What Is Hefeweizen?

Hefeweizen Beer in a glass

Mr.TinDC / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Hefeweizen (hay-fuh-veyt-ssenn) is the original wheat beer and remains one of the best-known among the many styles of beer available on the market. It originated in Germany, uses a top-fermenting ale yeast, and at least 50 percent wheat malts alongside barley. Left unfiltered, hefeweizen is recognizable by its cloudiness and impressive white head, as well as the yeast it leaves behind in an empty glass. It's a crisp, drinkable ale that is a favorite during the summer months.

Fast Facts

  • ABV: 4–7%
  • Bitterness: 10–15 IBU
  • Color: 3–9 SRM

What Is the Difference Between Hefeweizen and Pilsner?

Wheat beers (weissbiers) were among those forbidden under the German purity law known as Reinheitsgebot. Established in 1516, it essentially only allowed the production of beers with no adjuncts or non-barley grains. Due to the popularity of weissbier among royalty, it was the first style to receive an exemption.

The hefeweizen style predates lagers and pale ales. Weissbier, which means "white beer," was initially used to described wheat beers because they were paler in color to the typical beers brewed in Germany. Hefe translates as "yeast" and weizen means "wheat."

This Bavarian wheat beer typically contains at least 50 percent wheat malts, though some can reach a ratio of 70 percent wheat to barley. The top-fermentation style designates hefeweizen as an ale. It's generally a crisp, drinkable brew with a low to moderate alcohol content. The suspended yeast gives hefeweizen a cloudy appearance, its most notable characteristic.

In contrast, German pilsner is a bottom-fermented lager. The two beers share a pale yellow color (hefeweizens can scale to orange), fluffy white foam head, and are equally enjoyable crisp beers for warm days. Both have a slightly sweeter taste, with pilsner's attributed to malts and hefeweizen's sweetness to wheat. Pilsners tend to show more hop and bitter characteristics. In the glass, there's no mistaking the two: pilsners are filtered and distinctly clearer, unlike the cloudy hefeweizens.

Though many brewers produce hefeweizen, a distinct flavor profile describes this style. Classic hefeweizens are noted as being sweet and fruity with notes of banana and clove. Some even have a bubble gum or vanilla undertone. It is a wheat beer, so it is heavy and has a rather full body with high carbonation.

American hefeweizens aren't subject to the strict German production law, so they vary a bit more in flavor. Some brewers use a different strain than the traditional German weizen ale yeast and others may add citrus or spices.

Types of Hefeweizen

Depending on where it's produced, this style of beer goes by a few different names. Sometimes, German-brewed beer changes the label when sold in the United States and other international markets.

  • Hefeweizen: Popular among Americans
  • Hefe-weizen: Often found on German beers
  • Weissbier, Weizenbier, and Weisse: Common in Germany

How to Serve Hefeweizen

Wheat beers are best served in a specific style of glass, called a weizenbier glass, or weizen vase. It is nearly as tall as a pilsner glass and looks like a modified tulip, with a narrow base that opens up to a wider middle and then slightly tapers again at the rim. The shape helps form the desired white head when the beer is poured. The glass typically has a thick base so it can withstand hits on the table during toasts.

To pour hefeweizen, hold the glass at an angle and slowly pour the beer until the head reaches the rim. Wait for the foam to settle, then swirl the beer remaining in the bottle to agitate the yeast and continue pouring.

Hefeweizen tastes best cold (around 45 degrees Fahrenheit) and in a glass that has been rinsed in cold water.

It has become an American custom to serve hefeweizen with a lemon wedge. Traditionalists and Bavarians frown on this practice. They feel the citrus detracts from the true taste of the beer and prevents the creation of a perfect foam head.

Food Pairings

The flavor profile of hefeweizen is naturally complementary to a variety of foods. Pizza, smoked pork, salad, and seafood are favorite pairings, as are German classics like weisswurst and apple strudel.

Barbecued foods, smoked meats, stroganoff, goat cheese, and beets work well, too. This style can even stand up to spicy dishes, including Mexican favorites and Indian curries, and it's a delight with herbal dishes that include rosemary or mint. For dessert, try a hefeweizen with fruity sweets like banana bread and key lime pie. Most people agree that berries are not the best choice for this beer.

Best Brands

A number of brewers—including many well-known brands—produce impressive hefeweizens and they're relatively easy to find. Here are a few to try as you begin to explore this wheat ale:

  • Erdinger Weissbier
  • Flying Dog Hefeweizen
  • Paulaner Hefe-Weizen
  • Samuel Adams Hefeweizen
  • Schneider Weisse
  • Shiner Hefeweizen
  • Shlafly Hefeweizen
  • Sierra Nevada Kellerweis Hefeweizen
  • Two Brothers Ebel's Weiss
  • Widmer Hefeweizen