As the name implies, wheat beer is made from wheat. But that's not the full truth, as wheat beer is made from wheat and some 30% to 50% of barley malt. It tastes refreshing, smooth and rather sweet in comparison to lager or ale. It is rich in vitamin B and has around 4% of alcohol plus lots of fizz. All this makes it an ideal beer for a summer afternoon in a beer garden.
In the Middle Ages (and still today in locations outside Germany), any beverage obtained from fermenting random mixtures of grain malt and all kinds of things was called beer. The results were rarely suitable for a fastidious palate. Hangovers and upset stomachs were among the less severe consequences. This annoyed the Counts Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X of Bavaria so much that in the year 1516 they issued the Reinheitsgebot (Bavarian Beer Purity Law) which said that beer must be brewed from no other ingredients than:
Yeast does not show up in this list because the fermentation process wasn't at all understood at the time. It was learned from experience that breweries which happened to be neighbours of bakers (who cultivated good yeast without knowing it) succeeded almost every time. Otherwise it was a matter of luck if something consumable was produced or if the whole brewing vessel began a life of its own.
In the Counts' original paper, wheat was also left out, mainly because the wheat crops were not even sufficient to make bread for everyone. However, one brewery retained the right to continue brewing wheat beer1. This privilege later on fell to the court of Count Maximilian I of Bavaria. He realised the economical potential and earned millions from the monopoly. The monopoly was lifted in the 18th Century and wheat beer became quite popular in the southern parts of Germany. During the 1980s and following the reunification, wheat beer literally spread out all over the country.
How to Order One in Germany
To order a wheat beer in Germany you have to ask for a Weizen (pron: Vai-tsen), a 'Weißbier', or a 'Weiße'2. Next you will have to answer questions.
'Hell oder dunkel?' means that you have to choose between a yellowish ('hell') or a dark ('dunkel') colour.
If you opt for 'hell' then the next question will be 'Hefe oder Kristall?' - you can have it with the yeast (Hefe) in the bottle or without, ie crystal clear. Regardless of your choice, a good Weizen is filled right to the half-litre mark on the glass and ought to have a fluffy ball of white crest on top of it.
The serving size will be 0.5 litre which is the standard volume of a beer bottle. Some venues also have wheat beer on draft and may sell it in 0.5 or 0.33 litre glasses. There are no party size kegs available, nor is wheat beer sold in cans. The reasons for this will become obvious from the 'treatment' section below.
Wheat beer is served in a special kind of vessel. The stein or, far more commonly found, glass is rather tall, with a big solid lump at the bottom, followed by a more or less pronounced tapering which gets wider towards the top. When saying Prost!, wheat beer drinkers clink their glasses with the bottom because the top is very delicate to the touch.
Hefeweizen comes along with the yeast and therefore contains all the taste of its ingredients and is cloudy in the glass.
Kristallweizen (also known as Champagne Weizen) is essentially Hefeweizen, but with the yeast filtered out before it is filled into the bottle. In terms of froth it is rather moot and mostly harmless. It is usually served with a slice of lemon swimming on top. Juices from the lemon slice are destroying the head, an effect which can be countered by dropping a few rice or barley grains into the glass. The grains make for an interesting look when they are floating up and down, and they provide something for the gas to form bubbles which maintain the head.
Dark wheat bear earns its colour from a malt which has been roasted longer, and the taste is somewhat more to the tart side but still far away from an ale.
The Berliner Weiße is quite low on alcohol (up to 2.6%) and is made with only 25% of wheat malt. It is a completely different strain as it is made in two fermentation steps, of which the second uses a different type of yeast and takes place within the bottle. As the name implies, this type of beer is rather popular in the areas around Berlin, and not at all in Bavaria. Many people like it with a shot of raspberry syrup (which yields a red colour) or woodruff which makes it green. (This is not a joke.) The lower alcohol content can be corrected by adding a schnapps. The Berliner Weiße is served in a different type of glass which looks like a wide open bowl on a shaft.
The Belgian Wit Beer is somewhat similar to the Berliner Weiße.
The queen of all wheat beer variants is the Weizenbock. As a Bock, this one is made with at least 16% of essentials, contains over 5% of alcohol and is very rich in taste.
Even stronger is the king of wheat beer, the Weizen-Doppelbock. Containing 6% or more alcohol, it is delicious and heavy and you will softly fall asleep while negotiating your third one.
