My dad’s been a dedicated Miller Lite drinker for more than three decades; before that, it was Busch, Busch Light, and PBR. Going back farther: In the early ’70s, he and his high-school buds would drive from southwest Missouri to the Kansas state line to buy Coors, “smuggling” it back in the trunk of his ’66 Mustang. They’d buy it for $6 a case, but they could sell it in Springfield for $6 a six-pack. “Problem was,” he says, “we drank a lot of it.”
Yet, his favorite beer in the world is Schneider Aventinus.
His love of weizenbock goes back 13 years, when we took a Bavarian brewery tour that culminated at Oktoberfest. One stop was G. Schneider & Sohn in Kelheim, where we sampled the range. Aventinus, though, was a whole moment. “I like the smooth, nutty flavor and the light sweetness,” Dad says, when I ask what he enjoys about it. He also enjoys its sneaky strength at 8.2 percent ABV—“dangerous” is the word we use.
Aventinus is not an easy beer to find in the Ozarks, but when it appears on the shelf at the Brown Derby, he buys all of it. He hoards a precious handful of bottles in the fridge, opening them only on special occasions—such as when kids and grandkids come for a visit. When that happens, we can deplete the hoard quickly. “I wasn’t much of a fan of dark beers until I tried Aventinus at the Schneider brewery,” he says. “It changed how I looked at beers.”
Here is my belief: Weizenbock is a crowd-pleasing portal to beers of greater character. For drinkers who have a clear idea what they usually like and are easily put off by bitterness—and there are many such drinkers—a great weizenbock has the power to shift their whole paradigm.
Whether pale or dark, weizenbock is lusciously foamy and striking in its glass. It’s chock full of flavors, but they are comforting and familiar: gentle sweetness, caramel, Bananas Foster, clove, chocolate, possibly a wisp of citrus zest, and all of this carried on a creamy yet lively mouthfeel that’s as festive as that slight, warming tingle of alcohol. It’s a party in a glass, every single time.
Yet, for whatever reason, brewers outside Bavaria have not tapped into the potential of weizenbock to win friends and convert skeptics. It’s not a popular style among North American brewers. At the Great American Beer Festival, it’s relegated to a subcategory—one of six, buried under every other stripe of hefeweizen.
Is it difficult to brew well, or is it difficult to sell? Probably both. For the latter, I blame a lack of imagination. However, the former is true enough—this is a tricky beer to perfect.
A great weizenbock involves many interlocking pieces of ingredient and process, each affecting many other pieces: large amounts of gummy wheat, taken through the right temperature steps, which should later produce the right balance of aromas, assuming the right choice of yeast and a fermentation that can breathe—and let’s not forget the importance of attenuation. There are all kinds of ways to throw this beer out of balance.
For something so damned easy to drink, it sure sounds like a pain in the ass to brew. But we are not the types to shy from a challenge. Nor are we the types to shy away from asking the masters how it’s done.
Brewing Pale Weizenbock at Weihenstephan
Good hefeweizen is omnipresent in bars, restaurants, and stores across Germany. While globally available brands such as Paulaner, Ayinger, and Maisel’s are well respected, aficionados can also name flavorful favorites from relatively smaller Bavarian breweries such as Gutmann, Plank, and Unertl—and there will always be arguments.
However, it’s hard to argue with the respect given to Schneider Weisse Original and to Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier—and if the deep amber Schneider Weisse is emblematic of a more old-fashioned type of Bavarian weissbier, then the golden-orange Weihenstephaner—from the self-described world’s oldest brewery—is the perfected pinnacle of the paler modern style.
It fits, then, that Weihenstephaner’s famous weizenbock, Vitus, is the pale one. Deep gold and cloudy, Vitus is lightly sweet but also soft, mellow, and round, with notes of brighter stone fruit, orange zest, cloves, and more subtle suggestions of banana. Its drying finish sends you back for another hit of that gentle sweetness—and thus the cycle continues indefinitely, despite its 7.7 percent ABV.
That paleness is directly related to its drinkability, according to Matthias Ebner, international brand ambassador and brewing engineer at the Bayerische Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan in Freising, just north of Munich. While darker bocks—whether weizen or lager—tend to have more residual sugar from specialty malts, the paler ones tend to lean more into paler malts with more fermentability. Such is the case with Vitus, which starts at 16.5°P (1.068) but ferments down to around 2.3°P (1.009).
