During the dog days of summer people crave cold, thirst-quenching beer. Those special-release Summer brews lining the shelves are tempting choices no doubt, but unfortunately the vast majority are watery and unremarkable. Belgian Wits and Hefeweizens are two tastier options, the latter being a little under-appreciated, especially in America.
The appealing Hefeweizen (pronounced “HEF-eh-VIE-sin”) is a refreshing, complex, and lightly hopped wheat beer full of personality. Born in Bavaria, it has been around for at least the last four or five centuries. The name is certainly appropriate: “Hefe” is German for yeast, and “Weizen” means wheat.
Both the wheat and the yeast strain contribute significantly to the Hefeweizen’s character and flavor profile. The wheat provides not only some grainy complexity on the palate — usually felt near the end of the sip — but also aids in promoting a billowy foam head. But the yeast is the real star of the show, responsible for the trademark “Banana“ and “Clove” notes and a slight sourness. These straw colored beers are also unfiltered, meaning they contain suspended yeast resulting in a “cloudy” appearance and a fuller-than-expected body .
Germans breweries are lauded for these top-notch wheat ales but American brew masters have been attempting this style for some time now. We decided to put these suds to the test and see if the New World can compete with the Old. Seven Bavarians and five Americans threw their bottle caps in the ring hoping to be crowned “El Hefe”. This was a blind test therefore reviewers had no idea which beer they were evaluating. Each mystery brew was judged solely on it’s own merit with the style guidelines taken into consideration. The only criteria were that the candidates all had to cost under $4 a bottle and be distributed nationally.
Part I: The Underdog Americans
Flying Dog In Heat Wheat: The funky brewery out of Maryland came up with the best name of the bunch. It’s easy on the nose with just a hint of fruit. A surprising sour lemon is the first flavor encountered followed by banana and pineapple. It finishes with some mild clove and slightly sweet. Not exactly “Hefe” like but very drinkable and a fantastic warm weather beer. Grade: B
Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen: Oregon’s Widmer offering has a light banana scent but is visually clear. Inappropriate medium hop bitterness is detectable as it goes down, along with some clove and a little wheat. It has a cheap American Lager quality to it, which is never good. Overall, it’s too bitter for the style, bland, and the worst American beer sampled. Grade: C-
Magic Hat Circus Boy: Another humorously named brew from Vermont’s eccentric Magic Hat Brewery. Moderate spice aromas are evident as the glass lifts. Subtle citrus flavors intermingle with toasted malt and a slight yeast sourness. An interesting and toasty brew but certainly not a Hefe. Grade: C+
Sierra Nevada Kellerweis Hefeweizen: This Chico, California native was reviewed on its own last year but we decided to try it again in this blind taste test. A welcoming bouquet of banana and lemon emanate from the glass. Banana and a slight tart lemon greet the tongue initially, it tastes much like it smells. Pineapple and clove notes are noticeable next followed by a nice grainy wheat finish. The best of the American beers tested and the only one that tasted like an authentic Bavarian Hefe. Grade: B+/B
Harpoon UFO Hefeweizen: This UnFiltered Offering (UFO) hailing from Massachusetts seemed unscented. Hop bitterness and mouth puckering yeast hit the palate first followed by some banana and wheat on the finish. Doesn’t cut the mustard style-wise, but is refreshing nonetheless. Grade: B-
The only one of these Americans that actually tasted like the real deal was the Sierra Nevada. All of the others, except the Widmer Brothers, would be a fine choice on a hot summer day though. Will Sierra Nevada’s Kellerweis stand up to the German Blitzkrieg? Or will the Bavarians goose step over Chico’s finest and the rest of the US Hefes? Who will ultimately be coronated the prestigious title of “El Hefe”?
…Stay tuned next time for Part II: The German Invasion.