by Yvonne van Houtum Blogger at Bierliefde 26 January 2020
Weissbier and white beer - they're basically the same thing, right? Not quite. Although white beer, which is also known as witbier is brewed using “weizen”, the German word meaning wheat, there are crucial differences between white beers and weissbiers. Here are some examples and everything you need to know in order to tell the difference.
German wheat beer or Belgian white beer?
This is really all about the battle between two major beer-producing nations: Belgium and Germany. Weissbier is German and white beer is Belgian. Their use of wheat is a central part of this rivalry. So, put very simply, for a white beer, brewers use un-malted wheat, while for a Weissbier they use 50% wheat malt. White beer also contains less wheat than Weissbier.
So when you hear German wheat beer or Weizen, they are talking about Weissbier. This style of beer originated in Bavaria, Germany. A Weissbier, despite its name, isn’t always white in colour; it can also be golden and dark. Weissbiers are characterised by a complex flavour and aroma with fruity notes.
There are many references to wheat beer in German history, in fact evidence of wheat fermentation in Bavaria dates back to 800 B.C. It is however only in the 1500’s that it made a more substantial appearance. Somewhat like the white beer, with passing of time the Weissbier fell out of favour and by 1812 there were only two active breweries producing the style. It was George Schneider and his brewing dynasty who believed in Weizen and continued to believe in it. G. Schneider & Sohn came on to own the most popular Weissbier brewery in the world.
Hefeweizen - Erdinger Weissbier
It is important to note that Weissbier encompasses a few substyles, the most common is the Hefeweizen ("yeast wheat"). Notable examples include Paulaner Hefeweissbier and Erdinger Weissbier. They are a must for anyone new to the Weizen scene. Erdinger is a prime example of brewing with only the finest ingredients. Years of production experience and quality controls make it top of its class.
For a Hefeweizen Dunkel try Dunkel Weizen, also from Paulaner. You taste the banana and cloves, however it has the additional depth of dark malty flavours that taste like toast and nuts. Alternatively, try Tropical Ralphie by Two Chefs Brewing. This is also a Weizen, but with extra hops. If tropical flavours are your thing then Het Uiltje Pineapple Weizen is a must! Like all Weizens, it has banana and clove flavours but an additional, subtle layer of pineapple is apparent.
Say the word white beer or "Witbier" now and most people automatically think of Hoegaarden. The village of Hoegaarden has been known for white beer since the Middle Ages. In the 18th and 19th centuries, white beer had become one of the main Belgian beer styles. Witbier was popular for centuries, however it was almost entirely wiped out in the 50s by the expansion of lager.
It was the Belgian Pierre Celis , in Hoegaarden, who revived the style and gave the beer a new lease of life in 1966. Celis continued to brew with the traditional ingredients of water, yeast, hope, wheat, coriander and orange peel. To this day, Hoegaarden is the best-known white beer in Belgium. St. Bernadus Wit was developed in collaboration with Pierre Celis, the legend of this style. The St Bernadus Wit is the embodiment of a traditional unfiltered Belgian Witbier.
Belgian white beers to try
The Dutch La Trappe Witte Trappist is a great alternative to a Pilsner, tasty, fresh and thirst quenching. Blanche De Namur is fruity and floral with distinctive orange peel and coriander aromas. If you like the fruitier summer thirst quenchers, Watermelon Wheat Beer by Manchester brewers Bro7hers is a taste explosion. A mix of fresh watermelon, mellow strawberry and pineapple aromas.
Wheat in beer
It’s the wheat that produces the typical sourness of this beer. Wheat contains less starch and more protein, which results in a robust head. Both beers range from opaque to cloudy, which is also caused by the wheat: the grain has a bodily structure containing elements which make it more difficult to filter.
It’s the Weizen yeast that gives the Weissbier its subtle, sweet and fruity character. You won’t get this banana flavour in a white beer, which is more likely to contain citrus and coriander.
The type of yeast also plays an important role in differentiating these two beers. Both beers are top fermented, but a Weissbier is brewed with a special Weizen yeast, a yeast culture which produces clove and banana flavours. Weissbier complies with the Reinheitsgebot (German Purity Law: the oldest commodities act in the world), which bans the use of herbs, spices and fruits in the brewing process. It’s the Weizen yeast then that gives the beer its subtle, sweet and fruity character. You won’t get this banana flavour in a white beer, which is more likely to contain citrus and coriander. During the brewing process coriander seeds and curaçao peel are added - this is the peel of a bitter orange.
Look, Smell, Taste
In terms of visual characteristics, there are similarities as well as differences. Both beers would be classified as cloudy. A Witbier is often slightly lighter in colour (pale to light blond) than a Weissbier (pale to amber). Both beers have a nice robust head, but the head of a Weissbier is creamier with a higher volume.
If you smell both kinds of beer, you’ll notice that white beers have a refreshing, fruity aroma of citrus, sometimes with a hint of sweetness. A Weissbier contains spiced and sweet aromas from the yeast, such as clove, nutmeg, banana and vanilla - you’ll be able to taste these in the beer, too.
White beers are sweet with hints of acidity, citrus tones and the herbal flavours of coriander and other spices, while a Weissbier is sweeter, maltier, and mildly acidic, containing tones of banana and yellow fruits as well as clove. If you focus on how the beers feel in your mouth, they're fairly similar, both with a thin to medium body. There are bigger differences in the aftertaste: a white beer has a herbal, mildly acidic and dryer aftertaste than a Weissbier, which has more of a spicy, tangy, slightly sticky aftertaste (from the sugars). There’s hardly any difference in alcohol percentage, or none you’ll be able to taste: Witbiers contain slightly less alcohol at 4.3-5.2% compared to Weissbiers which are around 5-5.6%.
Serving wheat beer: Weissbier and white beer
White beer is best served from 3-5 degrees Celsius in a thick and sturdy glass - a Hoegaarden glass is perfect. A Weissbier is served slightly warmer, at a temperature of 6 to 8 degrees Celsius in a tall, narrow glass which flares outwards (think of a Paulaner or Erdinger glass). Read more about beer glasses here.
Weissbier v white beer: and the winner is…
...Well, that’s up to you. These beer styles are two sides of the same coin, but which has the edge is completely a matter of taste. To learn more about how to differentiate the two, the best thing to do is start tasting.