When COVID-19 closed taprooms and cancelled festivals, I looked for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course. Doing so involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details; I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.
Bavarians have been brewing wheat ales since at least the 1400s. As beers brewed with raw wheat were relatively light-colored compared to their malted barley counterparts, they were alternatively labeled weizenbier (“wheat beer”) or weissbier (“white beer”).
Then, in 1516, Bavaria instituted the Reinheitsgebot. This beer purity law restricted brewers to only employing malted barley, hops, and water to make their beer (yeast hadn’t yet been discovered). In practice, it limited weissbier production to breweries with a royal exemption. Thus, weissbier was exclusively brewed by a select few breweries in a form of cronyism that would make an Illinois politician proud.
In 1872, Munich brewer Georg Schneider persuaded King Ludwig II to permit private brewers to once again make weissbier. By that point, however, weissbier faced tough competition from a new, surging style: pilsner. Nevertheless, the Schneider family helped keep the style alive for the next hundred years. During that time, it remained a relatively anonymous style limited to Bavaria.
Then, the improbable happened. The style caught on with younger Germans in the 1960s and 1970s and hasn’t lost momentum since. From 1980 to 2010, its share of the German beer market quintupled (The Beer Bible). Today, American consumers can treat themselves to a wide variety of Bavarian imports or domestic interpretations.
“A pale, refreshing German wheat beer with high carbonation, dry finish, a fluffy mouthfeel, and a distinctive banana-and-clove yeast character.”
It’s pronounced “hay-fuh-vite-zen”
Third Coast Review’s Take
Hefeweizen yeast leaves behind distinct fruity esters that most often evoke banana and clove. Protein-rich wheat, meanwhile, lends itself to a full mouthfeel and crisp finish. I find that there’s a time and place for this combination: outdoors on a hot summer afternoon. Otherwise, it’s all a bit much for my palate.
Franziskaner Weissbier is a traditional, straightforward take on the style. Banana and clove flavors are evident, but not overwhelming. If you’re looking for a German import to introduce you to the wider world of German wheat beers, this is a fine place to start.
Two Brothers Ebel’s Weiss is an award-winning hefeweizen beer from a longstanding Warrenville brewery. It’s wonderfully subtle; fruity and spicy flavors are present as promised, but you’re not beaten over the head with them. While a hefeweizen is rarely my first choice of style, it’s hard to argue with these results.
Great Central Hefeweizen is big and bright. While the characteristic banana notes are present, Mandarina hops are also bringing a lot of citrus flavors to the table in this wheat ale from Chicago’s premier contract brewery.
Dovetail Hefeweizen has all of the brewery’s characteristic nuance and subtlety. While they describe the beer as having a “hint of acidity,” I was more fixated on the high levels of carbonation. For the IPA lovers out there, Dovetail is currently pouring “Hopfenweisse,” a hopped-up version of their hefeweizen with Illinois-grown cascade hops.