Behind the Brew: RoosterFish Brewing Hefeweizen
It’s hard to believe it but this summer-like weather has me craving my favorite hot-day brew, hefeweizen, a bright, citrusy wheat beer and I know just where to get my fix, thanks to this story we ran a couple of years ago. -MW
BEHIND THE BREW: RoosterFish Brewing Hefeweizen
By Michael Welch
Like the fruits, vegetables and wine we enjoy, some craft beers have seasons where they taste best. Rich, thick porters and stouts are perfect for winter, hoppy amber lagers go great on a Sunday in autumn, pale, crisp ales are the choice beer in spring when lighter is better, and on the hot, lawnmower driven days of summer, hefewiezen is in its season.
Doug Thayer, owner of Rooster Fish Brewing, and the Wildflower Café, on Main Street Watkins Glen, knew this and created his own version of a hefewiezen that even Bavarian tourists in the Finger Lakes are taking to and calling an excellent and authentic brew. A traditional German beer (hefe means yeast and weizen means wheat), hefes have a long and complicated history. At one point when wheat beers were rising in popularity and production (and at a time of famine in the country), the Reinheitsgebot (the German beer purity law), forbid beers that included anything but barley, hops and water, supposedly to save wheat for the baking of bread. Other historians claim that the Bavarian royal family held a monopoly over barley production and wished to prevent the use of other grains in beer from undermining that. The ruling Bavarian dukes, the Wittlesbachs, were given full control over all production of wheat beers until the 1850’s when another brewer, Georg Schneider, started a renegade production of his own wheat beers and managed to wrestle the production rights out of the hands of the royals and into the public’s.
In 2005 Thayer decided to try his hand at the hefe, though he had thought about it for years. He lacked the fairly complicated decocting system required for making the beer that involves separating the mash (the mixture that turns grain starches to sugar), boiling it and putting it back in the mix. So he decided to develop his own recipe. He talked with various brewers, researched a lot, and started experimenting. When he combined three malts that he thought would work and get that citrusy, clove-like taste of a true hefeweizen, it was a nice surprise when it came out and he had a beer he knew he could put on the menu.
The ripe banana, lemon zest and clove flavors of a “hefe” would be considered unwelcome in a traditional beer, and even most American wheat beers don’t veer in that direction. American brewers making a wheat beer mostly use American Ale yeast but it’s the original, German developed Weinstephan yeast in the Rooster Fish brew that sets it apart, giving it the complex but clean, citrus flavor that has the Bavarian tourists talking. And then there’s the head. It’s the refreshing effervesence of the beer that makes it perfect in summer.
Hefeweizens are lightly carbonated either naturally through the yeast or from forcing cold CO2 into the brew. And you’ll know it when you order it, a thick, wafty puff of white foam sits above a cloudy, hazy golden (hefeweizens are unfiltered) beer. Watch quickly though, the white stuff usually dissipates on first sip. Seth Weisel, the head brewer at Rooster Fish, describes a bit of what’s involved in making the beer special.
“Most beers are produced with malted barley, but hefe is more malted wheat, more than 50% of the grain bill. It brings lighter flavor, more protein extracts, hefes are generally unfiltered, but we do some filtering.”
Though Seth and his crew choose not to, many hefeweizens are fined, a process winemakers use as well, adding gelatin or egg whites to gets the yeasts to settle in the bottling.
“The fining has positive charge, yeast has negative charge they attract, clump and settle. By regulating the amount of yeast and the temperature, you can maintain flavor and get some of the clove notes. We like to see the banana and citrusy notes too. We use less yeast and we let it ferment at warmer temperature to develop those flavors.”
Even though the wheat is from the Midwest, this brew has local roots. Seneca Lake water is used, once the chlorine the city adds is carbon filtered out (Seneca Lake water is excellent for brewing, says Doug). And since Hefewiezen is only mildly hopped, Doug doesn’t need a huge amount for this brew, making it possible for him, like a number of local brewers, to get all his hops for it from Rick Peterson’s farm in Seneca Castle.
The beer was originally called Summer Sky Hefeweizen and as much as he loved the name Doug had to make a change. Bartenders wanted the beer available year round but they had a hard time selling that name in the dead of winter when Rooster Fish usually switches to making a dunkelwiezen (a similar wheat beer that uses darker, roasted malts). Now called the Rooster Fish Bavarian Hefewiezen, it’s available on many tap lineups throughout central and western NY (there’s an impressive list on Rooster Fish’s website of where to find them) through all four seasons.
Serving a lemon wedge with wheat beer is said to be an American practice that started with the introduction of classic hefeweizens. Americans were surprised by the yeasty taste of the beer and the acid of the lemon helped cut that. Not all brewers have embraced this. Both Rooster Fish brewers agree when it comes to wedge or not wedge.
“I’d rather not have the lemon with my beer,” says Seth, rather politely and diplomatically. “but our bartenders will serve it that way if someone asks for it.”
“Oh, god, no lemon,” Doug responds when given the choice. “Lemons freak me out anyway. I definitely don’t want that interfering with my hefeweizen. I want the unadulterated flavors of the beer to come through. I just want to make good, solid beers here. I saw a lot of wheat beers being made in the U.S. and thought creating a classic hefeweizen would fit into our style. I don’t drink a lot of it to tell you the truth,” says Doug. “But every so often, it’s the perfect beer for the occasion and is really satisfying.”
“I don’t drink a lot of it either,” says Seth. “But when I do, it sure goes down smooth.”
This article originally appeared in the summer 2009 issue of Edible Finger Lakes magazine.