If you’ve been in Japan for a while, then you’ve come across a weizen (wheat in English) or sometimes weissbier (white beer) by now. Since the lowering of the license limit back in 1994, weizens, along with pilsners, have long been a common style brewed in Japan. Take almost any of the craft beer breweries that started out in 1994, and you’ll see a pilsner, a weizen, or an alt among their lineup. And that’s due to the influx of German brewers.
Germany is considered to be the birthplace of weizens, with the first wheat beers being brewed in Bavaria. The Dukes of the Wittelsbach, the ruling family at the time, had a strong fondness for the wheat beers. In 1520, they mandated that a single brewery, overseen by the Dukes of Degenberg in the village of Schwarzach near the Czech border, were allowed to brew weissbiers. This continued until 1602, when the last heir to the Degenberg family died, giving the Wittelsbach ownership of the family’s assets.
Since then, the popularity of weizens peaked until the 18th century and began a steady decline in popularity, until only one brewery was left. In 1856, the Wittelsbach were more than happy to sell their shrunken brewing dynasty to George Schneider I. They carried on, making weizens until the mid 20th century when the popularity of weizens improved. It wasn’t until the mid 80s that weizens became better known. Before that, Belgium and Germany were the two biggest producers of weizens and, unsurprisingly, consumers as well. Weizens can be broken down into four main styles:
- Hefeweizen / kristallweizen – the former is unfiltered while the latter has been filtered to remove some of the proteins and yeast, making it clear; crystal clear in fact.
- Dunkelweizen – a dark version of a weizen which uses dark malts to impart the colour and slight chocolate taste.
- Weizenbock – take a bock and a weizen, and you end up with this – a beer with more punch than your regular weizen. These can be light (helles) or dark (dunkel)
- Berliner-style weisse – brewed with a high amount of wheat than usual. It uses yeast and bacteria during fermentation to impart a sour taste.
We’re going to focus on hefeweizens (yeast wheat) here and leave the rest for another time. Hefeweizens traditionally came from southern Germany, with Bavaria being the prominent region for this style. When brewing a weizen, rather than having a grain bill that uses 5% or 10%, the amount can be around 50%. Moreover, traditional German reheingebrot law aka the German Purity Law states that wheat beers must be top fermented.
When it comes to yeast, the typical hefeweizen will have a banana and clove flavour to it. While those flavours might sound rather basic, they are a result of complex interactions within the yeast. This clove flavour is sometimes described as a phenolic taste to the beer, almost medicinal-like, which is due to a by-product of the yeast. It comes from the 2-Methoxy-4-vinylphenol compound (rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?) which comes from ferulic acid.
If you like hoppy beers, then weizens will not be at the top of your list of beers to try. Typically, the bitterness of a weizen, measured in IBUs, is relatively low. Levels of 10 to 15 IBUs are not uncommon as the malt and yeast produce the main flavours to the beer. It is normal to use German hops, such as Hallertau, Spalt, Tettnang, Perle, Magnum or Tradition hops. American weizens may use American hops though to be true to the style, most breweries use imported from Germany.
Finally, carbonation. Weizens are more prone to being bottle bombs than most other styles of beers. Due to bottle conditioning, whereby yeast is added to the bottle to help carbonate the beer by producing carbon dioxide, it’s best to store your weizens chilled until drinking to inhibit the yeast from producing too much gas.
So why were so many breweries producing weizens? Well that goes back to the brewers. With the majority of Japanese breweries having German brewers that came to help out (Baeren, Ginga Kogen, and Echigo Beer are three breweries that come to mind), it’s not surprising that the German styles came out strong. The craft beer scene in Japan may have shifted from weizens to American Pale Ales and IPAs instead, but there are some breweries that always have the style in bottles. Here’s some we recommend from the ones we have tried.
Japanese Hefeweizens Worth Trying
1- Daisen G Beer Weizen Full Review
The Bottom Line: I’m gonna say it – I loved Daisen G Weizen and would happily drink a lot more of it. And I don’t care if I’m not the target demographic, it’s good and I want more.
2- Fujizakura Heights Weizen Full Review
The Bottom Line: Fujizakura Heights Weizen is one of the best weizens I’ve ever had. Superlatives aside, it’s good and deserves being sort out; on draught or in bottle form.
3 – Hidatakayama Weizen Full Review
The Bottom Line: Hidatakayama Weizen is, hands down, one of the best weizens I’ve had and would be a great way to convince someone to drink weizens. I am.
4 – North Island Weizen Full Review
The Bottom Line: North Island Weizen is trying something different, which is to be commended; however, let it warm up after taking it out of the fridge, as it does get much better
5 – Baeren Weizen (Summer Edition) Full Review
The Bottom Line: If you’re looking to find a great Japanese weizen, then hunt down Baeren Summer Weizen. Very very nice.
6 – Kure Weizen Full Review
The Bottom Line: If future iterations are toned down in the sweetness factor, then Kure Weizen would be much nicer to drink and would come highly recommended.
Let’s be honest – if you’re going to try a style of beer, then it’s also worth trying out some of the original beers. Here’s some German hefeweizens we also recommend. Like all beers, fresh is best and with Japan being somewhat a distance from Germany, that can be an issue. Check out the label on the bottle to see when the beer was bottled, and also ask how the beer was imported. Was it in a cold chain from start to finish? Was the beer stored in a chilled environment in store? If the shop assistant can’t, or doesn’t know the answer, then give it a miss.
Schneider Weisse 1
Agree or disagree with this list? Let us know in the comment section below.