While the mid-strength Hefeweissbier gets roughly 20 percent Munich malt in its bill—to go with 20 percent pilsner and 60 percent wheat malt—the Vitus grist skips the Munich altogether. It’s just wheat and pilsner. “This makes the beer a little brighter and gives the maximum on malt, to bring a crisp flavor to a strong beer,” Ebner says.
The mash steps are also critical to that drinkability—and the drinkability of any weissbier, says Tobias Zollo, Weihenstephaner’s head brewmaster. The steps are among those interlocking parts of the brewing process since they directly affect fermentation and flavor profile later. He describes the mash regime of Vitus as “intense,” designed to break down dextrins and maximize fermentable sugars. They also mash in low, at 40°C (104°F), with a ferulic acid rest at 45°C (113°F)—that encourages 4-vinyl-guaiacol, the source of weissbier’s signature clove-like spicy notes. Like all Weihenstephaner beers, Vitus also gets two decoctions, but the ones for Vitus are a bit longer than for other styles.
“With the decoction, we gain a good amino acid amount and spectrum in the beer,” Zollo says. “That helps to get the ideal nutrition for the yeast” to help ensure the thorough fermentation and high attenuation. “Last but not least, it helps us to get a good foam, which Bavarian beer drinkers love.”
Not since the 1980s has Weihenstephaner used the wide-open fermentors often used at traditional weissbier breweries around Bavaria. For reasons that include energy efficiency and sanitation, the brewery switched to cylindrical, non-pressurized, horizontal tanks that are not fully sealed during fermentation—so the yeast can still breathe without being squeezed.
“This works for us to achieve a flavor profile as good as open fermentors,” Zollo says. It also aids consistency and repeatability while reducing the use of energy and water. “Sustainability is important at Weihenstephan—but also because power and water costs in Germany are some of the highest worldwide.”
The geometry is important, too. The key is to avoid any additional hydrostatic pressure on their own house weissbier yeast—they call the strain Stephanus—during fermentation. A fermentor with just 10 meters of vertical height adds one bar of pressure; too much pressure inhibits the production of esters, including the famously banana-like isoamyl acetate. “One of our flavor goals is to build a ‘banana bomb,’” Ebner says, “and that way, with that yeast, we can make it happen.”
Fermentation for Vitus begins in the 20–22°C (68–72°F) range for the first four days, then they allow it to rise for “warm maturation” to encourage a complete fermentation and eat up as much residual sugar as possible. “We give the beer the time it needs,” Zollo says. Getting that attenuation is key to drying out the flavor profile just enough to keep Vitus in balance—and there are many other fulcra on the seesaws of beer flavor.
The wheat content and yeast health are also vital components, as is the tightly controlled process and patience when brewing and during fermentation. “Don’t be afraid of using a long and complicated brewhouse [process] to build an ideal nutrition profile and sugar spectrum,” Zollo says. “Also, lautering a high-wheat content for high-gravity wort can be very, very, very annoying. Patience, skills, the right equipment, and experience are must-haves.”
Consider all those interlocking parts: the right ingredients, the mash regime, healthy yeast, tank geometry, temperature control. All that plus “tight and uncompromising quality management,” so that only the best product makes it to market, Ebner says. “This is how we believe [you] build a beer as iconic and tasteful as Vitus.”
Brewing Weizen(doppel)bock at Schneider
The brewery that changed how my dad looks at beer is in Kelheim, where the Danube and Altmühl rivers meet, about 65 miles north of Munich. While not as old as Weihenstephaner—founded only in 1872—G. Schneider & Sohn, better known as Schneider Weisse, is the brewery most closely associated with traditional Bavarian weissbier.
It is also one of the most decorated breweries in Germany. The Schneider team recently took home three more gold medals from the 2021 European Beer Star awards: one each for Aventinus, Aventinus Eisbock, and Hopfenweisse. Aventinus, for its part, is the winningest beer in the history of the competition, with 17 medals in total and 10 of them golds.
Until about 30 years ago, the brewery mainly produced only two beers: Schneider Weisse Original and Aventinus. Today, the latter accounts for about 10 percent of production. Schneider introduced Aventinus in 1907. In recent years, the brewery has been giving credit for it to Mathilde Schneider. Women in Germany weren’t supposed to be running major companies, but she did, more or less covertly, for almost two decades between the death of her husband Georg Schneider III in 1905 and when their son Georg IV took over.
