Weissbier is the classical wheat beer of Bavaria and one of Germany’s greatest and most distinctive beer styles. Weissbier means “white beer” in German. This name derives from the yellowish-white tinge that is imparted by the pale wheat and barley malts from which the beer is made. Outside Bavaria, most weissbier is better known as hefeweizen, literally “yeast wheat” in German. This name is derived from the fact that it is a wheat-based beer that is usually packaged unfiltered, with plenty of yeast turbidity in the finished beer. According to German law, a beer that is labeled hefeweizen, weizenbier, or weissbier (these three terms are largely interchangeable, but there is also a filtered version of weissbier called “kristallweizen”) must be made with at least 50% malted wheat. Most weissbiers, however, use more wheat than the law requires and are made with 60%–70% malted wheat. The rest of the grist is malted barley. In other countries, where German laws do not apply, of course, wheat beers may be brewed with any percentage of wheat, although it would be difficult to get true weissbier character from a mash containing much less than 50% wheat. Making beer with 100% wheat, however, would be exceedingly difficult, because wheat has no husks and an all-wheat mash would be nearly impossible to lauter. Therefore, beers made with 100% wheat are largely confined to laboratories and pilot plants, although craft brewers will occasionally produce such a beer, usually using rice hulls to help loosen up the gummy mash. See lautering and mash.

The origins of wheat beer reach back into antiquity, some 6,000 years ago, and probably even earlier. The first wheat beer brewers were the Sumerians of Mesopotamia, between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, in what is now southern Iraq. We know so from archaeological finds from the region. The grains they brewed with next to barley were einkorn, emmer, and spelt, which are genetic predecessors of our modern wheat. See wheat. Therefore, the oldest known depiction of beer drinking, which dates to about 3400 bc, is one of wheat beer drinking. It is an ornamentation on an earthenware crock showing a scene of two ladies drinking beer through straws. The Egyptians, too, followed the Sumerians’ pioneering example and made their brews mostly from wheat. Further proof of the ancient roots of wheat beer is the Code of Hammurabi, the world’s oldest body of laws. It dates to the 1700s bc and contains elaborate rules for making and dispensing wheat beer.

Today, we associate weissbier mostly with Bavaria, where it is always made with top-fermenting yeast. This makes weissbier one of the very few warm-fermented ales made in this beer culture, which is considered the cradle of lager brewing. See bavaria. The geographical origins of the modern weissbier probably go back to the 12th or 13th century in Bohemia in today’s Czech Republic, from where weissbier brewing spilled over into the neighboring Bavarian Forest. There, in 1520, the Degenberg family, a noble dynasty from the village of Schwarzach, was able to obtain from the ruling Wittelsbach dynasty of Bavaria the exclusive and perpetual (and, in those days, probably deemed inconsequential) privilege to make wheat beer. See wittelsbacher family. To the chagrin of the Bavarian dukes, however, this brewing privilege, granted in recognition of the Degenberg vassal services, turned out to generate more profits than anticipated. It also diverted plenty of wheat from the people’s baking ovens to the Degenberg brew kettles. In 1567, therefore, an unhappy Wittelsbach Duke Albrecht V declared wheat beer to be “a useless drink that neither nourishes nor gives strength, but only encourages drunkenness,” and he categorically outlawed wheat beer making in his entire realm. Unfortunately for him, by the rules of feudal etiquette, he still had to grant the Degenberg clan an exemption from his draconian prohibition. In 1602, however, the Bavarian dukes got lucky. That year, Hans Sigmund of Degenberg died without leaving an heir. This meant that the Wittelsbach duke Maximilian I could finally reclaim the right to brew wheat beer; he promptly turned wheat beer brewing into a monopoly for himself and his heirs. Soon every innkeeper in his realm had to pour weissbier purchased exclusively from the network of breweries owned by the Dukes of Bavaria. That wheat beer monopoly lasted roughly 200 years, until 1798, when several monasteries and burgher breweries were given permission to brew weissbier too. This was only allowed because, by that time, weissbier had fallen out of fashion and the Wittelsbach breweries were running losses. Subsequently, the Bavarian dukes offered the weissbier rights for sale or lease to various breweries, both civil and monastic, on a nonexclusive basis. As it turned out, none of them could make a go of it, simply because demand for weissbier kept declining. In the 19th century, in part because of improvements in brewing techniques, Bavarian lagers were gaining in quality and had become much more competitive with weissbier. By 1872, the dukes finally gave up for good on the erstwhile weissbier cash cow and sold the rights to one intrepid brewmaster named Georg Schneider I. See schneider weisse brewery.