The Russ (or Russen, Russenmass, Russenhalbe3) is a mixture of 50% wheat beer and 50% citron lemonade. This one is very refreshing, tastes good and doesn't make you drunk that fast. It is very popular when taking a break during a bicycle tour. Russe means 'Russian' and nobody can explain how this name was coined. On a side note, a 'Radler' (shandy, or panhaché to the French) is also a 50/50 mix, but uses ordinary beer.
Non-alcoholic wheat beer is also available from a growing number of breweries.
How to Treat Wheat Beer
All types of wheat beer must be treated like champagne or rather, nitroglycerine because of the fizz. The most explosive sort is Hefeweizen. Similar to the champagne procedure, Hefeweizen is produced with the final fermentation step taking place within the bottle.
Shaking a bottle will result in a mess. The beer must be chilled and needs to be kept far away from earthquakes. The glass should be cold and dripping wet before pouring in the beer, otherwise you'll also end up with a puddle on the table or a pair of wet trousers. Don't ever use a glass again without cleaning it, because every particle in the glass causes the fizz to come out. For the same reason, any serrations of the glass itself will make themselves instantly known.
How to Pour a Wheat Beer
The precautions have already been mentioned above: the glass is clean, cold and wet, and the beer unshaken and chilled. The aim of pouring a wheat beer is to arrive at a completely empty bottle and froth on top of the glass, while avoiding beer puddles and grinning faces from neighbouring tables. The usual waterfall-like method which is suitable for some lagers or ales is bound to fail miserably.
Method One - Safer Pouring
Start with holding the glass almost horizontally. Keep the bottle opening in close contact with the glass and let the beer slowly float out. Raise the glass into a more vertical position as more and more beer pours in, but do this only to prevent it from spilling. Don't empty the bottle completely: the last gulp is used to dissolve the yeast by rolling or gently shaking the bottle. Have the glass stand on the table. Depending on whether you've already produced a head or not, pour out the remainder from directly above the glass or from a greater height.
Method Two - Suck-o-Froth
Clean the upper part of the bottle because it will be immersed in the beer during the act. A wheat beer glass is wide enough to accommodate the body of a bottle. Start again with a nearly horizontally aligned glass. Insert the bottle, in a quick move, as far as possible. Rotate the whole arrangement halfway up and slowly pull out the bottle. The trick is that the froth is being sucked into the bottle as the beer leaves it. Maintain control of the process by stopping the pulling motion when necessary, as nothing will happen when the bottle mouth is below the beer level. The typical beginner's mistake is to panic and push the bottle down which will lead straight into a mess. Wait for the froth in the bottle to collapse, then shake up the yeast and proceed to make the beer head as above.
Method Three - Quad-Simulpouring
Absolute utopia for the beginner, this is a high-risk method, and its entertaining value is close to watching a snake-charmer at work. With a bit of luck you can see this method being performed by staff from a pub in the Schwabing district of Munich. The artist arranges four glasses to lie side by side, their openings aligned flush with the edge of the counter. With the help of a colleague, the artist gets to hold two open bottles in each hand, with their bottoms in his palms. While the observers hold their breath, the artist has the bottles approach their respective glasses, and after inserting the bottles he proceeds to tilt and lift them according to method 2 above. Frantic applause is guaranteed if none of the bottles falls down into the respective glass, and none of the glasses slips away during the performance.
Wheat Beer Recipes
Turkey Hen Schnitzel in Kristallweizen
Ingredients (4 servings)
- 4 turkey hen schnitzels (slices from the hen's breast muscle, around 150grams each)
- 1 onion
- 1/2 litre wheat beer (1 bottle)
- 3 tsp butter
- 4 tsp cream
- Salt and pepper
Cut the onion into very tiny cubes and add them to the beer. Pepper the meat and marinate it for 3 hours. Melt 2 tsp butter in a pan and pan-fry the schnitzels in medium heat until they are gold-brown.
Take the schnitzels out and keep them warm. Pour off the frying fat and heat up the remaining butter, add half of the marinade. Add salt and pepper and let it boil down for 2 minutes. Add the cream and reduce for another 3 minutes. Arrange schnitzels on a plate and pour the sauce (through a sieve) over them.
Recommended side dishes are noodles or rice, with green or cucumber salad. Plus, of course, a wheat beer.
Bavarian Weißbierfrühstück (Wheat Beer Breakfast, Bavarian Style)
- Wheat beer
- Sweet mustard
- Soft pretzels
- Radish (the small red ones and/or the bigger white ones)
- Choose a day when you don't have to go to work.
- Heat up the sausages in hot water.
- Pour wheat beer into glass.
- Eat and drink ingredients and enjoy!