German-style wheat beers are the ultimate summer refreshers. They offer the light body and easy drinkability of an American lager, but with a significantly bigger flavor. And low bitterness means they won’t tax your taste buds if you have more than one to drink.
The secret to their fresh taste lies with the yeast. Often called “hefeweizen” from the German words “hefe” meaning yeast and “weizen” meaning wheat, German wheat beers are fermented with yeast strains that give them the fruity and spicy flavors of banana and clove. Drink one and you might be convinced that the brewer actually used bananas. Secondary flavors of lemon, vanilla and even bubblegum are also often present.
The special yeast also contributes to appearance and mouthfeel of these delicious beers. When poured into a glass, the first thing that stands out is the cloudiness. That murky look is intentional and comes from live yeast suspended in the beer.
Suspended yeast also adds mouth-filling heft to a wheat beer’s lightweight body. They go down easy, but with a smooth and satisfying creaminess.
In bottled versions, that yeast will often settle to the bottom. You’ll want to rouse it up by gently rolling the bottle on the table before pouring.
German wheat beers make a great accompaniment to summer salads. Banana flavors in the beer create a juicy-fruit explosion when paired to a fruit salad with melon, berries and nectarines. Add a touch of basil to pick up on the beer’s spice.
They’re great with lightly bitter greens and vinaigrette dressings. For an even better match use a dressing made with lemon.
Having a summer brunch? Wheat beers are the perfect match to eggs and bacon. Mix them with orange juice for a sunny alternative to a Champagne mimosa.
German wheat beers are best drunk fresh. It doesn’t get any fresher than one that is locally brewed. They are variously available as a seasonal treat at many Minnesota taprooms and brewpubs, including an extremely poundable version at the Minneapolis Town Hall Brewery.
For a tasty packaged example, look no further than Schell’s Hefeweizen. This one falls on the lighter end of the style spectrum and leans heavily on the banana side of the yeast character. The sharp, grainy taste of wheat and subtle lemony high notes offer a cutting contrast to the beer’s puffy sweetness. Schell’s Hefeweizen is only available through August, so get it while you can.
Another local brew worth checking out is Fair State Brewing Cooperative Hefeweizen, from northeast Minneapolis. The crackery flavor of wheat really comes through on this one, leaving an impression of sharp graininess. The driving force, though, is the yeast. A balanced blend of banana and clove gives a flavor reminiscent of bubblegum with light, lemony citrus to brighten things up. The body is light, yet mouth-filling and creamy.
Wheat beers don’t travel well. Imports often arrive on store shelves tasting a bit stale. But if you want the real thing from Germany, there are a few good options available.
Erdinger Weissbier is one of them. Suspended yeast and wheat malt combine to give an impression of fresh bread dough. The familiar banana and spice are nearly in balance, with subtle hints of vanilla adding additional nuance. Hop flavor is not typically part of the hefeweizen profile, but low spicy and herbal flavors lend another layer of complexity to this one.
If you like your beers with more malt character, try a “dunkelweizen” or dark wheat beer. These amber to brown brews exhibit the same fermentation-derived flavors as their lighter cousins, but with the added dimension of toasty malt and dark fruit.
Here I recommend Kloster Andechs Weissbier Dunkel. Instead of bread dough, this beer tastes of bread crust. The dry, toasted flavors provide a nice contrast to the lighter fruit, spice and lemon. Hints of raisin provide an intriguing bottom note.
You also can’t go wrong with Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier Dunkel. This one leans more on caramel than toast, which together with banana and a slight sweetness gives it an almost dessert-like quality. But it’s not a sugary beer. A sharp wheatiness and late-arriving clove cut through the sweet. And it goes out with a crisp, dry finish.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.