Weissbier sales decline steadily until, in the 1950s and early 1960s, they had fallen to below 3% of the overall Bavarian beer production. Many breweries stopped making weissbier altogether and the style seemed headed for extinction. Despite this, George Schneider and his heirs, perhaps strangely, kept the weissbier faith, albeit on a fairly modest sales volume. They set themselves apart as weissbier specialists, which eventually proved to be a successful long-term strategy, because in the 1960s, more than a century after its seeming demise, weissbier sales bounced back with a vengeance. A sudden—and largely inexplicable—shift in consumer taste reversed weissbier’s downward spiral from about 1965 onward, not only in Bavaria but also throughout the world. Today, weissbier is the most popular beer style in Bavaria, holding greater than one-third of the market share. In Germany overall, weissbier holds almost one-tenth of the market. Although helles may rule the summer beer gardens, a glass of weissbier remains an integral part of brotzeit, the “second breakfast” enjoyed in the mid-morning. Completing the beer style’s reversal of fortune is its popularity among craft brewers, who now make weissbier all over the world, from Japan to Brazil.

Because wheat has a high protein content, modern weissbier brewing often employs long rests to break down proteins and reduce wort viscosity. Decoction mashing is still widely employed in Germany for similar purposes. A rest at about 44°C–45°C (111°F–113°F) is often used to develop ferulic acid in the mash. Ferulic acid is a precursor compound—weissbier yeasts convert it to 4-vinyl guaiacol, a phenol with a distinctly clovelike aroma that is part of the typical character of weissbier. See 4-vinyl guaiacol. Original gravities are usually between 11.5° and 13.2° Plato and fermentations finish with some notable residual sugar at around 3° Plato. Weissbier is fermented by a family of closely related yeast strains that produce many of the classical flavors of the style. Whereas wheat itself gives the beers a certain lightness of the palate and a zing of acidity, the aromas of cloves (4-vinyl guaiacol), bubblegum, bananas (isoamyl acetate), and smoke (4-vinyl syringol) that characterize weissbier are all products of fermentation of these specialized yeasts. For many years, craft brewers outside Bavaria referred to this yeast as the “Weihenstephan strain” because that brewing school’s famous yeast bank was once the only source for genuine weissbier yeast. Some breweries outside Germany, particularly in the United States, use the word “hefeweizen” to describe and market beers fermented with standard lager or ale yeasts; these beers are misnamed; they have no classical hefeweizen character. See american wheat beer. Although it is often now used in cylindroconical fermenters, weissbier yeast naturally flocculates to the top of the fermenting vessel, making it a good candidate for open fermentation. Many weissbier producers note that open fermentation deepens the beer’s ester profile. Primary fermentation usually proceeds at 20°C–22°C (68°F–72°F) and is completed within 2 to 4 days. After a short aging period in closed tanks, typically only 10–14 days, the beer is ready for bottling or kegging. Traditionally weissbier is refermented in the bottle, using speise (literally “food” in German, speise is wort, sometimes with fresh yeast blended in) as the priming sugar to meet the strictures of the Reinheitsgebot. Refermentation may be performed by the original weisse yeast, but lager yeasts are occasionally preferred for their powdery texture in the bottle. Unfortunately, true bottle conditioning has become increasingly rare, especially among the large brands, and most weissbier seen outside of Bavaria is pasteurized. Bottle conditioning gives a fresher flavor and achieves high levels of carbonation, often at about 4 volumes (8 g/l), about 30% higher than the average pilsner.

Weissbier now comes in several variations. There is the classic weissbier or hefeweizen, a pale beer with plenty of yeast in suspension and capped with a tall, robust crown of white foam. Then there is the terminological contradiction of dunkelweissbier or dunkelweizen (“dark white beer” or “dark wheat”), which is weissbier made with the addition of dark malts, such as caramel, crystal, or roasted malts. Weissbier with an amber color is sometimes called “bernsteinfarbenes weisse,” literally “amber white”—many of these are considered especially traditional because the color predates the wide availability of pale malts. There is a low-alcohol version on the market called leichtes weissbier. See leichtes weissbier. Then there is the filtered kristallweizen (“crystal wheat”), as well as weizenbock (a wheat-based bock beer). On rare occasions brewers also make weizendoppelbock or weizeneisbock, both wheat equivalents of their all-barley-based cousins.

All are served in tall vaselike glassware, chunky at the base, cinching in to an elegant waist, and then flaring dramatically at the lip. High carbonation and high protein in the beer combine to produce voluminous foam, and this is very much part of the beer’s presentation and the reason for the shape of the glass. Bottles of hefeweizen are poured carefully to achieve the beautiful mousse-like foam, and then the bottle is swirled with the last of the beer to collect the yeast, which is added to the glass as the finishing touch. There has been some conjecture that it is weissbier’s yeastiness that may have precipitated its revival. The mid-1960s saw a renewed interest in natural foods, and brewer’s yeast is an excellent source of vitamins.

In Germany, hefeweizen is never served with the slices of lemon that became strangely ubiquitous in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s. The aroma of the lemon overwhelms the beer’s delicate aroma, and the oil of the lemon peel quickly destroys the beer’s trademark foam. American tourists who ask for lemon with their weissbier in Bavarian beer gardens are generally greeted with faint smiles of pity.

See also bock beer, doppelbock, and eisbock.