German Beer Styles: What is Weissbier?
Weissbier literally means “white beer” and is pronounced “vice-beer”. It is also known as Weizenbier meaning “wheat beer” though in the past these were separate things. Like lagers, the category of Weissbier has several sub-categories; Hefeweizen meaning “yeast wheat” is probably the most popular, Kristallweizen meaning “crystal or clear wheat” is a filtered version of a Hefeweizen, Weizenbock “wheat bock” is a stronger version brewed for the cold winter months, and Dunkelweizen meaning “dark wheat” which is brewed with dark malts and has a stronger malt flavor. Weissbier is also one of the only ales (along with Kölsch and Altbier) in a forest of German lagers as almost all malted barley beers in Germany are lagers.
While Weissbiers today are popular German beers and the style was certainly perfected by the Germans, wheat beer did not originate in Germany. In fact, the first wheat beers were brewed by Stone-Age peoples 10,000 years ago in what is now Iraq.
When talking about German beer, the Reinheitsgebot (the 16th Century German beer purity law) is often brought up. In short, it said that beer could only be made using water, barley and hops. Notice the absence of wheat (also yeast but they didn’t know about yeast back then)? But the rulers of Bavaria at the time loved the style so much that they allowed one brewery on the Czech border to brew their favorite style as an exception for a heavy fee. Eventually this honor was extended to other breweries for a heftier fee and it is said that profits from Weissbier funded Bavaria’s efforts in the Thirty Years War.
By the late 1800s, however, its popularity dropped to the point that many brewers stopped brewing the style altogether and the Bavarian crown sold off all their breweries and finally sold the last remaining rights in 1856 to George Schneider I. The Schneider family kept brewing the style despite its lack of popularity. So when the style inexplicably came back into fashion in the 1960s, the still family run G. Schneider & Sohn had a near monopoly for their Schneider Weisse beer. The popularity of Weissbier has continued to this day and now almost every brewery in Germany brews a type of Weissbier.
Weissbier, and especially Hefeweizen, is characterized by flavors of banana, cloves, bubble gum and vanilla. With the exception of Kristallweizen, they are cloudy in appearance and they all have a fluffy meringue-like head. Many bars in the US serve a Hefeweizen with a slice of lemon, but Germans scoff at that, saying the beer needs no fruit to enhance the flavor and claim the citrus oils can actually impair the fluffy head. So next time you order one, ask for the lemon on the side and judge for yourself.