Tigger: "Heffalumps and woozles."
Winnie the Pooh: "You mean elephants and weasels?"
Tigger: "That's what I said, heffalumps and woozles."
Hefeweizen. It's a delicious word, really. How often do you get to begin a word with "heh-fuh"? Hardly ever, that's when. Then there's the second half of the word with its delightfully optional phonics: it can be pronounced with either an anglicized "w" [Heh-fuh-Why-Zen], or in the traditional Germanic fashion, [Effa-Vyt-zsen].
Beyond being a fun word to say, hefeweizen is also a type of beer - a delicious one you should most definitely be drinking - that also comes in Germanic and Anglo flavors. Even if you don't appreciate my geeky delight over the word, definitely give the beers a try.
Hefeweizen has its roots in Bavaria, Germany, and is actually one subtype of a much larger class of German beers called "weizenbier." Weizen simply means wheat, and refers to the fact that these beers are made of a substantial amount of wheat as opposed to the barley used in most beers of the world - Budweiser, with large doses of corn flakes and rice in its formula, remains a ... notable exception.
Contemporary German law requires that at least half the grain in a beer be wheat in order to be called a weizenbier, a bit of an irony considering the Reinheitsgebot, or "purity laws" of 1487, which forbid German beer made from anything but barley, hops and water. Fortunately for beer lovers today, the rulers of Bavaria, the dukes of the Wittlesbach family, had developed a taste for weizenbier and crafted an exception to the law. It's good to be the duke.
There are many German varieties of weizenbier - also called weissbier - from the dark, rich dunkleweizen, to the crisp, clear kristallweizen, but hefeweizen is distinct due to its cloudy complexion: "hefe" means yeast, and a hefeweizen - meaning literally "yeast wheat," a demonstration of the stupendous ease of neologisms in the German language - has millions of yeast bodies left in suspension in the unfiltered beverage. Those yeast, along with the higher protein content of wheat compared with barley, contribute a silky mouthfeel and large fluffy head -- the pillow of foam on top of your glass.
Those swarming yeast - which when combined with the sandy hue of a hefe look like a sandstorm in your glass - are also an important flavor component in hefeweizen, and I've often heard it suggested that you should be pouring all but a finger's worth of the beer from the bottle and then swirling that beer around the bottom of the bottle before finishing the job of filling your glass. No yeast left behind.
Traditional German hefeweizens are incredibly distinctive, with aromas and flavors of bananas, cloves and even bubblegum due to volatile esters and phenolic compounds produced by the unique strains of yeast used in Bavarian breweries. These beers may indeed be something of an acquired taste ... but not as much as you might think. The fruity and spicy profile is well suited to American palates used to soft drinks and Jamba Juice; it pairs well with all kinds of food and is equally refreshing in summer heat and warming in the cold.
Meanwhile, here in the U.S., American brewers grabbed a hold of the hefeweizen and transformed it into something all their own. West Coast breweries such as Portland's Widmer Brothers - who may well have invented the style - used American ale yeasts that produced fewer of those bubblegum-banana notes and stripped the more exotic spices from the style to yield a crisp, more citrus-toned beverage. Sometimes called American wheat ales by Bavarian favoring purists, they nevertheless share a close kinship with their German cousins. Serving these beers with a lemon wedge is perfectly acceptable and perhaps even advisable.
Citrus zest toned American upstarts or Bavarian bubblegum bombs, hefeweizens of any style are darn delicious in the summer heat. With at least a few weeks of potential dog days left in the 2013 calendar, I would highly advise some porch top quaffing. And should the autumn sweep in on you, a spicy Bavarian style hefe can be just the thing to accent the culinary spices of fall and the crisp air laced with the first wisps of wood smoke.
Below are a few of my favorite hefes for whatever the weather, but please feel free to weigh in with selections of your own.