There’s more to Germany than just lagers

The Berliner Weisse at Carillon Brewing can be complemented with traditional
raspberry syrup.

By David Nilsen

Germany loves its lagers, and the beer culture there is characterized by clean, crisp lager styles like Pilsner, Munich Helles, Märzen (Oktoberfest), and many others. These beers showcase classic malt and hop flavors and leave yeast to do its fermentation work behind the scenes without making itself too apparent in the flavor department. It’s surprising then that the country’s wheat ales are so incredibly expressive and eccentric, with boisterous microbiota that announce their presence loud and clear.

Let’s back up for a minute. You might have heard of the Reinheitsgebot, a German beer purity law that went into effect in Bavaria over 500 years ago. This oft-misunderstood piece of legislation dictated the ingredients that could be used in beer, and the seasons in which it could be brewed. While the history and impact of the law are complicated, it basically guaranteed Germany would be brewing mostly all-barley lagers. Only a small exception was made for wheat ales, and these beers hung on over the years until returning to broader popularity in the twentieth century.

Now let’s get back to that yeast, because it’s what makes these beers so special. Ales are fermented with a yeast species called Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Different strains of this yeast produce varying levels of aroma compounds called esters and phenols. Esters tend to be fairly fruity, while phenols are more spicy. In the case of Bavarian wheat ales, the particular strain of ale yeast used to ferment them creates an unexpected but delicious combination of banana and clove aromas. You might even get a note of bubblegum or vanilla. Who said tradition couldn’t be exciting?

The most popular German wheat ale style is Hefeweizen (weizen is German for wheat, while hefe means yeast). Yeast is left in these beers after fermentation rather than being filtered out, so they come out somewhat cloudy (there is a less common filtered version called Kristalweizen). Made with roughly half wheat malt and half barley malt, Hefeweizens (also sometimes call Weissbier, meaning “white beer”) have a soft, pillowy texture and an effervescent carbonation. They’re often served in tall, curvy vases to allow room for an ample head of foam. The characteristic banana and clove flavors from Hefeweizen are glorious on a sunny afternoon, and the relatively low alcohol level (around 4.5-5.5% ABV) keeps them refreshing. Local examples can be found from Moeller Brew Barn and Eudora Brewing.

Dunkleweizen (“dark wheat”) is about the same strength as Hefeweizen, but contains a portion of darker malt that deepens its flavor with notes of caramel, toast, or dark bread. Less common than its pale cousin of the same strength, it is equally beguiling.

The heavy hitters of the Bavarian wheat ale family are Weizenbocks, which can contain up to 9% ABV. Light and dark variants exist, but the darker is more common. The style was created in 1907 by the venerable Schneider brewery in Munich, and features a rich maltiness that weds perfectly with the expressive yeast character to evoke thoughts of boozy, spiced banana bread. While all Bavarian wheat ales are versatile for food pairings, Weizenbock can be a dessert all by itself. Ohio enjoys award-winning examples from Great Lakes Brewing and Fat Heads Brewery.

The rest of Germany beyond beer-hallowed Bavaria has some eccentric wheat ale styles to offer the world as well, though as recently as five years ago, almost no one here had heard of them. Gose is a low-alcohol wheat ale brewed with coriander and a touch of salt and partially fermented with lactobacillus bacteria, which gives the beer a slightly tart twang. Unheard of on these shores a few short years ago, the style is now enjoying tremendous popularity, and is often brewed with fruit additions like berries, lime, or blood orange. Ohio breweries Urban Artifact and Platform Brewing have built much of their reputation on session-strength sour ales like Gose and its cousin,
Berliner Weisse.

As the name implies, Berliner Weisse originated in the German capital city and enjoyed tremendous popularity there in the 19th century. More overtly tart than Gose and lacking the salt and coriander additions, Berliner also makes an excellent platform for experimenting with fruit flavors. In Berlin, it was once popular to serve the style with raspberry or woodruff syrup, and there is debate as to whether the beer is best with or without these sweet additions. A rustic example of the style is brewed at Carillon Brewing in Dayton, and can be ordered with raspberry syrup if desired.

A lesser-known German wheat ale that might yet have its moment in the U.S. craft scene is Lichtenhainer. Brewed with a portion of lightly smoked malt, this mildly tart beer is a bit of an acquired taste, but serves as a liquid time capsule to old German brewing techniques.

Germany has given the world countless excellent beer styles, and not all of them are crisp lagers. Lift a glass of quirky but delicious German wheat ale and say Prost! to the return of warm weather.

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David Nilsen is a beer writer living with his wife and daughter in Greenville. He is a Certified Cicerone and National Book Critics Circle member. You can follow him at and reach him at

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