Healthy, happy yeast cells; fermentation control; and carbonation are the secrets to a great hefeweizen. Four award-winning brewers share their techniques.
ALL TOO OFTEN, HEFEWEIZEN
is simplified under the wheat-beer umbrella. That wheat-beer label is accurate—hefeweizens (yeast wheat in German), also called weissbiers (white beer in German), are unfiltered German wheat ales that, according to German law, have at least 50 percent wheat in their grain bills. However, the style’s broadness discounts its nuances that differentiate it from other wheat-based styles such as witbier, gose, Berliner weisse, dunkelweizen, and American wheat beer. Yeast is really the differentiator for this style, and brewers who make it can’t stress enough the importance of control over its fermentation process. Also critical to great hefeweizen brewing, they say, are carbonation and filtration—or lack thereof.
Just Like the Bavarians
“We make hefeweizen just like the Bavarians—no shortcuts, no spins, no gimmicks,” says Dusan Kwiatkowski, the head brewer at Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Texas. Often noted as one of the more authentically German-style breweries in the country, Live Oak was started by Chip Mcelroy in 1997 and hasn’t wavered from German beer styles since. The legendary Live Oak Hefeweizen is brewed with a 50-50 ratio of German wheat malt and Czech barley malt. Chlorine and chloramine are removed from the water used to brew it, and the mash water ph is adjusted with lactic acid for optimal enzyme activity in the mash. It’s boiled with a pinch of German noble hops at the beginning of the boil to impart just enough bitterness to balance the malt flavor.
“Hops don’t really contribute flavor or aroma in this beer,” says Kwiatkowski. “Brewing hefeweizen is all about the yeast, its health, and its happiness. Compared to most beers, this style has more yeast flavor and aroma from fermentation, as well as the presence of yeast in the glass. We use the traditional Bavarian hefeweizen strain from Weihenstephan. We seek flavors of clove, vanilla, bubblegum, and banana—in that order.”
Traditional hefeweizens are unfiltered, adding a moderate haze to the beer’s appearance. At Live Oak, this haze is achieved with horizontal conditioning tanks instead of cylindroconical tanks. “Our horizontal conditioning geometry provides low hydrostatic pressure on the yeast and shorter settling distances for natural clarification,” says Kwiatkowski. “We are able to obtain a homogenous, appropriate haze without filtration.”
The next step in the process is carbonation, which Kwiatkowski explains is critical to hefeweizen. “Hefeweizen is best with effervescent carbonation to carry the aromas out of the glass and provide the means for a thick, lingering head,” he says. “The slightly higher CO2 volume also helps balance the malt body, keeping it light and refreshing while remaining full.”
“Hops don’t really contribute flavor or aroma in this beer,” says Live Oak’s Dusan Kwiatkowski. “Brewing hefeweizen is all about the yeast, its health, and its happiness. We use the traditional Bavarian hefeweizen strain from Weihenstephan, and seek flavors of clove, vanilla, bubblegum, and banana—in that order.”
“Live Oak Hefeweizen is probably the best hefeweizen I have ever had, even better than many of my favorite German examples because since its from Texas, it’s one I can enjoy relatively fresh,” says Neil Fisher, the co-owner and head brewer at Weldwerks Brewing Co. in Greeley, Colorado. “I can’t think of another brewery that has taken on wheat or hefe and done it as traditionally and successfully as they have. That beer alone says there’s a big demographic of people who are still interested in complex wheat beer. As unsexy as the style is, I think Live Oak is making it sexy again. I might be their biggest hefeweizen fan.”
If Live Oak’s Hefeweizen is sexy, then Weldwerks’s Hefeweizen is risqué—it flirts with the line between traditional German-style weissbier and experimental American-style wheat beer. “We wanted our wheat beer to be firmly planted in the middle of the German-american spectrum,” says Fisher. “The recipe is loosely based on the American-style hefeweizen that Widmer brews. It’s traditional on the malt side and less traditional in its hopping and fermentation.”
Weldwerks Hefeweizen has a grain bill that consists of 50 percent Pilsner malt and 50 percent wheat malt. In addition to its prominent wheat flavor, Fisher explains, wheat also contributes to hefeweizen’s mouthfeel, creaminess, and full-bodied character. He whirlpool hops his hefeweizen with German Hallertauer hops and just a touch of Lemondrop hops, which he says provides a nice citrus-zest complement to the Hallertauer’s herbal, earthy noble hops character. He ferments this beer with the White Labs WLP320 American Hefeweizen strain, which keeps the spicy phenolic character subdued but still produces plenty of fruity esters. “We ferment warmer and under-pitch to create the banana and subtle bubblegum flavors that hefeweizens are known for, without the distraction of too much clove or spice.”
Key to the Weldwerks Hefeweizen experience is carbonation, Fisher says. “We carbonate it high to bump the mouthfeel and make it more drinkable. We really like that about hefeweizen— especially for a lighter, higher-attenuated beer, this style is very full-bodied. Most full- or medium-bodied beers have lower carbonation, but that effervescence works for a hefeweizen.”
“Live Oak Hefeweizen is probably the best hefeweizen I have ever had. I can’t think of another brewery that has taken on wheat or hefe and done it as traditionally and successfully as they have. That beer alone says there’s a big demographic of people who are still interested in complex wheat beer. As unsexy as the style might be, I think Live Oak is making it sexy again...”
