Traditional Hefeweizen: Worth the Trouble?

A 3-hour mash? Three hours to lauter? A yeast that creates phenolic off-flavors? What were they thinking?

Stan Hieronymus Aug 25, 2017 - 13 min read

Traditional Hefeweizen: Worth the Trouble? Primary Image

Few beers are more likely to cause a brewer to wonder how much trouble is too much trouble when it comes to the brewing process than the hefeweizen (or, to Germans, the weissbier). It may take 3 hours to mash and just as long to lauter, even if it doesn’t get stuck. Hefes ferment with a yeast that creates phenolic off-flavors, and it really should be primed with unfermented wort and bottled-conditioned.

“It is not easy to keep consistency. Each bottle is its own system,” says Hans-Peter Drexler, the brewmaster at G. Schneider & Sohn in Bavaria. “It is a very traditional system, and we are a little bit proud of it.” Schneider is the largest brewery in Germany still using traditional methods such as decoction, open fermentation, and re-fermentation in the bottle, but that does not mean it is stuck in the 1870s.

The brewery installed a yeast propagation system that produces fresh yeast for almost every batch rather pitching from one fermentation into another. Also, instead of using unfermented wort, known as speise, from a fresh batch, brewers make speise from a separate recipe, then add it inline during bottling. The Schneider family, which has been in charge across six generations since 1872, embraces technology when it results in better-tasting beer.

The traditional regimen Schneider follows provides a framework for smaller breweries and homebrewers to use when considering which parts of the process—to be blunt—are worth the trouble.


Going Old School

The grist for Schneider Weisse Original contains 60 percent wheat with Pilsner making up most of the barley malt. (Other breweries use up to 70 percent wheat, which can result in a stuck mash, and that’s why breweries may choose to mix rice hulls into the mash.) Original has 1 percent chocolate malt, but that is not typical. It is classified as a Hefeweizen Bernsteinfarbenes. Bernsteinfarbenes means “amber color,” and the category was created to distinguish it from paler Hefeweizen Hell sold by breweries such as Weihenstephan and Erdinger.

Schneider’s step-and-decoction mash lasts about 3 hours, with rests at 95°F (35°C), 113°F (45°C), 122°F (50°C), and 147°F (64°C), at which point the brewers pull a one-third decoction. That is heated to 152°F (67°C) for 10 minutes, increased to 158°F (70°C) for 20 minutes, and then to 203°F (95°C) for 5 minutes. When the decoction is transferred back, the mash sets at 167°F (75°C).

A slightly simpler alternative works well at home and is inspired by a beer that once won an American Homebrewers Association Club-Only Competition for Bill Aimonetti. He begins mashing at 105°F (41°C), then raises the temperature to 112°F (44°C) for 25 minutes. Then comes a 40 percent decoction before the mash is heated to 160°F (71°C) for 15 minutes and brought to a boil for 20 minutes before it’s re-combined with the decoction at 147°F (64°C) for 20 minutes. The temperature is brought up to 160°F (71°C) for 30 minutes, then to 170°F (77°C) for mash-out. The wort is not aerated during decoction.

The important rests to consider are the ones that Schneider does at 113°F (45°C) and 122°F (50°C). Aimonetti does not employ the latter, a protein rest, and Schneider keeps it short to avoid degrading the proteins, which will damage head retention. A billowing head, of course, is one hallmark for a hefeweizen. Another is banana-and-clove aroma and flavor, a combination of esters (notably isoamyl acetate, perceived as fruit, particularly banana) and phenols (primarily 4-vinyl guaiacol, perceived as clove and spice). The rest at 112°F (44°C) or 113°F (45°C), appropriately called a ferulic acid rest, is essential for creating 4-vinyl guaiacol.

It wasn’t until the 1970s that brewers learned that certain “phenolic off-flavor” (POF+) yeast strains convert ferulic acid to 4-vinyl guaiacol. These include weizen and wit yeasts in varying degrees, but also yeast used to ferment Belgian strong ales and even English ales. Ferulic acid resides in different regions of barley, oats, and wheat grains, and although wheat contains higher levels, the acid is released from its bonds with barley malt more easily than with wheat. It is freed by water extraction and enzymatic activity and is maximized at 113°F (45°C) and a pH of 5.7. In contrast, mashing in at 131°F (55°C) rather than 113° F (45°C) lowers the 4-vinyl guaiacol content in a beer by 30 percent.


Researchers in Germany found that a longer ferulic acid rest results in less intense esters and more intense phenols. With no rest, drinkers rated the intensity of esters at 4.1, and it was reduced to 3.4 with a 10-minute rest and 2.6 with a 20-minute rest. The intensity of phenols increased from 1.2 with no rest to 2.1 with a 10-minute rest and 3.3 with 20. Obviously, varying the length of the rest will change the balance between esters and phenols, but so will the mixture of barley and wheat malts because ferulic acid is freed from each at a different rate.

The value of decoction, once obviously necessary because malts were less modified, is not so easily measured and is, therefore, controversial. It’s an argument that likely won’t be settled soon. Martin Krottenthaler, a professor at Weihenstephan Institute for Brewing Technology, made that obvious a few years ago. He showed how benchmarks recorded during single-infusion mashes and decocted mashes were different throughout the two processes, but that the resulting worts still produced almost identical profiles. “Boiling is boiling,” he said, speaking as a scientist. A tasting panel basically confirmed the results. Few of its members could tell the difference, but Krottenthaler was one of those. “For me it was significant,” he said, speaking as a drinker.

