Chris Swersey and Chuck Skypeck currently serve as technical staffers at the Brewers Association (BA). Both had long careers as craft brewers before joining the BA staff. As brewers at Mickey Finn’s (Libertyville, Illinois), Leinenkugel’s Ballyard Brewery (Phoenix, Arizona), and Boscos (Tennessee and Arkansas), Swersey and Skypeck racked up 14 Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup medals in various German-style wheat beer categories ranging from the light Leichtes style through Bavarian Hefeweizen and on to Dunkelweiss.
Consider these tips from the (former) pros next time you fire up your burners to brew a traditional tasting German-style wheat beer.
1. Pick the Right Yeast for the Job
Select your yeast strain carefully to develop the flavor profile you desire. Different stains produce varying amounts of the esters and flavor compounds associated with German-style wheat beers. Choose a strain that emphasizes the characteristics you desire.
If you plan to harvest and repitch yeast, know and expect that many of the popular strains are very labile: That is, the flavor profile will wander within one or two batches of beer, and the yeast will very quickly lose viability, sometimes after just one repitch. Top cropping and immediate repitching are the only solutions to this problem.
2. Explore the Varieties of Wheat
Consider the type of wheat you would like to use in your brew. Do you want the full, grainy taste of a hard winter red wheat or the light delicate flavor of a white summer variety? Research your options.
3. Aim For Refined Hop Character
Keep hops bitterness and flavor low so that wheat and yeast character can shine. Variety matters! Select a noble variety with spicy, herbal flavors that will balance and blend with flavors generated by your yeast. Shoot for 10-15 BUs, early in the kettle, with very low aroma.
4. Know Your Water
Traditional German-style wheat beers are brewed with a wide range of water profiles that vary from soft to moderately hard. The goal would be to make sure your mash is in the optimum pH range: 5.2 to 5.6. If mineral additions are necessary, use chloride to enhance the beer’s texture rather than sulfate, which will enhance bitterness.
5. Make a Mash Plan
Mashing can be as simple as a single-step infusion mash, or you might include a ferulic acid rest (to enhance development of 4-vinyl-guaiacol, which produces clove like flavors) at 105–112°F (40–44°C) and/or a protein rest at 120-128°F (49–53°C) before saccharification. Keep saccharification temperatures low if you want the light body typical of the style. Raising the temperature during mash out will help to avoid a “stuck mash.”
6. Avoid a “Stuck Mash”
Wheat beer mashes have a reputation for being a little ornery when it comes time to run off because wheat malt lacks husks. If you mill your own grain, adjust the mill to grind your wheat malt more coarsely than the barley malt. Try to minimize the amount of flour out of the mill, and make wheat malt the last addition to the mash tun so that malts with husks rest on the false bottom or lautering screen. Mix the remainder of the barley and wheat malts thoroughly to avoid stratification.
Rice hulls added to the mash can help maintain porosity; try a pound (0.45 kg) in the mash for a 5-gallon (19 liter) batch.
7. Fermentation Temperature
Even with the same yeast strain, slight variations in fermentation temperature can produce profoundly different results. Find the sweet spot where the yeast generates the flavors you desire in your finished beer, dial in the temperature, and keep fermentation in a narrow temperature range. Consider pitching at a temperature below your intended control temperature (For example, pitch at 65°F/18°C for a 68°F/20°C fermentation).
Be sure to allow fermentation to finish completely, as weizen yeasts are prone to diacetyl production in underattenuated beer. Don’t chill your beer too soon at the end of fermentation, and consider allowing the temperature to rise for a day or so after fermentation is complete just to be safe.