The company is currently run by Georg VI, who took over in 2000. He has thus enjoyed a long working relationship with the highly respected head brewmaster Hans- Peter Drexler. However, Drexler is retiring. Stepping into those shoes this year is Josef Lechner, 37, who has been Drexler’s understudy for the past year. When we speak, I’m the first person who’s interviewed Lechner in his capacity as head brewmaster.
It’s a complicated job to take over. A traditional weissbier brewery is an intricate machine. One of the most important aspects, Lechner says, is establishing good relationships with the farmers who provide Schneider’s ingredients. They need those ingredients to be within certain specs, so that the brewing process at Schneider works like it’s supposed to.
When it comes to their barley and wheat, for example, they’re looking for protein contents that are neither too high nor too low—they need the ideal mix for their complicated mash regime, which sets up the fermentation to create that distinctive aroma and flavor profile. “So, this is also a continuous-improvement process,” Lechner says, “and a lot of research over the years was done to be able to control those parameters.”
When it comes to brewing Aventinus, the recipe isn’t very different from the Original—it’s just more.
By German law, a weissbier must be at least 50 percent wheat. At Schneider, the wheat malt is about 60 percent, with the rest being barley malt. While much modern hefeweizen has gone almost blonde in color, Schneider Weisse has maintained a relatively darker amber hue. This goes back to its early days in Munich when brown beers were common. The ingredients and process have evolved over time, but the brewers today get that color by adding a small percentage of roasted malt, which also has a subtle impact on flavor. Too much, however, and it adds acidity that doesn’t fit the profile. “It’s quite an aggressive flavor,” Lechner says. The exact percentage, he says, “depends a lot on your brewhouse, and also on your water, and the rest of the malts that you use.” For Aventinus, they are shooting for a color of 35 to 40 EBC, or about 19 SRM.
Here is some straightforward advice from Lechner: Leave out the caramel malt or other specialty malts, which leave behind too many residual sugars. “We don’t like sweet beers too much,” he says. “They should be drinkable. So, we use basic malts to achieve that. … What we do here is, we want to trigger all the yeast aromas, so we keep the recipe very simple. It’s barley malt, wheat malt—and not seven types of malt. That’s the same, of course, with Aventinus. What changes is the quantity.”
For Aventinus, they pack in as much malt as they can while also reducing the amount of water to get a richer wort. “That’s set by our equipment,” he says, “because at some point, you’re getting so dense, you’re not able to lauter anything.”
The starting gravity is a hefty 18.5°P (1.076). Technically—or rather, legally—it isn’t just a bock beer. It’s a doppelbock, a classification that goes to any German bock whose gravity is higher than 18°P (1.074). The beer ferments down to about 3.5°P (1.014), for an ABV listed at 8.2 percent.
The mash regime is elaborate. There are five temperature steps that work in conjunction with the fermentation and the house yeast to produce a particular balance of banana-like esters and clove-like phenols. “Wheat beer in general is a beer that is very, very determined by the yeast and fermentation,” Lechner says.
The most important parts of the process are those that set the fermentation up for success—and that means getting the right balance of banana and clove. “We have the yeast strain in the brewery [that] is producing both of these,” Lechner says. “And if you want to work that out, you should trigger it.”
A ferulic acid rest is how to trigger the clove—the 4-vinyl guaiacol. After mashing in at 35°C (95°F), Schneider does a ferulic rest at 45°C (113°F) for 15 minutes, a short protein rest at 50°C (122°F), saccharification at 64°C (147°F), then a decoction before mashing out. In fact, even the decoction goes through a couple of temperature steps before boiling and being reunited with the rest of the mash.
About the decoction: “For brewing a wheat beer, it’s nearly essential,” Lechner says. “That’s very essential, to break up the particles.” One effect is that the decoction seems to make lautering easier—nice, when mashing with so much gummy wheat. However, another effect is to break down the malt’s cell walls, making the starches more available to enzymes, thus creating more sugars for the yeast to ferment. In short, decoction gives the attenuation of Aventinus another boost—as it does for Weihenstephaner Vitus—leading to a more drinkable beer. Of course, that also depends on having malt that isn’t over-modified by the maltster, so that it can still benefit from the decoction. “It’s all adding up in the end to have a very high degree of fermentation,” Lechner says.
