’ve definitely chased a trend or two. 

But during the pandemic, we had some downtime to think. We realized we’re technically proficient enough to make almost any style, but people can really tell when you’re excited and care about the beer. 

We’ll keep brewing as many lagers as possible, and if that’s our niche, we’ll still sleep well.

JF: Will the industry overall trend in that direction?

NT: Everything’s possible on small scales. To stay alive in Minnesota’s beer scene, most breweries must cater to everybody. I hope we see greater differentiation, with go-to places for English pub ales or brown ales or Belgians.

But I take it with a grain of salt. My first brewing job was at Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Texas, which makes Pilz — a very Czech Pilsner. Every year since, articles have said, “This is the year of the craft lager!” The only difference now is I sort of believe it.

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.

This article originally appeared in the June 2022 issue of Mankato Magazine.