German Wheat and Rye Beer Style

NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, the old category German Wheat and Rye has changed to Category 10 German Wheat which contains vollbier- and starkbier-strength German wheat beers without sourness, in light and dark colors.  The only German Rye beer listed is Roggenbier and it is now in the historical beers section.

Weissbiers beer in 4 tall glasses.

Description and History:

In the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines, German Wheat and Rye beers are grouped into Category 15. The German Wheat styles are Weizen or Weissbier, Dunkelweizen and Weizenbock. The other style in this category is the German Rye Beer called Roggenbier. There are other styles that use malts other than barley, but these styles use the largest proportion of non-barley malts in their grain bills.

German Wheat and Rye beers have been brewed for a very long time and the styles as we know them today were first brewed in the Bavarian forests around the same time as the Bavarian lagers such as Schwarzbier, Dunkelbier, Märzen and Octoberfests (around the beginning of the 16th century).

Back then, when all malts were dark, the lightest styles were called “Weissbier” meaning “white beer”. It didn’t matter if the beer was made from wheat, rye or barley, if it was a pale beer it was called a Weissbier.

Today however, the term Weissbier is reserved for ales made primarily from wheat. These are also called Weizenbiers from the German word for wheat, “weizen”.

Prior to refrigeration, all lagers were brewed during the winter months, leaving the summer months for brewing the various ales or top-fermenting beers. At this time, ales were holding their own basically because of supply and demand, ie. there was a supply of ales available and not much lager during the summer and early fall.

This all changed when Carl von Linde invented beer refrigeration around 1870. He installed the first functioning beer cooler in the Spaten Brewery in Munich allowing lagers to be made year round. Lagers were already hugely popular and this increase in supply of lagers just about spelled the end of German wheat beers and most other ales as well.

During the next 100 years or so, German Wheat and Rye beers were brewed only by a few breweries and then only as a marginal style. These breweries were in Bavaria, where the style originated.

By the 1950’s and early 1960’s, German Wheat beers had sunk to only about 3% of the Bavarian beer production. Most breweries didn’t even bother with the style and those that did, made it as a curiosity and a relic of the past. But around 1965 consumer tastes changed.

Fueled by the younger beer drinkers who are more active and enjoy the crisp and refreshing flavors typical of Weissbier. Bavaria is the world’s biggest Weissbier producer in not only quantity, but quality and variety as well. In fact, Weissbier holds around 35% of the beer market in Bavaria and brewers there make more than 1000 different Bavarian Weissbier brands.

The most popular type of German Wheat and Rye style is the Hefeweizen (German for “yeast wheat”). A Hefeweizen is an unfiltered variety of Weissbier and contains suspended yeast which gives the beer its typical whitish turbid appearance.

Some brewers make a filtered version which is called “Kristallweizen (or “crystal wheat”). This beer is crystal clear and very well carbonated, prompting some to refer to it as Champagneweizen (or “champagne wheat”).

Bavarian brewers also make darker versions of a Weizenbier by adding a small amount of dark malts such as Munich malt and other dark specialty grains such as Special “B”, caramel malts and Carafa Special which adds a lot of color without adding a lot of flavor. These dark wheat ales are called Dunkelweizen (“dark wheat”).

Just like German lagers, German wheat beers have a strong and a very strong version. Germans call these Weizenbockbier and Weizendoppelbock. These beers, like their lager counterparts bock and doppelbock, are usually consumed during the winter months.

Rye Style German Beers:

Another German Wheat and Rye style of beer is called the Roggenbier or “Rye Beer”. Roggenbier is a very old style which today is made from a combination of about half barley malt and equal pars of wheat and rye for the remainder. Roggenbiers may be either an ale or a lager. Roggenbiers may have a faint aroma of “earthiness” which is reminiscent of rye bread. Roggenbiers are generally thought of as tart, refreshing lawnmower beers.

Roggenbier History:

The history of Roggenbier is fascinating. Since man first began making beer, he used whatever grain grew best where he lived. This has always been the case up until about five centuries ago.

For many parts of the world, especially in the northern latitudes, this meant that brewers used a lot of rye in their beers. Rye beers declined during the middle ages because certain monarchs believed that there were certain grains, such as rye and wheat, that should be reserved for making bread. They believed, probably rightly so, that during times of slim harvests, the people would rather make beer with their slim grain supply than make bread.

This was also one of the reasons behind the Bavarian Beer Purity Law of 1516 which said that beer henceforth could only be made from 100% barley. Barley was chosen not so much because it made a better beer than wheat or rye, but because it was ill suited for making bread.

The way classes were broken down in Germany in those days, Rye became a dependable bread grain, barley a dependable beer grain for the lower classes, and wheat became the luxury grain for making both bread and beer for the upper class.

Four Sub-Styles of
German Wheat and Rye Beers

The four sub-styles in the German Wheat and Rye category are:

Information for this page was adapted from the website, The German Beer Portal for North America, and
the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines.

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