Monopoly, War and Wheat Beer: The History of Hefe
Hefeweizen (Pronounced “hay-fuh-vites-in”). We’ve all heard the name, but what does it mean? In German: “hefe” means yeast, while “weizen” means wheat. If you though it meant, “delicious,” or “awesome,” we can see how you’d get confused.
All Hefeweizen is wheat beer, but not all wheat beer is Hefeweizen. Hefeweizen is unfiltered with the yeast remaining in suspension. Filtered, clear wheat beer is known as Kristallweizen (“crystal wheat”), while dark wheat beers brewed using darker malts are referred to as Dunkelweizen (“dark wheat”). Weizenbock (“wheat bock”) is a stronger version traditionally brewed in winter.
Archaeological evidence points to wheat beers being brewed by the Sumerians as long as 10,000 years ago, and in Germany as long as 2,800 years ago. But the modern story starts with the “Reinheitsgebot,” or the German Beer Purity Law of 1516. The law stated that beer could only consist of three ingredients: water, hops and barley. No wheat. No fruit. No other additions. But in the Bavaria region of modern southeastern Germany, a loophole was exploited by those in power.
The Dukes of Wittelsbach, then rulers of Bavaria, allowed a single brewery overseen by the Dukes of Degenberg to brew wheat beers. The Degenbergs, in turn, paid handsomely for their monopoly until the final Duke of Degenberg died without an air in 1602. In accordance with feudal law, all of the family’s assets were granted to the ruling Wittelsbachs, who in turn spread the making of wheat beers to additional breweries they also owned. The beer was so popular that brewery profits alone funded the Bavarian Army during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). In the 1700s, traditional dark lagers came back into favor and displaced much of the wheat beer. By 1812, only two breweries in Bavaria where still making wheat beer.
Wheat beers are ales and were traditionally brewed in warmer months when top-fermenting yeast strains find their ideal environment. With the invention and adoption of refrigeration in the late 19th century, most breweries, especially in Germany, switched to making lagers that used bottom- and cold-fermenting yeast strains. The result was a steady and pronounced reduction in wheat beer production. This didn’t rebound until consumer tastes started to change in the 1960s and a wheat beer revival formed.
The initial popularity of American Hefeweizen is generally attributed to Rob and Kurt Widmer of Portland, Oregon. In 1986, they brewed a wheat beer for a local pub but, with only two fermenters to work with, they left their brew unfiltered and cloudy, hence producing a Hefeweizen that proved extremely popular.
The foam head is a hallmark of the brew due to the additional protein in wheat compared to barley and the added carbon dioxide from being bottle conditioned.
Now that you’re properly educated on the history of Hefeweizen, crack open a bottle (head to howtohefe.com to learn how to properly pour Hefe) and enjoy!
Hefe at a Glance:
Type: Wheat Beer
Storage: cool, dark place with the bottle standing up
Aroma: banana and cloves, sometimes lemon, vanilla or bubblegum.
Pouring: Unlike wine, the sediment in Hefeweizen contributes significantly to its distinct look and flavor and should not be avoided.
Lemon can be added and is common in America but no self-respecting Bavarian beer drinker would ever add anything to their wheat beer.
-Geoff Shipley, Hop Harvest