Monday, June 8, 2009

Book Review: Brewing Wheat Beers

German Wheat Beers (Classic Style Series #7) is the oldest book I have reviewed up to this point, published way back in 1992. Thankfully not much changes in twenty years when you are talking about German brewing, so the information is still very applicable. Eric Warner, the author, studied brewing in Germany and worked at a couple German breweries, so he clearly had the right resume for writing this book. The most recent info I can find on him is that he was brewing for Flying Dog last year, not sure if he moved with them to Maryland after they closed shop in Denver (too bad -->they don't do a hefe their hefe doesn't live up to his reputation).

German Wheat Beers focuses on the most popular styles, hefeweizen, dunkleweizen, and weizenbock in good depth, and also briefly mentions a few more obscure styles. Weisse (German for white) and is the preferred term over there for wheat beers (much as Belgian wheats are called wits), while Americans tend to use weizen (German for wheat). So either one can be used, but for this review I'll stick with the American usage.

Content: I really enjoyed the anecdote he starts off the introduction with about his first day brewing professionally in Germany. The short version is that during the morning break of his first day on the job he ordered a coffee to the embarrassment of his coworkers, who ordered weissebier and pretzel (I can tell you I would be a lot happier at my job if I got to do that every morning). The first chapter covers the history/popularity of using wheat in German brewing as well as some nutritional information. There is nothing too exciting here, but it paints a picture of wheat brewing as both a long standing pillar of German brewing and of its outsider status against the more common lager styles. The second chapter gives an overview of the wide variety of wheat beers made in Germany. It covers all of the standard beers that most people have heard of, but also talks pretty extensively about BerlinerWeisse and Kristall Weizen, as well as brief mentions of other more obscure styles (Leichtes/light Weissbier, Bremer Weisse ). There is both a general discussion of flavors as well as some much more technical analysis of the various styles. This chapter is very similar to the BJCP guidelines, but includes several styles which the BJCP does not. The next chapter covers the science behind the more common wheat beers. Issues of bitterness (low), carbonation (high), color, pH, and alcohol are touched on, but the focus is on the two classic flavor components banana (isoamyl-acetate) and clove (4-vinyl-guaiacol). Adding a low temperature rest can enhance the clove phenol by freeing up extra ferulic acid, while banana is a result of the yeast selection and the fermentation temperature. The author suggests a pretty low pitching and fermentation temperatures, advice that many brewpubs could use for their Hefes if the banana/bubblegum bombs I tend to get are any indication. The fourth chapter covers the various brewing techniques that are employed. This focuses a good deal on the mash, but also water, boiling, and similar pre-fermentation topics are also examined. A decoction mash is emphasized and I think is important if you are going with a simple pils/wheat grain bill. That said I have tasted many fine weizens that get some extra maltiness from Munich or melanodin malt. A decoction also helps if you are planning to do a multi-step mash and do not have a heated mash tun. Chapter five is all about fermentation. There is a lot of focus on yeast handling, pitching rates, repitching yeast, He has a brief mention of many breweries giving their weizens a short lagering period. This is something that I really like, but is not popular in the homebrewing community (where the mantra tends to be drink weizens as young as possible). This chapter finishes with a discussion of bottle conditioning. Chapter six covers such topics as how to pour a wheat beer (including the "flashy nightclub pour"), glassware, and other related topics. There is a short section on food pairing, but nothing too in depth. There are some really funny pictures circa 1990 of Germans enjoying beer.

Recipes:The actual malt/hop bills all make sense to me (they are simple and look well constructed), but the instructions on how to brew them are severely outdated. Just the way the recipes are written goes against "modern" homebrew convention, hops are given as grams of alpha acid (with the HBUs tacked on), and hop timing is given as minutes from the start of the boil (not from the end). The recipes also suggest bottling many of the beers right after attenuation finishes (2-3 days after pitching), which certainly risks bottle bombs and is odd given that the time line he relates for commercial brewers is much more relaxed. Yeast choice is not mentioned in any of the recipes because (I assume) there was not much in the way of commercial weizen yeasts available back then. In the source list for yeast at the end of the book he simply lists German breweries. I used many of the general suggestions given by the book when I brew a hefe last fall. That said I certainly modified the techniques in the recipe chapter to match the advances in homebrewing since then. I went with a very simple grain bill, easy on the hops, a decoction mash, and fermented on the cool end of the spectrum. It was such a great batch that I don't think I will change a single thing when I brew it again (something I have never done). The recipe section includes both extract and all-grain recipes, not as conversions of the same recipes, but as completely separate recipes. There are only two extract recipes and the book itself focuses on all-grain techniques, so this may not be a great buy for an extract brewer.

Accuracy: I thought the accuracy overall was very good, although (as I said above) some of the suggestions on how to replicate the commercial practices at home are a bit outdated. It is more a book about what the pros do, so that information can always be adapted to the current homebrew "best practices."

Readability: It is not a particularly snappy read, it has lots of technical information and is clearly aimed just as much at microbrewers as it is at homebrewers. The charts are a bit dense, it would have been nice if they were simplified to highlight the important comparisons. It could use more summary sections that pull out the key tips rather than forcing you to dig through the technical justification to find the applicable sections.

Overall: German Wheat Beers must have been a revelation when it came out 17 years ago. Even today I am not sure there is a better reference for most of these styles, although Designing Great Beers comes close on all but Berliner weisse. I would strongly recommend this book for anyone interested in brewing German wheat beers. It would have been nice to hear more details about the more obscure German beers, styles like Gose (contains wheat), Roggenbier (a dunkle weizen with rye malt instead of wheat), and Dampfbier (a hefeweizen without the wheat) would also have been worth mentioning at a minimum. This is still the definitive look at brewing wheat beers... at least until Stan (BLAM) Hieronymus' Brewing with Wheat is published. A bit late on this review, but with the nice weather here it has been getting harder to find time to write these. After next week's Microbrewed Adventures review I'll be done with my initial set of reviews. I've got an Amazon order in for Randy Mosher's Tasting Beer as well as Drew Beechum's The Everything Homebrewing Book, so there will be more reviews coming sporadically. It seems like there are lots of other brewing books out there, any suggestions for other books I haven't covered (particularly new titles)?


Danny said...

Flying Dog labels their In-Heat Wheat a hefeweizen.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

Right you are, I was thinking they just had a Wit (Woody Creek White).

Hunington said...

Maybe some of the recipe-oriented books. I like "The Homebrewers' Recipe Guide" (, which I think is very underrated -- I've brewed several beers from that book, and have never been disappointed. Or maybe "Clone Brews"or "Beer Captured" by Tess & Mark Szamatulski -- I've been quite happy with both of those as well.

The Mad Fermentationist (Mike) said...

I may see if my library has copies, but the hard thing with recipe books is that you really can't review them without actually brewing a couple of the recipes.

The complaint I have heard about the clone recipe books is that their recipes are tasty, but not too close to the original. For example I believe Beer Captured calls for adding pear extract to a Duvel clone. I have had good luck with Brew Your Own British Real Ale if you are interested in making obscure English clones.

Seanywonton said...

Sounds like a good read. I'd like to brew up a hefe, as I do appreciate a good one (Brooklyn's is fantastic) and I have never brewed this style.

I like a good beer in the morning when I'm doing my internship at Sixpoint, but I wouldn't give up a strong cup of coffee for it! Weisse and pretzels in the morning sounds like a great recipe for a "gas powered" work day!

Anonymous said...

Stan Hieronymus is writing on a new book about wheat beers, take at look at