What Makes a Beer a Hefeweizen?

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There’s nothing that reflects autumn like the smooth wheaty, banana and clovey flavors of this popular beer. Hefeweizen is made up of a lot of wheat, giving it its classic refreshing taste. But what differentiates a hefeweizen from other wheat beers, like Belgian witbier and dunkelweizen? Let’s take a step back to hefeweizen history, and then move forward to the present to find out.

A Brief Hefeweizen History Lesson

Hefeweizen’s history dates all the way back to the middle ages. In fact, some historians believe that wheat beer, or weissbier, is one of the oldest style of beer in the world. It all started with Germanic tribes gathering whatever resources were around them, which happened to be wheat and barley, and brewing them together to make beer. The result was beer that was much lighter in color than others at the time. Thus, it received a fitting name: weissbier, or white beer.

Over time, wheat beer spread across the country and the world. But it was in Southern Germany that hefeweizen was perfected and made famous. Bavaria suffered many wheat crop failures throughout its history in beermaking. In theory, hefeweizen should have died out in Bavaria because of this. But the dukes of the region pushed for wheat beer to be brewed in order to make a profit. Without them, we may not have had the pleasure of enjoying hefeweizens today.

Hefeweizen Characteristics

So what makes a hefeweizen a hefeweizen? First of all, it is German law that wheat beer be made up of at least 50% wheat. As its translated name (yeast wheat) suggests, hefeweizens are traditionally unfiltered and have sedimentary yeast at the bottom of the bottle. There’s no need to be afraid of these floating particles. They make the beer taste even better. Hefeweizen is usually made with up to 65% of malted wheat. The rest of the grist is malted barley.

When you pour your drink, you’ll notice that hefeweizens are cloudy and pale, with a foamy and frothy head. The heavy wheat profile gives them a uniquely refreshing flavor, as does the high carbonation. As you smell your hefeweizen, you might notice banana and clove aromas, along with bubblegum and spicy notes. You’ll taste fruity, banana, clove and vanilla flavors. Traditional German hefeweizens are not hoppy at all.

German Hefeweizens vs. American Hefeweizens

Unfortunately, some of the qualities that make a hefeweizen a true German wheat beer have been lost in American translation. You’ll find that there is typically a big difference in flavor while comparing the two. American hefeweizens are known to be hoppier than German ones. Though Americans typically love hopping their brews up, Germans use barley any hops in their hefes so as to not impede on the trademark wheat flavor with too much bitterness. American brewers may also use American yeast strains, which give their beers a maltier taste than Germans. American malts may also be used, and American hefeweizens may use a lower percentage of wheat than German hefeweizens.

Berghoff’s Straight-Up Hefe-Weizen Stays True To Germany

You don’t have to leave the country to find an authentic German hefeweizen. Though many breweries stray from the traditional German hefeweizen recipe in order to better suit mainstream American taste preferences, we keep it real with our Straight-Up Hefe-Weizen. Our hefeweizen is brewed with 60% malted wheat and 40% pilsner and other malts. It’s unfiltered and cloudy, just the way it should be. We use Bavarian wheat beer yeast to add subtle layers of banana, bubblegum and clove, signature hefeweizen flavors. The finish is creamy and dry, with a hint of tangy goodness.

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Carla Lauter was the founder of The Beer Babe and has been a beer blogger and expert for several decades. She's been interviewed in beer publications and podcasts about her favorite brews and the craft brewing scene. While she's ceased her involvement with The Beer Babe, her legacy remains in the various reviews and articles she has written.