Too often, summertime beers mean watery, flavorless brews. But there is one style native to southern Germany, which guarantees you don't have to sacrifice flavor for drinkability — Hefeweizens, the ultimate summer beer.
The style is defined by in its name: "Weissbier" is wheat beer in German, and "Hefe" means with yeast. This traditional method of not filtering the yeast produces a beer that is cloudy in appearance and characterized by flavors of banana and cloves. Hefeweizens also typically have minimal bitterness, moderate alcohol, and healthy carbonation. Most commonly these beers are served in an oversized, vase-like Weizen glass and (all too often) with a slice of lemon.
Of course, true Hefeweizens are flavorful enough that they do not need a lemon. This is true of all three of Germany's most popular Hefs. WEIHENSTEPHANER'S HEFEWEISSBIER is the best known. It has an aroma of spicy yeast and fresh grains, and an appearance that is more hazy than cloudy. The taste is bready enough to keep the flavors of banana and clove in their place. Similarly, PAULANER'S HEFE-WEISSBIER NATURTRÜB has a distinctive wheat flavor with noticeably muted hops. FRANZISKANER'S HEFE-WEISSE is the most unique of the three with lemons and cloves rising above the expected flavors of banana and wheat.
The list of quality German Hefeweizens doesn't end there. KÖNIG'S LUDWIG WEISS is dominated by cloves, both in the aroma and taste. With a cloudy golden color and thick lacing, this sure looks great in an oversized Weizen glass! AYINGER'S BRÄU WEISSE, on the other hand, is dominated by a ripe banana flavor, with cloves and tart apples following. JULIUS ECHTER'S HEFE-WEISS is malty enough to feel almost heavy, with very lively carbonation.
But I've been saving my two favorite German Hefeweizen's for last. The extremely lively carbonation of HACKER-PSCHORR'S WEISSE NATÜRTRUB is the first thing you notice, with the second being the bready flavor of the 60% wheat malts. You also get a real juiciness from the banana, lemon, and bubblegum flavors. HOFBRÄU'S MÜNCHNER WEISSE strikes a great balance between flavor and drinkability. Surprisingly clear with a big billowy head, the aroma is fresh and yeasty. Fruit, grain, and a light bitterness adjoin in the flavor with a mouthfeel that is light and gulpable.
In contrast, the conventional wisdom on American Hefeweizen's is that they're rarely true to style. Indeed, with so many subtle flavors working throughout, Hefs are one of the most difficult styles of beer to brew. According to the good people at BeerAdvocate.com, some high-profile beers — HARPOON'S UFO HEFEWEIZEN, WIDMER'S HEFEWEIZEN, and SMUTTYNOSE'S SUMMER WEIZEN to name a few — aren't Hefeweizen's at all, but rather American Pale Wheat Ales. Other offerings from the States may technically be categorized as Hefs, but still have an unorthodox, Americanized take on the style.
That list starts with FLYING DOG'S IN-HEAT WHEAT, a highly-drinkable beer with a strong wheat flavor but decidedly low carbonation. CLIPPER CITY'S OXFORD HEFEWEIZEN calls itself a Bavarian-style unfiltered Hefeweizen, but is noticeably lacking in the big banana flavor you'd expect. BUTTERNUTS' HENNIEWEISSE has a pleasant enough flavor but is lighter in body and more watery than normal. Since it comes in a can, this is especially well-suited for summer-time trips.
Some of my favorite American examples come from the country's larger craft brewers. VICTORY'S SUNRISE WEISSBIER has a fresh nose and pale, effervescent appearance. Banana, wheat, and phenols make this one very tasty beer. Another Pennsylvania-produced Hefeweizen, TROEGS' DREAMWEAVER WHEAT is equally flavorful and sessionable in the true sense of the word with only 4.8% ABV. SIERRA NEVADA'S KELLERWEIS HEFEWEIZEN weighs in at the same percentage and has a taste that hits all the key points: banana, wheat, lemon, spice, and, above all else, cloves. Both flavorful and well put together.
And for what it's worth, three of the best American Hefeweizen's that I've drank were at area brewpubs. So if you are near Portsmouth Brewery or Moat Mountain Smoke House and Brewing in New Hampshire, or Cambridge Brewing in Boston, stop in for a pint. But wherever you find yourself this summer, this easy drinking and flavorful style is worth a try.