An Ode to the Hefeweizen

Back at the beginning, craft beer was simpler. Start-up breweries in the 90s and around the turn of the century could be relied upon for four core styles: blonde ale, American pale ale, a version of wheat/weizen, and a porter/stout. It was almost a universal constant.

As breweries established themselves, naturally the stylistic offerings evolved. Other classic styles tested the market, introducing IPAs, English ales, Belgian standards and the perennial Oktoberfest to a thirsty public. “Exotic” was the brewer who put out a barleywine or humble fruit-infused beer, both considered pushing the stylistic limits at the time.

One style in particular arose quite prominently in Texas, largely due to its record score on popular beer-rating websites (and legendary refusal to package). Austin’s Live Oak Brewing, among the oldest craft brewers in the state, produced a uniquely Texan twist on the Bavarian hefeweizen style that has few equals, even to this day. For a while, a competing hefeweizen from almost every Texas craft brewer became an eagerly accepted staple amid our hot, unending summers.

The hefeweizen was a logical progression of the American wheat beer style: Flavor notes include fruit, banana and bubblegum, cloves, sometimes vanilla, and an overall soft, malty sweetness beneath a tall, rocky head that lasts for days. It was a consumer favorite, easy to pair with food and widely enjoyed by “non-beer” people for its thirst-quenching nature and quaffability. Hefeweizens provided a different-than-normal option to either the dark/roasty/heavy malt beers and (for some) the intolerably bitter IPAs.

The greatest casualty in this running fight for consumer clicks and dollars? Sadly, it seems to be the hefeweizen.

However, consumer tastes always change. Barleywines and Russian imperial stouts started to march into double-digit ABVs, and the IPA style found itself in a flavorful arms race by brewers intent on pushing the drinker’s IBU tolerance. Wheat beers were outpaced by a rediscovery of the German gose, a light and tart wheat beer style with a salty, lemony flavor. Gose opened the door, and all these beers have since yielded favor to the now ubiquitous kettle sour, which is too often heavily dosed with enough fruit or flavored syrup to push the stylistic definition of craft beer.

The greatest casualty in this running fight for consumer clicks and dollars? Sadly, it seems to be the hefeweizen. Buried under an onslaught of lighter soured wheat styles heavily adulterated with everything from berries to breakfast cereal, the once-strong hefeweizen style (along with a couple of other standards) has quietly faded away. Our landscape is filled with beers that may have a wheat base but would be a stretch to label as genuine weizens, much less those of the hefe variety.

Granted, the German imports still are popular in our local market, at least on retail shelves if not curated tap walls. Paulaner, Weihenstephaner, Ayinger, Hacker-Pschorr and Franziskaner (now Spaten-Franziskaner, owned by AB InBev) are all reliable and familiar stand-bys, and readily scratch that flavor itch if absolutely needed. However, despite their best efforts imports suffer from the delays of packaging and overseas transport. The signature appeal of the authentic hefeweizen style is in its freshness, that just-baked-bread element of a beer mere days out of the conditioning tanks. (Seriously, if you can find a brewpub that makes a hefeweizen, try it as fresh as possible for a life-changing taste experience.)

Which is why it is notable that Denton’s Armadillo Ale Works recently released Tetherball Deathmatch for their third anniversary, a traditional Bavarian hefeweizen. They chose to celebrate their milestone not with an amped-up, high-gravity beer nor a limited-edition style-bender of souring agents and confectioneries. It’s a nod to the noted absence of the style, a throwback to the earlier days of the craft beer market and a welcome reminder that the brewing talent for subtlety still exists.

It’s a shame that brewers have all but abandoned the hefeweizen style, as it can be a relatively easy, quickly brewed crowd pleaser. But brewers must follow their consumers’ interest and keep the lights on, and the best we can hope for is public taste to orbit around once again. PH

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