Hefeweizen from the German Hefe (yeast) and weizen (wheat) is one of the oldest recorded styles of beer, dating back to 3400 BC. Although we know it today as a traditional German style beer, wheat beers were first brewed by Sumarians and then the Egyptians centuries before the Bavarians began drinking the beer that was being made by the neighboring (modern times) Czech Republic in the 15th century.
It all started in the late 1400’s when began what might be considered the first ‘craft beer boom’ all across Bavaria and Germany. Everyone was brewing beer and wheat couldn’t be grown fast enough. Some of the beer was good, but most of it bad, think ‘pre-health inspector". Unfortunately, the wheat that was grown was mostly all being used to make beer, meaning there was no wheat for bread making and what bread was available was now expensive. Enter, Reinheitsgebot, known today as the Bavarian Purity Law of 1516 which states beer could only be made in the region using 3 ingredients: barley, water and hops (yeast wasn’t added until 1907 when Louis pasteur discovered it was responsible for alcohol production). The Reinheitsgebot was put in place not only to govern the pricing of bread and beer and to keep people from getting sick but to also make sure there was enough bread for people to eat. As such, weizenbier (wheat beer) was no more. Or was it?
Turns out the rulers of Bavaria, the House of Wittelsbach had a thirst for wheat beer and with some influence and a nice payoff, in 1520 a loophole was created mandating that one brewery, operated by the Dukes of Degenberg be allowed to produce weissbier (white beer). 82 years later, the last remaining Duke of Degenberg died, without an heir, and under feudal law, the rights to the brewery were transferred to, you guessed it, the Wittlesbach family, making them the only people allowed to brew wheat beer.
Always ones for expansion, the Wittlesbach’s decided to take advantage of their monopoly and began opening wheat beer breweries all over Bavaria. At first things were great and their beer sales are said to have attributed to one third of the Bavarian economy. However, by the late 1700’s, came the next craze, dark lagers, which exploded on the scene similar to IPA’s and sours today. All of a sudden, the demand for wheat beer had dropped significantly. As such, the Wittlesbach family decided to franchise out by allowing monasteries to brew the beer. However, this move proved ineffective as in 1856 the family decided to jump ship altogether by selling their interest and only two remaining breweries to George Schneider I, who's descendants to this day make and sell wheat beer as G. Schneider and Sohn.
Hefeweizen is the most popular wheat-based beer today, but other styles such as dark wheat, clear wheat and wheat bock can still be found.
So, the next time you are making a sandwich, just think, that was made possible by all of us wheat beer drinkers.
Canadian Craft Tours works with several breweries that brew traditional and unique varied styles of weissbier. Jump on one of our brewery tours offered all across Canada to try some for yourself.