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Made for hot coals and summer days

The Bavarian-born wheat beer called hefeweizen is foamy, fruity and just right with char and spice.

May 21, 2003|James Ricci | Times Staff Writer

ON a hot summer afternoon of baseball or a warm evening of barbecuing, just about any beer can start to look pretty good. One species, however, suits those overheated moments perfectly, though it's still relatively little known in this country.

Wheat beers -- foamy, cloudy and so delicate, with their hints of spice and fruit, that they're sometimes referred to as breakfast beers -- may be the ultimate thirst-quenching accompaniment to a wide range of summery foods, especially anything spicy or grilled.

The brew is called hefeweizen (in German, hefe means yeast and weizen means wheat). In recent years, it has gained new popularity in America, primarily because it offers the visual cachet of a craft brew (and some actual flavor), without overly challenging the palates of Coors Light and Bud drinkers. Any decent Southern California tavern is likely to have at least one hefeweizen on tap. (Ask for "HAY-feh-vye-tsen," to be rigorously Teutonic about it, although "HEFF-a-wisen" usually brings the desired result locally.)

The term loosely refers to any beer brewed from wheat and barley -- a typical formula is 50% of each rather than from barley alone. Wheat imparts a bready delicateness and a dry, citrusy quality to a brew.

Hefeweizen has its roots in Bavaria, where special strains of yeast produce a spritzy brew with characteristic aromas and flavors of cloves and bananas. The beers are nearly free of hops and thus have little or no bitterness. Partial fermentation in the bottle imparts a signature cloudiness from suspended yeast particles and wheat proteins. Wheat beers from that region are the hefeweizens still most prized by connoisseurs.

In Belgium, a different sort of wheat beer, known as wit bier ("white beer") evolved. It parts ways with the Bavarian product in that it typically is brewed with bitter orange peel and ground coriander seeds, which add a pronounced fruity tang and an earthy spiciness. The Belgian style, which is imitated by some American craft brewers, generally is not called hefeweizen.

In the United States, a third style was given birth in 1986 by Widmer Brothers Brewing Co. of Portland, Ore. Widmer's Hefeweizen is densely cloudy, light and crisp, less carbonated and considerably more bitter and ale-like than the Bavarian beers. Because it doesn't employ the traditional Bavarian yeasts, Widmer's is devoid of the clove-and-banana aspects that define the German product.

Widmer Brothers was a reluctant parent of its hefe. The brewery initially produced two beers, one of which was a clear, filtered wheat ale. When a Portland pub owner asked for a third Widmer's beer for its taps, the brewery uneasily offered wheat beer that had not yet been filtered.

"Our yeast likes to stay in suspension, and we were a little wary," says brewery co-founder Kurt Widmer. "People drink a lot with their eyes, and we were afraid people would say, 'Oh, my God, what is this? Your beer is really cloudy.' We didn't want to be mistaken for home brewers or something. We thought of even not putting our name on it."

A modern wave

Today, Widmer Brothers Hefeweizen, at 1.5 million cases a year, is the largest-selling wheat beer in the United States. Some American producers, however, cleave to the classic Bavarian style (a good example, available in bottles, is Portland Brewing Co.'s Uncle Otto's Weiss Beer). Those brewers, however, must swim against the current unleashed by Widmer's.

"It's a little frustrating," says Mark Jilg, proprietor of Pasadena's Craftsman Brewing Co. and maker of an award-winning, Bavarian-style hefe that's available only on draft. "People drink an American-style wheat ale and they've been told it's hefeweizen, and it's clearly not. If you look for the clovey and banana-y aspect, it's completely missing."

Regardless of its source, hefeweizen ideally carries a super charge of carbonation, like Champagne. It should be poured into a tall glass to produce a great, pillowy head that explodes the beer's aromas and flavors. Drinking it straight from the bottle is, as with any worthwhile beer, a terrible idea.

There's another reason for giving hefeweizen a good pour. The yeast, which is crucial to its taste, tends to accumulate in the bottom of the bottle and will be lost to all but the most intrepid bottle-sippers.

"When you pour a hefe, pour about three-quarters of the bottle in a tilted glass, then swirl or shake up that yeast in the bottom, and dump it in the glass," says beer expert and author Stephen Beaumont. "It adds to the flavor and it's also good for you. Yeast is very rich in vitamins." A diligent establishment that offers hefeweizen on draft will agitate a keg before tapping it to evenly distribute the yeast through the beer.

Then there is the whole matter of lemon.

For some reason, in most American establishments hefeweizen has come to be served with a wedge of lemon, possibly because it gives the beer a unique look. Corona, after all, is served with lime. Connoisseurs, however, avoid lemon.

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