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Choosing Yeast for German Style Wheat Beers

For many of us, German Wheats are the end all, be all.  All of the clove, the bubblegum, and the banana hooks us instantly, and the light and refreshing nature of the beer makes us reach for another one.  The hardest part about making these traditional, German style hefeweizens is which yeast to use, and how to use it. This week, we’ll cover some of the more popular and available German strains, and talk about getting what you really want out of them, and the real differences between the German wheat beers and the American style wheat beers!

Hef, hefeweizen, wheat, american, german, torulaspora, wheat beer, german weiss, weissbier 

Weihenstephan - The Classic German Hef Strain

We’re starting with this strain because it’s basically the OG of available hef strains.  If you want to make a classic weiss beer, this is where you start! From Imperial Yeast, it’s called Stefon, but White Labs and Wyeast have it available, too, as WLP300 and Wyeast 3068 respectively.

We recommend starting with this strain because of how versatile it is.  You want a clove bomb? No problem, just ferment at 62° F. You want bananas out the ying-yang?  Easy. Ferment at 71°. At 66° - 68° F, this strain will give you a wonderfully balanced and authentic Hefeweizen, full of clove and bananas.  This may be the most popular hef strain worldwide, and is the ideal baseline as you figure out your house Hef recipe.

clove bud, ester formation, german wheat beer, flower buds, ethyl acetate, american wheat beers, united states, brown ale, oil of cloves, clove extract, india pale ale, yeast cells, wheat beers, red ale 

Changing Up The Strains

Once you have your baseline, it’s time to change things up to fit your palette.  There are quite a few strains on the market, and sometimes it’s hard to choose a different one until you have that Weihenstephan baseline.  Maybe you want all of the same characters, but want everything subdued a little bit so that those prominent esters aren’t so forward? Wyeast carries a blend, Wyeast 3056, and this blend is wonderful if you want a more subtle German style hef that may be more appealing to your friends who don’t like the more flavorful yeast characters.

Another wonderful strain from Wyeast is Wyeast 3638.  This strain is quite a bit more delicate, and known to create a TON of krausen, so make sure you have the extra head space, as much as 33% extra!  On top of the dominant banana flavors, this strain can add the extra dimension of apple, pear and plum, and these extra fruit characteristics add a whole new level of dimension and complexity to your finished wheat beer.  The more complex ester formation can be a little harder to work with, though, and some of the more common tips and tricks, like underpitching a little to promote extra ester formation, don’t work as well.

Going the other direction and heading more towards cloves and suppressing the banana characteristics a little, you can use White Labs WLP351 and WLP380.  Both of these strains head more into the oil of clove or clove extract territory, much like using the Weihenstephan strain at super low temperatures, although WLP351 tends to lean more towards balance with a little banana, while WLP380 will all but obliterate the banana flavors in favor of a distinct, ground clove characteristic.

 chewing gum, red ale, wheat beers, yeast cells, india pale ale, clove extract

Changing Your Wheat Up

Even though I’ve been told firmly that American Hef is not a real thing, we’re getting into semantics.  The implication when you use the word hefeweizen is that you’re making a wheat beer, and hefeweizen translates literally to “Wheat Yeast”, and while we don’t call a style specifically American Hefeweizen, there are some classic beers on the market that were born in the United States that are considered pinnacles of American Wheat beer, like Pyramid Hefeweizen.  I figure that they’ve laid enough of the groundwork for us to bend the rules a bit and call our beer what we want, right? 

The American ‘Hef’ strains have many of the same characteristics of Weihenstephan, but everything is seriously subdued, much more so than Wyeast 3056.  When using WLP320 American Hefeweizen or Wyeast 1010 American Wheat, expect an overall cleaner profile in your wheat beer.  If you’ve had a Pyramid Hef in the last 10 years, which is purported to be the origin of these strains, you know that it’s creamy and very, very lightly estery and phenolic.  Less like eating bananas and cloves, and more reminiscent of wheat malt with subtle hints of those characters. All of that being said, fermentation temps over 74° F will bring these characters out of the subtle range and put them firmly in the forefront of the flavor profile, and they may come off more like off flavors than desired yeast characteristics, so keep fermentation temp firmly in mind when using this strain.

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Fermentation Tips and Tricks

As we all know, saisons, hefs and Belgians are the beer gods gift to summer homebrewers without temp control, next to kveik strains.  Before we could consistently acquire the kveik strains, for those of us who were fermenting in a warm house without a fermentation chamber and scorching hot groundwater for cooling, these styles and yeast strains were staples for our summer series of brews.  For the most part, you can pitch, and even underpitch, and get more of the characters that you want out of these styles and package a finished beer that makes you look like a rockstar when you serve it!

Underpitching these strains is a common practice to stress the yeast out and force them to produce more ethyl acetate during fermentation, giving us more of what we look for in many of these styles.  We’re not talking severely unhealthy underpitches by any means, but more like maybe a 20% or 30% underpitch. Not so much that your yeast are killing themselves to finish fermentation and producing a ton of off flavors that they can’t clean up when they’re done or autolysing to the point of undrinkability in your beer, but enough that, mixed with slightly elevated fermentation temps, they’re just stressed out enough to put some more flavor in the beer. 

Controlling your fermentation temperature, of course, is another keystone of producing the beer style that you’re aiming for.  If you have a fermentation chamber set up, then you can really play with some of the more subtle characters produced by all of the different hef yeast available to us as homebrewers.  Don’t be afraid to do trials with your favorite yeast strain at different temps to see what yeast esters that you can produce or suppress. As stated above, the Weihenstephan strain is one of the most fun and versatile strains to play with because it will produce a totally different beer at each different degree.

Pitching and cooling temps are also insanely important because the majority of your flavor producing compounds in any fermentation are going to be produced within the first 72 hours of fermentation.  This means you’ll have to beat the summer heat somehow when you chill, employing pre-chillers or even an extended rest period in the ferm chamber before you pitch. 

For many of us, pre-chilling and fermentation temp control isn’t a reality in our brewing setups, and that’s ok, too!  We just have to be a little more selective with the strains that we do choose and make them work for us and our setups.  The most important part is brewing a baseline Hef and limiting the variables when we do the follow up batches. It’s an excuse to brew more of what we love anyway, and to perfect a style that is a summer flagship for most brewers!  We have awesome German Hefeweizen and American Hefeweizen Beer Kits all set up if you want a place to start!

Thank you for reading!  Let us know in the comments below your favorite wheat strains to use, and any tips and tricks you’ve learned!  Don’t forget to connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest to stay up to date on current projects, workshops, new recipe kits and more!  If you haven’t already, check us out on BrewChatter TV on Youtube and like and subscribe for all sorts of brewing process videos, interviews with awesome breweries and distilleries, and tons of awesome information about brewing and ingredients!  Brew On!
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