The boil may be the least remarkable part. For Aventinus, it’s a straight 60-minute boil with a balancing addition of Hallertau Herkules for bittering.
The banana esters, meanwhile, come more from the yeast and fermentation. The fermentation of Aventinus and other Schneider beers starts at about 16–17°C (61–63°F). Starting much cooler than that inhibits the banana, tilting the balance more toward the clove. Over the next week, the fermentation is allowed to rise as high as 23°C (73°F), which encourages a more complete fermentation.
Inevitably, every weissbier brewery does it a bit differently, depending on their own ingredients, equipment, and profile they’re trying to achieve. “These are all parameters that you can control,” Lechner says. “If you talked to 100 breweries, you’d get 100 recipes and ways to ferment,” Lechner says.
Another one of those parameters is oxygen. How much to aerate the wort before fermentation? Too much, and the yeast doesn’t work hard enough to create the signature aromas. Too little, and it may throw those aromas out of balance or create unwelcome ones, such as sulfur. “It’s very important to aerate the beer before fermentation, and it’s also a science to not do it too much,” Lechner says.
All of these permutations, these process choices, flow from the yeast strain and what notes it can produce under which conditions. “If you put an emphasis on yeast,” Lechner says, “you have the chance to break both [clove and banana] out in a harmonic way.”
Schneider still uses relatively shallow, wide-open fermentors. Like the brewers at Weihenstephan, Lechner emphasizes the importance of fermentor geometry and the lack of pressure on the yeast. But there is a another, more obvious benefit of open fermentation: It’s very easy to harvest that healthy yeast off the top.
Fresh yeast is important, especially for driving attenuation in a bigger beer such as Aventinus. “For Aventinus and for stronger beers, it works in a positive way when you use harvested yeast,” Lechner says. However, the lighter beers typically get propagated yeast; this is how they avoid re-pitching their yeast over too many generations, which can lead to changes in the sensory profile.
Fermentation continues in the bottle. To feed that fermentation, the beer gets a calculated amount of speise—fresh, sugary wort—on its way to the package. The maturation temperatures are important—Aventinus spends a week at 20°C (68°F) and then at least a few more weeks at 10°C (50°F). Naturally, the beer is unfiltered and unpasteurized. (Good news for homebrewers who like to culture up bottle dregs—that yeast really is the Schneider Weisse yeast.) Schneider beers are highly carbonated—they aim for 6.5 to 7 grams per liter of CO2, or about 3.5 volumes. “We carbonate quite high at Schneider to make the sensation of drinking a bit fresher,” Lechner says.
Thus, the long and intricate brewing process that begins with the farmers and ingredient specs continues all the way into your glass. “The trick is that all the aromas and everything is in the bottle,” Lechner says. “It can’t escape. It’s like Champagne fermentation. And when you open it, you put it in your glasses, where you first release all these fermentation aromas—they are all in this bottle. You have a micro-fermentor at home.”
Brewing Weizenbock at Home, or at Dad’s
In the end, I’m left with deep respect for those who can manage all those intricate moving pieces, and I’m in awe of how the whole process of brewing a great weizen has evolved that way over the decades. World classics such as Vitus and Aventinus wouldn’t be the same without that evolution and inherited complexity.
In a way, if we decide to brew a weizenbock for ourselves, we’re starting all over on that evolution. Maybe we never brew it again—or maybe we do, and our own tinkering with all those variables begins in earnest.
For what it’s worth, my dad took a stab at it. He and my brother brewed a weizenbock at home, but something went wrong, and they ended up with a beer they measured at around 4 or 5 percent ABV. He had the beer on tap in his garage, and a couple of friends—also dedicated Miller Lite drinkers, for what it’s worth—decided to give it a try. They loved it—because weizenbock is very easy to like—and they drank more. They soon got hammered.
That’s how my dad figured out what had happened—he didn’t miss his gravity at all; he had messed up his calculations. His weizen was a bock after all, really around 7 or 8 percent ABV, but it drank much easier than that.
Usually, however, my dad just keeps Miller Lite on tap in his garage. His homebrewing days were short-lived, even if his love of Aventinus endures.
Still, if anyone in the Ozarks wants to brew a really good weizenbock on the regular, I’m sure my dad would appreciate it. I doubt he’d be the only one.