I’ll say it up front: I’m not much of a wheat beer fan.
Sure, the classic glassware looks pretty cool. And sure, a number of servers around the city make a big show of pouring most of the beer into the glass, then rolling the bottle, with the last ounce of liquid, on the table to get all the remaining yeast out of the bottle and into the glass. It’s just that, well, often the beer itself is pretty boring or worse, poorly brewed.
Most of the wheat beers you see on tap and bottle lists around the city are modeled on the Bavarian style, and Staatsbrauerei Weihenstephan brews arguably the benchmark against which all others will be judged. The “hefe” simply means “yeast”, and sure enough, hefeweizens don’t filter out the yeast, allowing it to further ferment the beer a little, though it’s mostly a visual thing. Unlike most other beer styles, the yeast that settles in the hefeweizen bottle is supposed to be poured into your glass, as it contains flavors of its own that complement the beer. If you want your wheat beer filtered, look for Kristallweizens; Weihenstephan unsurprisingly brews and bottles one of those as well.
More than most (though certainly not all) beer styles, German wheat beers derive their flavors and aromas from the yeast used. You can pick out beer made to this style by the presence of banana and clove in the aroma and flavor; the banana esters are more prevalent when the fermenting beer is kept at relatively high temperatures, like the mid-70s Fahrenheit, while clove phenols dominate when the ferment temperature is toward the mid-60s. There are other flavors derived from the yeast, like cotton candy and bubblegum, that are a little out of place, but you won’t find them in my glass today.
One big positive in favor of the standard wheat beer is its sessionability. Typically these beers are brewed to average strengths — Weihenstephaner Hefeweiss clocks in at 5.4%, or about the same strength as your average fizzy yellow lager — so the drinker might worry less about enjoying more than one when out on the town, before taking public transportation home of course.
The Weihenstephaner Hefeweissbier pours a predictably cloudy orange-gold after all the yeast is swirled out of the bottle. A thick soapy head threatens to spill over the top of the glass at first, but it rather quickly drops dramatically to leave barely a thin skim atop the liquid. The aroma strives for balance in the classic German style, weighted a bit toward banana, with clove taking a back seat, though it’s hardly unnoticeable. Weihenstephan manages to steer clear of off-aromas as well. Taste is a big yeasty banana bomb at first, fading to a more prominently clove finish. All throughout the beer smells of sweet malt. There’s also a sharpness to the body, like weeds or hay, contributed by the high percentage of wheat malt in the grain bill, and it seems a bit thin to boot. That doesn’t mean the beer is awful by any stretch, as it is a solidly Good beer, and easy to find.
While Weihenstephan doesn’t brew my favorite German-style wheat beer — Victory’s Mad King’s Weiss would probably fill that bill without argument — the brewery does churn out a solid, consistent beer. One might expect that from a brewery operating since the year 1040. The Weihenstephaner wheat beers can be found for around $3 per half-liter bottle around town, retail; I’m partial to their dunkelweiss, a dark wheat beer, but for a regular, easy-to-drink Bavarian wheat, the Hefeweiss is one of the best you will find.