—Neil Fisher, Head Brewer and Cofounder, Weldwerks Brewing
Fisher’s German-american hybrid is named Hefeweizen as a nod to its German roots, although he admits this can be misleading. “Sometimes people try it and say, ‘This is nothing like German hefeweizen.’ That’s true. We don’t enter it as a traditional German-style hefeweizen in competitions.”
Instead, this beer is entered in the American-style Wheat with Yeast category, for which Weldwerks Hefeweizen took home a silver medal at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival.
Cloud Not Chunk
Another Great American Beer Festival award-winning hefeweizen is Washout Wheat by Holy City Brewing in Charleston, South Carolina. Chris Brown, Holy City’s owner and production manager who formerly worked at Gordon Biersch, brought his German-style brewing background to the table when developing its recipe and process. It’s made with about 45 percent Weyermann pale wheat and 55 percent Weyermann pale malt, and a small amount of German Hallertau Hersbrucker hops at the beginning of the boil for bitterness and balance. “It’s nice to be able to use German malt and hops,” says Brown. “In Germany, they would say that makes a difference, but I don’t really think so. I think all the flavor in hefeweizen comes from yeast.”
Washout Wheat is fermented with a traditional strain of German hefeweizen yeast at above-average temperatures “to give off more banana than clove,” Brown says. “We use three to four generations of each crop, but once we go past that, we lose the banana and the flavor goes clove, which is not what we’re going for.”
At the end of fermentation, Brown caps the fermentation tank to capture CO2. “That natural carbonation tastes that much better,” Brown says. “We still force carbonate, but the natural carbonation goes a long way. Hefeweizens should have high carbonation, so they are nice and crisp.”
After the CO2 is captured, Brown lets the beer sit to let the yeast drop out a bit. “I also like to harvest yeast before I transfer,” he says, explaining that if you transfer too quickly, the beer will be “crazy cloudy and chunky from yeast particles. I want cloud but not chunk.”
When Brown found himself with extra hefeweizen yeast one winter, he brewed a one-off “imperial hefeweizen,” an “amped up version of Washout” that he named Bathroom’s Outside to the Right as a nod to the countless times each day that his staff has to explain to customers how to find the facilities. “This was a ‘play around and see what happens’ kind of beer,” he says. “When we first opened, I didn’t want to branch too far out of the box by way of beer styles, but as we’ve grown, we’ve played around a lot more. I have great appreciation and respect for style guidelines, especially German purity laws, but it wouldn’t be fun if we always brewed to style.”
Bringing Out the Best in the Yeast
“Our recipe for Dreamweaver Wheat is very simple,” says Andrew Dickson, the production manager at Tröegs Independent Brewing in Hershey, Pennsylvania. “It’s 55 percent wheat, 45 percent Pilsner malt, and noble hops.”
Dreamweaver, which won a 2012 Great American Beer Festival award, is brewed in the style of a traditional German-style hefeweizen. “We even have two open fermentation tanks used exclusively for this particular beer,” says Dickson. Open fermentation allows for complex ester production and effective yeast management. Before Dreamweaver hits the fermentor, though, Dickson says several measures are taken to bring out the best in the yeast. “We mash in cold so we can do a ferulic acid rest at 107°F (42°C),” he says. “This rest is important for the clove aroma created by the
yeast. The ferulic acid is used by the yeast to create 4-vinyl guaiacol—the clove-like aroma. You can certainly make a weissbier without this rest, but you will find increased banana and reduced clove flavors.”
Mash ph is also very important to brewing hefeweizen, Dickson says. “It must be slightly higher than for other styles, so we target 5.7 and add calcium carbonate to the mash. That higher mash ph is also for the ferulic acid, so again, if more banana is preferred, there is no need to raise the ph.”
Aeration and fermentation temperature can also play a role in the flavor profile of a weissbier, Dickson says. “We knockout at 62°F (17°C) and let the temperature rise to 70°F (21°C) for fermentation to produce the flavor and aroma profile we’re looking for.”
The most desirable flavor and aroma of Dreamweaver comes from second-generation yeast, Dickson adds. “We never go beyond three generations with this German wheat yeast because after three, it develops an odd bitterness.”
Most brewers agree that bitterness in a hefeweizen should be low to non-existent. Dreamweaver weighs in at about 15 IBUS.
Advice for Homebrewers
Whether brewing traditional German-style hefeweizen, American wheat beer with yeast, or anything in between, the brewers at Live Oak, Weldwerks, Holy City, and Tröegs all agree that fermentation control is the most critical factor when brewing this style of beer.
“Pay attention to fermentation temperature and time,” stresses Brown at Holy City. “I can’t say it enough.”
“Keep the yeast alive and happy and pitch appropriately,” adds Kwiatkowski at Live Oak. “It is easy to taste the agony of any poorly treated yeast.”
“With many weissbier yeasts, a high fermentation temperature will yield a nasty burnt rubber flavor,” warns Dickson at Tröegs.
Fisher of Weldwerks elaborates on all of the above. “Homebrewers should focus on dialing in pitch rates, time, and temperature. Start your fermentation temperature low, let it ramp up, and see what it does to the character. Or start high and let it drop. We’ve tried both methods and have generally found that the higher you start, the more ester production you get. If you want a lot of phenolics, let it free rise really quickly. Fermentation is the biggest key to this style.”
Above » Tröegs uses open fermentors for their Dreamweaver Wheat, which allows for complex ester production, but they never go beyond three generations with the yeast because after three, it produces undesirable bitter flavors.