A word on terminology: You'll sometimes see wheat beers described as: hefeweissbier, dunkelweissbier, weißbier, weizen, or witbier. They are all similar in that they are all wheat beers, but there are differences between them; knowing these differences can tell you a great deal about what the beer inside is and where they come from. As far as ingredients are concerned, weizen is German for 'wheat', so any wheat beer brewed in Germany could technically be called a weizen. Weiss or weiß means 'white', which means that a brew so-named will be cloudy golden-white in appearance. Not all weizenbiers are white. Kristalweizens are wheat ales that are filtered or aged to give them a transparent, golden colour - saying Kristalweiss is therefore contradictory. Clear wheat ales are less common than the hazy, weiss version, however. This is because wheat does a lousy job of self-filtering, so the brewer would have to add an extra step in the brewing process to clear things up.
Now for location. Weizenbier and Weissbier are German brews, and usually conform to the ubiquitous German Purity Law, meaning that the beer contains barley, wheat, water, hops and yeast - nothing else. Weissbier comes in two major varieties, hefe ("yeast", generally lighter in colour) and dunkel ("dark"). Witbiers ("white beer") are Belgian and usually contain extra ingredients like orange peel and coriander to add to the flavor profiles. Hoegaarden is the prime example of this.
Of course, not all brewers conform to this handy guide, but as far as most wheat ales we'd encounter in North America, this is pretty much how wheat beers play out. Good so far?
Anyone who's had a wheat beer before will know that they taste very different from most other barley-based beers. This is because wheat, when it is broken down and consumed by yeast, releases unique flavors in the form of chemical esters; precision brewing techniques will elicit different flavors depending on what kind of beer you're trying to make. Hefeweissbier, for example, will often taste very light and citrussy, with notes of lemon, orange peel, coriander, citrus and other spices. Sometimes, one will even detect bubble gum. Such fresh flavors make for great summer drinking, and (as I can attest) can go down really quickly. Thus I offer to you, a salute to the hefeweissbier!
Here's a mini-roundup of some of the finer wheat brews to be had (all in the hefe style)
Brewery: Weiehenstephaner (Germany)
Weihenstephaner has a strong claim to be the world's oldest brewer, having been granted an official licence to brew in 1040 CE. This isn't to say the brewery has been brewing the same beer with the same recipes; it just means a brewery has been operating with a continual history at the site for nearly 1000 years. William the Conqueror hadn't even arrived on the English shores when these guys started brewing. Amazing. Their hefeweissbier is their flagship brew, and one of the world's finest examples of the style. Let's have a look!
Appearance is that of a typical hefe: golden and opaque, with a light head encircling the glass. Sticky lacing, fine retention of the head.
Nose is of wheat, honey, banana and fresh spices. Banana and malts are predominant here; cloves are present, but only mildly so.
The taste is exceptionally smooth and remarkably easy to drink. Banana, clove and just a little bit of bitterness to the finish, all very rounded. Lemon peel provides a fine crisp tartness, making Weihenstephaner a wonderful thirst-quencher. Mouthfeel is slightly, thin, creamy, with tart carbonation.
A classic hefeweisse, with a lovely crisp finish. Great as a sessional at any time of year, but truly tastes best on a summer patio.