Wheat beer is a beer that is brewed with a significant proportion of wheat. Wheat beers often also contain a significant proportion of malted barley. Wheat beers are usually top-fermented (in Germany they have to be by law). The flavor of wheat beers varies considerably, depending upon the specific style.
“Hefe” is the German word for yeast, and “weizen” means wheat. Put them together and you get the very imperfect translation, yeast-wheat, but the real translation refers to beer with the yeast still present – wheat beer in its traditional, unfiltered form. If the wheat beer is filtered, it then becomes “kristallweizen” (crystal wheat), or “kristall weiss” (crystal white beer). Filtering removes the yeast from suspension, as well as the wheat proteins that give hefeweizen its cloudy appearance. Alternate terms for hefeweizen include: hefeweissbier, weissbier, hefeweisse, dunkelweizen, weizenbock, or weizenstarkbier. A weizenbock is not necessarily considered a hefeweizen unless it is left unfiltered.
The hefeweizen style is particularly noted for its low hop bitterness (about 15 IBUs) and relatively high carbonation (approaching four volumes), considered important to balance the beer’s relatively malty sweetness. A seasoned beer drinker can appreciate the complexity and varied taste of a good wheat beer, and at the same time it is a great way to win over those who eschew beer for its bitterness. The style of the ale yeast used in wheat beer throws off flavors not often found in other beers, and is responsible for the banana and vanilla tastes often found in these beers.
Wheat beer (“weissbier”) is available in a number of other stronger forms including dunkelweizen (dark wheat) and weizenstarkbier (strong wheat beer); the latter is often referred to as weizenbock. The dark wheat varieties typically have a much higher alcohol content than their lighter cousins.
I really like the hefeweizen beers offered at a couple of my favorite haunts, but I don’t have a favorite bottled variety. Thus came the idea for a hefeweizen shoot-out. I grabbed a selection of eight hefeweizens from a local store, and recruited my wife and two friends to help with the tasting.
I poured all the beer into 32 glasses (4 tasters x 8 beers), so we could taste them all at once and move back and forth between them to pick our favorites. I told everyone to keep their comments to themselves initially, so no one would be influenced by the opinions of others. Since hefeweizens are normally served with a lemon slice, we tried each beer first without lemon, then with a slight squeeze of lemon. Ultimately, that did not make any difference in the rankings.
I had a slight concern going into this shoot-out that there might not be enough distinction between the beers to find a clear winner; that our conclusions would be all over the board. To my surprise, the four of us reached very similar conclusions on both ends of the spectrum, with just some slight variations in between. Here are our conclusions, from best to worst.
1. In Heat Wheat, Flying Dog Brewery – Frederick, MD
This was my number two selection, but my three compatriots all rated it number one. Despite the silly label and name, this beer is a champion hefeweizen. Very creamy mouthfeel and zero bitterness. If you like hefeweizen, get your hands on this beer.
2. Octoberfest Weizen – Weissbrau, Germany
This beer has what I found to be a very pleasant bitter follow through, and that caused some dissension in the ranks. It was my number one selection specifically because of the slight bitterness I expect in a German beer, but that same bitterness relegated it to number two, three and seven among the others. Admittedly, the In Heat Wheat and the Octoberfest Weizen were both so good that the distinction is minor, but I thought the Octoberfest had a little more character. Another great selection, but as you can see from the results, the In Heat Wheat is far more likely to be a crowd pleaser.
3. Santa Cruz Ale Works – Santa Cruz, CA
This was the first of the beers we tasted, and it was so good that I initially felt it would be the winner before even tasting the rest. The others had similar thoughts, and all four of us gave this beer the third place prize. Don’t be put off by the third place finish; this was also a very good beer. Indeed, I’ll probably pick up another one of these when I go to stock up on the In Heat Wheat. Continued research is important.
4. Einhorn Beer Co. – El Monte, CA
The Einhorn was the last of the hefeweizens that I found acceptable out of this group of eight. John and I rated it as number four, with Suzanne rating it fifth and JoAnn rating it sixth. We all commented on an unidentifiable aftertaste, and the beer was just too sweet for my taste, with a taste of honey. Still, it was enjoyable enough, but not something I would buy again.
5. Sierra Nevada Kellerweis – Chico, CA
This beer brought another unanimous verdict, with all ranking it number five out of eight. No one genuinely hated it, and no one could point to any particular problem, but it just wasn’t in the same league as numbers one through three. There was just no there there.
6. Widmer – Portland, OR
Great minds also thought alike on the Widmer, with all four of us ranking it in 6th place. Widmer is the hefeweizen that you are most likely to find at a bar; sort of the Budweiser of hefeweizens. I intentionally added it to the mix as a kind of control sample. I have rated Widmer before, and was not very impressed. I was hoping that there would be better wheat beers available, and this test certainly proved that there are.
7. The Firehouse Brewing Co. – San Diego, CA
JoAnn really did not like the Octoberfest Weizen because of the bitterness, and moved it all the way down here to number seven. However, the rest of us reserved this spot for the hefeweizen produced by The Firehouse Brewing Co. I was sad to see this, because I met people from the company at the recent Septemberfest at Paramount Studios. They were a good bunch of people, but fair is fair and this was a really bad beer. If it’s any solace, I liked whatever it was I sampled at Septemberfest, but with the hefeweizen they really missed the mark. Watery and tasteless.
8. Sudwerk – Davis, CA
As bad as the prior beer was, it was nothing compared to Sudwerk. To say this beer tastes like bath water would be an insult to bath water. But that is an apt comparison because it truly tasted soapy. John coined the phrase, “Sudz is a Dudz.” Not only should you not buy this beer, but you should try to conceal it as you pass it in the store to keep others from buying it. Are you getting my gist?