Style: German Hefeweizen
The wait is over as one of my holy grails has arrived on U.S. shores long after I had discovered it personally—and fell in love with it—nearly twenty years ago in Munich. It’s now available in Arizona, Michigan, Virginia and Washington, D.C., with plans for further expansion. I’ve been fortunate to get to know one of their former Brewmasters and the family over the years while I was living in the neighborhood, and I’ve had a small hand in helping them as they’ve made their way into the American market.
Weissbier (or weizen, weißen, hefeweizen or wheat beer—all interchangeable terms) is one of the most misunderstood styles out there, in my opinion. When speaking of weissbier, I’m referring to the Bavarian style, which is distinct from the younger styles of Berliner weisse, Belgian wit, or any of the new American wheat styles. By law and tradition, Bavarian weissbier is a minimum 51 percent malted wheat and is top fermented using one of a handful of particular ale yeast strains. Best served around 45-55° F, where the esters open up, many drinkers get their weissbier served too cold in this country, and lose much of the potential enjoyment. “Weißen” or “weissen” is the German word for wheat, shortened to weiss (or “white”) in Bavarian dialect. “Hefe” is yeast, which simply means the product is unfiltered and bottle conditioned (sometimes with a combination of top and bottom fermenting yeasts).
I’ll get into the history of weissbier—which dates back to the 15th Century—in another review, but I’m going to get on a soapbox first.
So many Americans have been introduced to wheat beers by local microbrewers, who have often created a unique version of wheat ales, while calling it a “hefeweizen” or some other version thereof. Widmer Brothers, and their God-awful Hefeweizen stands out to me as a prime example—and I give them further ire for perpetuating the myth of the lemon in a wheat beer. The citric acid in a lemon or orange actually cuts the phenols—and the unique flavors—that are typical and expected in a weissbier. Originally, this was probably done to introduce these funky flavors of weissbier to lager beer drinkers as larger brewers began to export the style beyond Bavaria. “Exports” also led to crystalweizen, or filtered weissbier, as opposed to the traditional hefeweizen. While I have no problem if people prefer it that way, too many people think a lemon is supposed to be there! In reality, there’s nary a Bavarian who would be caught dead in his lederhosen and a friggin’ chunk of fruit in his beer, be it weissbier or otherwise.
Many people also assume that weissbiers are summer beers, when they are actually very diverse in their interpretations and are enjoyed year round in Bavaria and elsewhere. There are several reasons for the “summer beer” reputation. Most tourists tend to visit Bavaria in the summer, when they may enjoy a weissbier in a biergarten. Also, because weissbiers are bottle conditioned (a secondary fermentation in the bottle), they can often be a bit over-carbonated as they age or endure warm storage—which is the reason for rinsing the glass prior to pouring (a good practice for all beers) and the fancy pour techniques that many aficionados will practice in the tall, 22-ounce pilsner/weissbier glass to prevent an over-foaming glass. Thirdly, many of the “macro-weissbier” brewers have lightened up their product to appeal to the masses, not unlike the big, domestic brewers in this country. The Erdingers, Paulaners, Hacker-Pschorrs, and Franziskaners of the world are not only largely owned by multinational conglomerates (Erdinger excepted), but they have created pale, fizzy, fruity weissbiers (sound familiar?) that can sometimes be overwhelmed by banana-clove sweetness that is often associated with the fruity cocktails of summer. The stupid lemon doesn’t help either.
As in this country, if you want to taste truly original or creative weissbiers, you need to go to the microbreweries, or privatbrauereien in Bavaria. Schneiderweisse, the world’s oldest exclusive weissbier brewery, is the closest thing you could find in the U.S …until now.
Eric Warner, an American Diplom-Braumeister, and author of 1992’s book, German Wheat Beer, says “Unertl Weissbier enjoys a cult following in Munich and its surroundings, and those who drink Unertl swear by it. This beer overwhelms the taste buds with its bold, complex taste.”
Located in Haag i.O.B., about 50 kilometers east of Munich, this little fourth generation family-owned business is about 1/3 the size of Bell’s Brewery in Michigan. They should not be confused with Unertl Mühldorf, which is a separate brewery located further east and owned by extended family.
Although some may consider this a dunkleweiss, Unertl is actually an original style weissbier, which is a little darker than a hellesweizen and not as chocolatey as a dunkel. Natural, local spring water forms the base for a 70 percent malted wheat grist bill, well above a typical weiss concentration. A warmer temperature, top fermentation takes place in traditional, open containers using a special flocculent yeast strain developed by the family, and a small percentage of chocolate malt gives this original its deep amber color. Natural yeast sediment forms in the container due to bottle or cask conditioning, which can sometimes be a little chunky.
Full, yet soft, with a rounded body, you’ll find notes of almond, soft banana, and clove. The head is creamy and generous with substantial mouth-feel. The richness of the yeast is evidenced by a silky glass cling and the finish is sweet and clean. In fact, the glass is absolutely filthy with yeast by the time you’re done—very rich in vitamin B12 and protein. Complex and subtle, it’s not only refreshing but has body enough that it never becomes too sweet.
When fresh or well stored, this beer is quite simply one of the finest in the world of any variety.