The variance between wheat beers fermented in different-shaped vessels can also be measured. German researchers discovered that cylindroconical tanks dramatically suppressed both esters and phenols, particularly when compared to open fermentation. They measured 5.1 mg/liter of isoamyl acetate in open tanks and 2.5 mg/l of 4-vinyl guaiacol, compared to 2.3 mg/l and 1.7 mg/l, respectively, in conicals. In upright closed tanks, isoamyl acetate was reduced to 3.5 mg/l and 4-vinyl guaiacol to 1.6. Open fermentation is relatively easy at home, using plastic buckets filled only to the same height as the width. Those concerned about sanitation may cover the bucket loosely with the lid until fermentation begins, then remove it.

Schneider pitches its yeast at 61−63°F (16−17°C), and the energy created during fermentation will push it to 72°F (22°C) after 5 days. Drexler describes Schneider’s house strain as “very old,” but there are plenty of options available, many kept at Hefebank Weihenstephan. Each has its own ester/phenol profile that brewers may alter by adjusting the ferulic acid rest.

Finished beer at Schneider rests only overnight in a buffer tank before being packaged. Until relatively recently, that meant only bottling, because Schneider did not keg beer until 1993. Speise is now added inline, along with yeast. Schneider targets 3.5 volumes of CO2 in the bottle and conditioning takes 3 weeks, with a first rest at 70°F (21°C), which reduces diacetyl, and the next two at 50°F (10°C).


An Easier Way?

There are alternatives to the Schneider approach that don’t stray too far from tradition, one in the kettle and the other when conditioning. Extract is an excellent alternative for a brewer whose system won’t accommodate a ferulic acid rest. Briess Malt & Ingredients extract includes 65 percent wheat and might be called “4-vinyl guaiacol ready.” It is made using a step mash with a 15-minute ferulic acid rest. Of course, a brewer who plans to do a partial mash should take into account that extract is not all wheat, but a blend that traditional weissbier brewers prefer.

Before Bob Hanson became manager of technical services at Briess, he brewed at Water Street Brewing in Milwaukee, a brewpub that made beer from extract rather than malted barley and wheat. In 2000, his Raspberry Weiss won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival, and his Bavarian hefeweizen regularly accounted for more than one-third of pub sales.

Brewers who use speise argue that it enhances mouthfeel, but conditioning with sugar has many of the same benefits, mostly notably carbonating a hefeweizen to 3.5 volumes or more. It is not that hard to make speise; it is as simple as brewing a little extra wort at the outset, sterilizing it, and setting it aside during fermentation. Another choice would be to use the Briess extract to produce fresh unfermented wort. Either creates an extra step and requires careful calculations before bottling.

“Sugar is clean. Wort is a complex thing in its own right,” says New Glarus Brewmaster Dan Carey, who served an apprenticeship at the Ayinger Brewery in Bavaria and chose to use sugar at New Glarus. “Speise obviously works. It works great. What we use is based on what we’ve learned.”

And that’s the same thing they do at Schneider.


Lemon with Your Beer?

(Excerpted from Brewing with Wheat)

To celebrate 400 years of wheat brewing on the site in Kelheim that’s now home to Private Weissbierbrauerei, G. Schneider & Sohn created a special beer called 1608, a little stronger than Schneider Original. Brewmaster Hans-Peter Drexler hopped it at a slightly higher rate than a typical weissbier and with a newish German hops called Saphir, which added a bit of a citrus flavor.

“They say it was a Bavarian tradition to serve weiss with lemon,” Drexler explains, referring to the practice as if it were a bit of ancient history not everybody believes existed.

Ask an American beer drinker why the bartender just hung a lemon on a glass of hefeweizen, and the answer likely would be, “Because that’s the way the Germans do it.” Wrong. Maybe once upon a time, but certainly not now. “Oh, no no, that is something that was done in the 1980s. I remember with kristall weizen,” beer sommelier and writer Sylvia Kopp wrote in an email. “Now it is not accepted behavior.” The late Michael Jackson once suggested the lemon garnish might be linked to the practice of serving juice or syrup with Berliner weisse because it was visually appealing and highlighted the refreshing character of wheat beer. In a 1991 column in What’s Brewing he wrote: “When I first encountered South German wheat beers, in the early to mid-1960s, they were regarded as an old-fashioned, rustic style, favored by old ladies with large hats. The beer was at that time customarily garnished with a slice of lemon.

“People have told me the lemon was to mask the taste of the uneven products made at that time by unscientific country brewers; I do not believe that. Some of the wilder wheat beers might taste odd to the uninitiated but not to people who grew up with them. “I have also heard it said that the lemon reduced the foam to manageable proportions, but why would anyone want to flatten a naturally sparkling drink? I believe the lemon accentuated the tart, refreshing character of the beer, and I am sorry that it is so rarely seen in Germany today.”

Before you decide to quote Jackson and ask for a lemon in a Bavarian beer, consider this thought from Munich-based beer journalist Werner Obalski: “Lemon with hefeweizen you only will see when Aussies and Kiwis drink it.”

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