Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy with a Hefeweizen

Happy Independence Day!

Today in Boston was a scorcher. Humid and hot, the thermostat got all the way up to 95° F. On a day like today, there is one beer I grab for right away: a Hefeweizen.

Hefeweizens (which translates as "Yeast Wheat") originated in Bavaria and are perfect summer beers. Though I had enjoyed a good hefe now and then, I really fell in love with the style on one of my earliest trips to Germany. Drinking German Hefeweizens can spoil a person, though, and when I returned to the States, I found myself quite disappointed with most of the domestic versions. With the exception of Will Meyers' Hefe-Weizen from Cambridge Brewing Company (Which, for the record, is the absolute best American Hefeweizen I have ever tasted. Pouring a murky gold that is radiant in the sun, it is topped with a thick foamy head that features a fantastic aroma of clove. Tasting like a spicy banana bread, this is a beer I look forward to every summer.), the bulk of American wheat beers couldn't really match the perfect balance (that of banana and clove, wheat and pilsener grain) that was the German Hefeweizen. 

I was so determined to replicate the German hefe, that for the better part of 2011 I brewed them over and over. And though I ended up producing a couple of nice beers, nothing was every just right. I tinkered with everything, messing around with the grain bills, the hop schedule, the fermentation temperature. In the end, I was always happy enough to drink the beer, but never proud enough to say: "That's it!!"

Then, by pure accident, I found the perfect recipe this past June. The stage was Wheatfest: a home-brew festival I hosted featuring all wheat beer. About two weeks before the fest, I decided to quickly whip up a hefeweizen, and through the process, I think I learned a lot about what makes – for my taste buds – the perfect hefe. As it turns out, it's not nearly as complicated as I ever tried to make it.

The Recipe

The recipe itself was formed based upon the grain I had laying around the house: roughly 50% wheat with a half pound of Munich malt that was in the back of my grain bin. Though I had used Hallertau hops for all my earlier versions, this time I threw in Tettnang at 60 and 30 minutes (again, just because I had them). The simplest grain bill I could have ever possibly put together.

Rhönring Hefeweizen
3 Gallon Batch

3 lbs (52%) Valley Malt Red Wheat
2 lbs (34%) Belgian Pilsen 2-Row
1/2 lb (8%) Munich Malt
1/4 lb (4%) Rice Hulls

1/2 oz Tettnanger (3.7% AA) - 60 minutes
1/2 oz Tettnanger - 30 minutes

WYeast 3068

OG: 1.049

The Yeast

For my earlier hefs, I was using Safale WB-06. But after my experiences with my maple beer, I since decided to only purchase WYeast for all future beers, so I opted for that instead, choosing WYeast 3068.

The Mash

German wheat beers are traditionally brewed by decoction mash. A rather time consuming process, it involves reaching each rest temperature in the mash schedule by boiling a certain quantity of the grain (or grist) for about 15 minutes before adding it back to the mash. Boiling the grains can help make the starches more friendly for the enzymes as well as create unique and often more complex flavors. The merit of decoction versus infusion mash is often debated amongst home brewers, but in an effort to be as authentic as possible, all of my early Hefeweizen recipes used at least a double if not triple decoction. However, on this brew night, time was of the essence, so I only did a single infusion mash (which is what I ordinarily use for most of my beers).

Some argue that in place of decoction, one should throw in some melanoidin malt, claiming that in small quantities it can replicate the flavors generated through decoction. I may have considered it for this recipe, but as I didn't have any in the house, I just left it out.

To learn more about decoction mashing, including the chemistry and methods, I suggest reading this article


In my previous recipes, I did a lot of temperature adjusting. For example, for my fourth version, I pitched the yeast at 61°, fermented it at 64° for five days, raised to 70° where I fermented it for five more. For this particular recipe, though, in an effort to keep it simple and work in harmony with the other beers fermenting in my fermentation chamber (i.e. temperature controlled refrigerator), I simply pitched at 68° and then fermented it for one week at 70°.
The Beer

The beer had a quick turnaround time: ten days after brewday, I was happily sipping a fully carbonated beer. 

And wow! I had on my hands the best damned hefe I had ever brewed.

The beer was crisp, clean, with only the right amount of banana. Though there was some clove flavors present, the beer wasn't overly spicy, and at 4.8%, it was dry and immensely drinkable. The finish had a slight graininess to it that gave it some depth, and the hop schedule (which gave the beer 21 IBU: a tad higher than the average hefe) lent a nice subtle hoppiness that complimented the beer's character. I don't often say this about my beers, but this was an A+ beer. 

Lessons Learned

By pure accident, I really had stumbled upon the best recipe I could. Perhaps the biggest takeaway was really how easy these beers are to brew, and that at their core they are very simple: simple grains, simple hops, simple temps. Let the ingredients shine on their own.

I also feel that I can now lend a voice of experience to the constant decoction-or-infusion debate that is constantly raging on nearly every homebrew forum online. Though some swear by it, I really found that the single infusion mash in no way inhibited the flavor, nor did the flavor lose any complexity. Similarly, I did not miss the melonoidin malt. Does this mean that centuries of German brewers are wrong? Of course not, but I would argue that at the end of the day, it is truly a matter of opinion and preference. There are those who swear they taste the difference, and to those, I say by all means! do a decoction. Regardless, I encourage every home brewer to try it and decide for themselves as it is a great learning experience. As for me? I'm going to enthusiastically reclaim that extra two hours on German-beer brewing day and stick to single infusion mashing.

Regarding the yeast, I again give props to WYeast. This yeast fermented so clean and with the exact right character, that it really outshone the SafAle from previous batches. It is worth mentioning that if you are wanting a dry beer lower in banana esters, 70° seems to be the ideal temperature for fermentation. I have a friend who also contributed a hefeweizen to Wheatfest using the same WYeast strain, and his beer was bursting with banana flavor. The only difference? He started low (64°) and ramped up to 72°. Again, a matter of preference, but my personal tastes lean towards a drier beer.

And perhaps the most valuable thing I learned was just how easy and inexpensive these beers are to brew; I don't think I'm ever buying another domestic example again! (Well, I'll probably sneak over to Cambridge and sample that Hefeweizen again. In fact, I might just go there now...)

Do you have a favorite hefe recipe? Share it below!