Having realized that every beer I’ve reviewed so far has been from an American brewery, I’ve decided that it’s time to shift gears a bit and turn to a part of world where beer and brewing are very much part of the cultural identity: Bavaria. Many of the great beer styles originated in this southeastern corner of Germany, which is littered with quaint villages, rolling hills and probably a lot of dairy cows.
Of the many beer styles invented in Bavaria, one in particular has a complex and storied history and is quite unlike the others. I’m referring to the wonderful style of weissbier. Weissbier is brewed with a combination of wheat and barley malts, whereas most beers use only barley. When the style was first brewed in the early 16th century, its cloudy white appearance (from the wheat) stood in stark contrast to the darker lagers popular at the time. Creatively, the Germans decided to call this new beer weissbier (pronounced “vice-beer”), which is German for “white beer.”
Weissbiers are fermented warm and use top-cropping yeast, which means they are categorized as ales. Historically, however, Bavaria has always been known for its lager beers, which are fermented at colder temperatures and for longer periods of time. In the summer months, brewers of the past had no choice but to produce ales, simply because it was too hot for lager fermentation. Once the weather became cooler, they began to churn out lagers, which Bavarians have always loved. When Carl von Linde introduced refrigeration to brewing in the 1870s, lagers could be produced year-round, much to the satisfaction of Bavarians. There was no more time for ale brewing, and this technological advancement seemingly marked the end of ales, and consequently weissbiers, in Germany. By the middle of the 20th century, weissbier production was at an all-time low and was virtually forgotten.
Fortunately, recent decades have seen a huge resurgence in the popularity of weissbier, and it is now by far the most popular beer style in Bavaria. Today there are over 1,000 breweries producing weissbier in Bavaria. Among them, Franziskaner is one of the oldest, dating back to the 14th century. Today it has been gobbled up by the multinational beverage giant InBev, which now owns Anheuser-Busch and many other breweries. Despite selling its soul to the devil, the brewery still produces fantastic German beer.
The weissbier experience, and it is most certainly a unique experience, is difficult to describe in words and is quite unlike drinking any other type of beer. The special strains of yeast used to ferment weissbier produce large amounts of chemical compounds known as phenols, which contribute flavors reminiscent of bananas, cloves, allspice, nutmeg and citrus. So difficult to describe are these flavors that brewers simply sum them all up with the catch-all term “phenolic.”
I picked up a six-pack of Franziskaner Weissbier for $9 at my local bottle shop, which is a reasonably low price for a quality imported beer. Pouring from the bottle into a tall weizen glass, the first thing to notice is the spritzy effervescence of the beer. It is highly carbonated, typical for the style, and as a result it formed a ferocious white head that occupied the entire top of the glass. It was quite a sight. As is appropriate for the style, I poured the beer “mit hefe” (with yeast), which entails slightly swirling the sediment at the bottom of the bottle and pouring it into the glass to enhance the complex yeast flavor characteristics. I did not, however, place a lemon slice in the beer, as is sometimes done at bars, for fear that my Bavarian relatives would promptly disown me.
On the tongue, the beer is light-bodied and tangy from the carbonation. The phenol notes of banana and clove are prominent, and there is little hop presence. The spicy, complex flavor notes from the yeast are really at center stage here. The beer is easily drinkable yet interesting enough to really enjoy thoroughly. Overall, Franziskaner Weissbier is an excellent traditional example of this interesting and unique style. As they say in Germany, “Prost!”
$9 for a six-pack of 12-ounce bottles
5 percent ABV