What Is A Hefeweizen?
Back before the likes of IPAs and Imperial Stouts took the American beer world by storm, Hefeweizen was one of the few beer styles American drinkers embraced when looking for a break from pale lagers. The German-style wheat beer is approachable in a lot of ways: It’s cloudy, golden color is visually appealing; it’s round, fruity flavor (without any of the hoppy bitterness of pale lagers) tends to be easy drinking, especially on a warm day; and the traditional lemon wedge on the rim adds a bit of fun cachet.
In Germany, Hefeweizen (or “Weissbier”) has a long history. For instance, Weihenstephan, which at almost 1000-years-old calls itself the world’s oldest brewery, has a Hefeweissbier as one of its signature brews. By embracing strong yeast characteristics like banana, clove and even bubblegum, as well as an unfiltered final product (two attributes more modern styles like Pilsner avoid), Hefes inherently stem from a more traditional process. In fact, “Hefe” means with yeast. Whereas modern lagers like to play down their yeast profile, Hefes don’t mind showing it off.
In the US, meanwhile, the first mainstream modern American Hefeweizen wasn’t brewed until 1986, when Oregon’s Widmer Brothers introduced their take on the beer. Adding West Coast hops and toning down some of the stronger yeast flavors, this very unique-at-the-time brew is actually most notable for helping to launch the idea of “American-style wheats” more so than replicating traditional German Hefes in the States, choosing to emphasize a lighter, more citric and grassy profile.
Since “Hefeweizen” literally translates to “wheat beer with yeast,” the style is up to broad interpretations. But as beer IQs have continued to grow in the US, the word tends to be reserved for more traditional takes on the style. The bevy of (often amazing) spinoffs – typically lighter in body and/or featuring stronger hop profiles – choose to call themselves American Wheats. That said, keep in mind not all Hefeweizens drink alike. For instance, UFO Hefeweizen from Massachusetts’ Harpoon Brewery is delightful on a summer day – in part because it drinks far easier than a traditional German Hefe – almost like a Hefeweizen Light.
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For an American brewery that nails a German-style Hefeweizen, look no further than California’s Sierra Nevada. Their Kellerweis Bavarian-style wheat wallows in many of the banana and clove Hefeweizen yeast notes that many other American brewers eschew. Of course, you can also go directly to the source: Franziskaner and Paulaner are two German breweries which make Weissbiers that are as traditional and enjoyable as they are easy to find on American shores.