Summertime means “beer-time” in Texas. Anytime is “beer:30” when it’s this hot outside.
Aside from your usual cold Miller High Life or a Lonestar, a hefeweizen is also a traditional, iconic Texas summer beer with hints of banana and clove. You can probably even find me on a thirsty Thursday sipping a hefe with a lemon slice at Hole in the Wall.
Hefeweizen means “yeast wheat”: It’s a wheat beer and brewers keep the yeast used to ferment the drink floating around. Some people don’t prefer it so cloudy, though, so another popular cousin would be kristallweizen, meaning the brewery has filtered all that out to leave it as clear as a crystal.
Regardless of all the German, both are wheat ales from Bavaria that get their flavor from the regional strain of yeast. As many brewers say, yeast is an organism that eats the sugary starches, burps up carbon dioxide and farts alcohol. If that’s got you concerned, keep in mind it’s the same process for wine, as well as sodas such as root beer or kombucha.
“Yeast was only discovered when they invented the microscope,” explained Yan Matysiak, a quality control technologist who studies yeast for Live Oak Brewery. “They just called it ‘stuff’ before then. Of course they knew that when they added it, they had a pretty tasty drink. But when they isolated the yeast, they got certain flavors and over time it developed sub-flavors as they made purer strains.”
Specifically, we’re talking about a top-fermenting yeast usually associated with ales.
According to the beer enthusiast publication BeerAdvocate, ales ferment within a week and thrive in Bavarian summers. Lagers, the other major category for beers, are usually stored after fermentation and use yeast that lives in colder weather.
German monks who were brewing in the Middle Ages developed a rhythm to match the seasons, which carried over to German immigrants. As they moved into Texas in the 19th century, before the glorious days of air conditioning, they brought these seasonal styles and continued to brew hefeweizens in the summer.
Nowadays, it’s not necessary to have this Bavarian yeast to make a hefe, but it’s more traditional to do so. The bottom line is that yeast produces a mild alcohol content, around five percent by volume.
“[High alcohol drinks] just weigh me down,” said Teresa Uelschey, office manager over at Live Oak Brewery in Austin. “Our bodies are having to do a whole lot more processing when it’s super hot and humid, like right now.”
However, with all this German history, where do the lemon or orange slices come from?
Even though it’s not a hefeweizen or kristallweizen, Blue Moon is still an American wheat beer that clearly plays on this citrus note. Nevertheless, it’s a Belgian witbier that’s already spiced with oranges and the addition of a bright orange slice was just a marketing scheme.
“When people saw a beer with an orange slice in it, it piqued their interest,” said Jim Doney, president of Chicago Beverage Systems LLC, in a 2006 Wall Street Journal article. “They said, ‘Hey, let me try one of those.’”
The orange and beer mix doesn’t taste half-bad, either. Citrus fruits, such as lemons and oranges, add sweetness to balance out some of the yeast and grain flavors of any wheat beer — something maybe a bit too weird if you’re used to a six-pack of Buds.
Keep in mind that Live Oak and BeerAdvocate both say that citrus slices in your beer are uniquely American. Meaning you might get a couple of weird glances and hear some guttural phrases muttered if you try to pull that stunt at a traditional German draught house.
Originally printed on 6/9/2011 as: German beer alleviates summer heat