It seems that these days, anything except the hazy IPA doesn’t get a lot of attention, but beers and styles come in and out of fashion. Think about IBUs. They used to be a badge of honor, and now they don’t get talked about. Hefeweizens have had their day and were a hit with craft-beer drinkers early on, thanks to breweries such as Widmer Brothers (Portland, Oregon) and Pyramid Brewing Co. (Seattle, Washington). Hefeweizen had good success because it was cloudy, it was low in bitterness, and it wasn’t what people were familiar with or used to. Sound familiar?
The keys to this beer are that yeast is number one, it has a high proportion of malted wheat, and it’s bitter.
For our No Limits Hefeweizen, we approach the recipe in a fairly traditional method but with a few modifications. A classic hefeweizen grain bill is about 60 percent wheat and 40 percent malt. We stray a little bit and add a portion of spelt and rye, which gives our beer a subtle nuance. Hops character is really light, essentially a threshold level of bitterness.
You can achieve a classic banana/clove ester profile through fermentation and proper yeast usage. Traditionally, this beer is fermented in shallow fermentors, and the Germans are firm with the importance of this as they feel it gives better yeast character. They’ve only been doing this for centuries. When it comes to tall cylindrical fermentors, you do get a slightly different flavor from my experience. Maybe it’s subtle, but it’s there. For many of us cylindroconical tanks are what we have to work with, so we have to accept the subtle differences for better or worse.
The other thing that we’ve found, with our hefeweizens, is that a fresh pitch of yeast works best for each new batch. Reclaiming and re-pitching yeast from previous batches just alters the flavor a bit, with a shift in the balance between clove and banana. The clove becomes more pronounced, and the shift in the esters isn’t what you want for consistency of character.
If someone wants to replicate this style, you need the right yeast and a healthy pitch of it. I know that some brewers really like the convenience of dried yeast, but in the case of traditional hefeweizen, it’s really best to have a liquid culture that you have either brought up yourself or that you can get a fresh pitch of. This really helps bring out the banana and clove aromas that you want in the beer.
We tend to be in 68–72°F (20–22°C) fermentation range. That’s the norm for most commercial versions. Higher temperatures accentuate the esters more. You get greater phenols. Colder, and it would suppress the character. It makes sense to stick in the classic range—shoot for 70°F (21°C).
Hefeweizen is the taste of something classic that has and will continue to stand the test of time. While it might not be fashionable now, I think it will come around again.