Saturday, 1 September 2012

Style 101 - Hefeweizen & Witbier

It's time once again to take you to school with a little Style 101. Today we'll be looking at a pair of styles, one from Belgium and one from Germany, that are the kissing cousins of the beer world, with characteristics that mirror one another and overlap in more ways that you can shake a stalk of wheat at. I've often been confused myself about how to distinguish the two styles, and have at times been guilty of using the terms hefeweizen and witbier almost interchangeably. The confusion is somewhat justified, as we'll uncover when examining the traits that unify hefe and wit, but once you learn what sets them apart you'll call yourself mad for ever thinking they were different names for the same thing. I know I did.

German Hefeweizen (left) & Belgian Witbier (right)
First and foremost, both hefeweizen and witbier are members of the ale family. They are also both made with roughly 50% wheat, replacing half of the malted barley used in most other beer recipes. Hefe and wit are further unified in that they are unfiltered, meaning the yeast that is used to produce them is left in the bottle, giving each of them a distinctly cloudy appearance when poured (the "hefe" in hefeweizen actually means "with yeast"). Both are also typically low to moderate in alcohol content, with an ABV that generally ranges from 4.5 - 5.5% in both styles. Further adding to the confusion, the two wheat beers share a number of distinct taste characteristics as well. Each style is extremely mild in hop flavour and bitterness, both possess a distinct spiced sweetness and bright citrus quality, and both are highly refreshing and crisp ales, most commonly enjoyed in summertime.

With that seemingly endless list of similarities out of the way, we can now begin to draw some lines in the sand and determine what it is that sets these two cloudy wheat ales apart. Most strikingly, as evidenced by the photo above, the two styles are not all that similar in appearance. While the hefeweizen pictured (Schneider Weisse Hefe-Weizenbier) is an atypically dark example of the style, the distinction can almost always be made that hefes are slightly darker than their wit counterparts, with a colour that ranges from pale straw to very dark gold according to the BJCP. Conversely, witbier is generally very pale straw to very light gold in colour, which when paired with the cloudiness of the suspended yeast, gives the beer an almost white appearance ("witbier" literally translates to "white beer," and indeed is often referred to as such by many of the North American brewers who produce it). The most glaring difference between hefe and wit however, comes from a closer examination of their flavours, and of the ingredients used to produce them. While witbiers gain their sweet citrus and spice notes from the addition of a number of added herbs and spices, most typically coriander and orange peel, hefeweizen derives its notes of banana and clove not from adjuncts, but from special characteristics found in the yeast itself. Witbiers therefore tend to push things a little further in the spice and fruit department, with hefeweizens staying on the more conservative side of the fence.

Hefeweizens I Dig: Granville Island's Robson Street Hefeweizen is the first hefe I ever tried, and is still one of my all time favourites. I also really enjoy the recently released Beachcomber Summer Ale from Vancouver Island Brewery. For an unorthodox but delicious hefe that effectively disproves everything I just told you, check out Okanagan Spring's new Summer Weizen, which adds a subtle hint of apricot to the mix. Unfortunately most of these beers are seasonal summer only offerings, meaning they'll be disappearing from store shelves within the next few weeks. Snap them up now if you get a chance.

Witbiers I Dig: Driftwood Brewery's White Bark is a fantastic and well spiced example of the style, as is the limited edition and unfortunately extremely hard to find Lighthouse Belgian White. Kronenbourg Blanc is also quite good, as is Ol' Willy Wit from Fernie Brewing.

A quick note about adding a slice of orange or lemon to your wheat beer: while the practice is popular in many circles, be warned that the addition of this citrus will not only greatly alter the taste of the beer, but will also adversely affect head retention. Do it if you really dig it, but most serious beer people would strenuously advise against it.


  1. Hey BrewRambler: hats off for an excellent post that succinctly answers a question my wife and I have been podering!

    1. This answered most of the questions I had and some that i didn't know to ask. Do the words Wit and Weizen mean wheat in Flemish and German?