Hefeweizen (or Hefeweißen)
This distinctive style of virtually hop-free, cloudy wheat beer (4.4-5.6% ABV) is memorable for its banana, clove and nutmeg character, which comes from special yeast. Wheat beers have existed in Bavaria for at least 500 years, the Bavarian Beer Purity Order (or Reinheitsgebot) of 1516 being prompted by brewers and bakers squabbling over wheat supplies. At what point the specialist yeast were developed is less clear. The modern forms of wheat beer owe their origins to the Schneider brewery of Kelheim, which began as a specialist producer in 1856 and now leads the world in creating new forms. This cloudy version started to gain popularity in the 1960s. In German, Weizen means wheat and Weiss (or Weiß) means white, the latter referring to its hazy appearance. An interesting French variation is emerging that adds saison-like notes to the character.
Kristallweizen (or Kristall Weiß)
If you filter Hefeweizen you will remove its flour suspension, proteins and, many would argue, much of its character. It looks a lot nicer though.
Dunkelweizen (or Dunkles Weissbier)
German wheat beers are typically loaded with banana-like esters and clove-like phenolic edges, the darker ones carrying some light caramel or bread crust but roasted flavours should be absent. The same strength as Hefeweizen (4.4-5.6% ABV) but likely more typical in colour to wheat beers of old, the colour being determined by the 50% or more the grain bill that is made up of barley. Some German brewers distinguish between amber and brown varieties but we are not convinced this distinction helps.
Other wheat beer styles of German origin
From the time that Bavaria joined greater Germany in 1871 efforts were made to make all German brewing subject to the provisions of the Bavarian Beer Purity Order, or Reinheitsgebot. In practice this was not achieved until 1906 and then broken again in 1919, though this is still credited, rightly or wrongly, with outlawing a number of historic beer styles made locally in other parts of Germany. Several styles of wheat beer that were originally regional have either survived into or been revived in the 21st century.
This light, tart style of wheat beer (2.5-4.5% ABV) comes, as its name suggests, from Berlin. It is fermented through to dryness, with a distinct lactic edge but little hop presence. It had been on the verge of extinction in its city of origin until revived by home brewers and craft producers. The “tradition” of adding coloured syrups to it is a modern affectation, not dissimilar to adding a dollop of lime or blackcurrant cordial to an industrial lager.
This sharp, session-strength wheat beer (4.2-4.8% ABV) owes its dryness to having salt added to the mash, though this is offset by judicious use of a little coriander. It is believed to have been exempted from the Beer Purity Order in 1919 and remained available in Leipzig into the 1960s. It spluttered into revival in the years either side of the fall of the Berlin Wall since when international imitations have proved more popular, ones with added fruit or vegetable extracts tending to be lower in alcohol, making effective thirst quenchers, and arguably worthy of a separate style.
This light, sour and smoky session strength wheat beer (3.5-4.7% ABV) appears always to have been local to Thüringen (Thuringia), in central Germany, before and after the arrival of purity in 1871. Mashed from lightly smoked barley and 30-50% unmalted wheat, it used to develop lactic ageing, revivals in recent years achieving this by an infusion of lactobacilli.
Other wheat beer styles of Belgian origin
This emerging light summer beer (2.5-4.0 % ABV) lacks much written history but is claimed to have the same rustic origins as Saison Légère but with a wheat base and likely a younger second cousin to a defunct, lighter form of Lambic, called Meerts. it is said to have been popular in southern Belgium and parts of northeast France in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The search for tasty light beer styles may spark its reinvention.
Witbier (or Bière Blanche, Tarwebier, Bière de Froment)
Wit and Blanche mean white, while Tarwe and Froment mean wheat. This simple quaffing ale (4.0-5.5% ABV) is made hazy by wheat flour and spicy by additions from the spice cabinet. Common spices include dried citrus peel and coriander, though beers can be found in Belgium and elsewhere that contain many others in some degree. Its revival came in 1966, when brewer Pierre Celis of Hoegaarden, east of Brussels, recreated a beer he recalled from his childhood.
Other wheat beer styles
Grodziškie (or Grätzer)
Pronounced ‘grow-JEES-kee-uh’ this light wheat beer from the Polish city of Grodziškisz Wielpolski – known as Gratz when it was German-speaking – was brewed traditionally from 100% lightly smoked malted wheat, the character of which was offset by a sizable dose of Saaz hops. The version made prior to its demise in the 1990s was typically 2.5-3.3% ABV, though the revived form tends to be slightly stronger. International interest has grown, and with the demand for characterful lower alcohol beer styles may well continue to do so.
American Wheat Beer
While German wheat beers are yeast led and Belgian ones a mix of doughy and spicy, an American wheat beer should be simple and light (4.0-5.5% ABV) with great drinkability, offering a platform for low-dose but nonetheless noticeable and delicate hopping. There should be no banana, clove, coriander or citrus peel character.