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Classic Beer of the Month March 2014: Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier, 5.4%

The brewery at Weihenstephan has plenty to commend it to a beer writer.

Weihenstephan Hefe WeissFirst of all, it claims to be the oldest brewery in the world. Then there are the diverse facts that it is owned by the local authority, forms part of a university and is home to possibly the world's most famous brewing school.

That's a lot to work with, even before you start writing about the beers.

Weihenstephan sits on a hill in the city of Freising, just north of Munich. The name means 'Holy Stephen' and owes its derivation to the saint of that name, the first Christian martyr.

Monks settled here in 725 and brewing began soon after, although an official licence to brew was not received from the city until 1040.

The monks were driven out when Napoleon rampaged across Europe and the buildings were then ceded to the state of Bavaria, which has owned the site to this day.

The merger with an important agriculture school in 1852 and its incorporation into the Technical University of Munich in 1930 shored up its intellectual position and helped it to develop into the centre of brewing excellence we know it as today.

Centre of Attention

The beer that makes Weihenstephan famous is wheat beer, more precisely the Bavarian weissbier style. It does brew other styles – an excellent pils and a fine doppelbock called Korbinian, for instance – but it is wheat beer that attracts most of the attention.

Weihenstephaner Hefe Weissbier is a lively, frothy beer with lots of prickly carbonation fizzing through its hazy golden layers. Bubbles crackle and pop in the deep, rocky head, through which distinctive aromas of apple, banana, clove and bubblegum permeate.

Served appropriately chilled, there are few more refreshing beers. Each bready sip fills the mouth with bubbles and flavour, a bittersweet, slightly sour combination of tart apples, pink bubblegum, creamy bananas-and-custard and the subtle aromatic bitterness of clove.

Of course, all these flavours are created naturally. The beer adheres to the German beer purity law – declared, incidentally, right on the doorstep of the brewery by Bavaria's Duke Wilhelm II in 1516 – in being made simply out of water, barley and wheat malts (a 50/50 mix), hops (local Hallertauer) and yeast.

It is the special weissbier yeast that creates the magic, the warm fermentation encouraging chemical transformations that result in such remarkable fruit and spice flavours.

Right into the chewy finish the classic weissbier hallmarks continue, layering the drying palate with gently tart fruit, warming spices and a quenching, modest bitterness.

Weihenstephaner's Hefe Weissbier is a multi-award winner, but so is its stablemate, a stronger version known as Vitus. There is also a delicious dark equivalent called Dunkel Weiss and a filtered variety, Kristallweissbier.

There may be more complex and challenging weissbiers to be discovered in Germany (and in other parts of the world), but Weihenstephan's arguably archetypal take on the style certainly hits the spot.

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