In summer, a sojourn to the farmers market reveals both the bounty and the simple pleasures of the season. A beer that would be quite at home among the offerings are the witbiers, born on the farmland of eastern Belgium.
Also known as bière blanche (French), witbiers (Flemish) are aromatic, rustic, spicy and complex. The name literally means “white beer,” a moniker derived from the cloudy, pale pose that they strike in the tumbler in which they are poured. The brewers of witbier showcase local ingredients in their craftsmanship, but combine them with products indigenous to faraway markets. This is an homage to Belgium’s history as both a farming culture and an importer of things exotic, a characteristically Belgian juxtaposition.
The Roots of Witbier
Belgium, like much of Europe, owes its brewing roots to sustenance brewing in monasteries. The earliest mention of monastery brewing in the home of witbier is in the 14th century. Different regional monasteries produced their own specialties. The area in and around Louvain, east of Brussels, became known for its witbiers. As the monks were highly regarded technicians in the art of brewing all over Europe, their products were coveted.
Local ingredients have always shaped the development of regional specialties, and such is the case for the witbier-brewing area. Until just a couple of centuries ago, beer was made with whatever fermentable grains were easily available. Small farms, utilizing very rich, productive soil, grew barley, wheat and oats of high quality. Naturally, these grains were used to produce the distinctive and unique character inherent in the witbier we enjoy to this day.
Before hops became the preferred flavoring agent in beer, brewers used a proprietary mixture of herbs, or spices, or both, known as gruit. This was used for its flavor, medicinal value, or often intoxicating effect. But, primarily, it was employed to counterbalance the sweetness of the malt, or simply to mask the sometimes dubious flavor of the beer. Brewing in this era was still a relatively uncontrollable craft that often relied on serendipity and the hand of God.
The small town of Hoegaarden was a major player in the brewing scene of the area now known as eastern Belgium. Here, brewers were prodigious and organized enough to form a Guild of Brewers in the 16th century. Breweries flourished in Hoegaarden to the point that, by the 19th century, over two dozen operated in the small village, its reputation due to its unique and high-quality witbier.
By the early 1800s, major changes in brewing technology were sweeping across Europe altering not only the character of beer, but also the manner in which beer was perceived. Gently kilned malts made for lighter-colored beers. Bottom fermentation at cooler temperatures, coupled with long lagering times, produced crystal-clear beer. Hops became the sole ingredient to balance and flavor the beer. This revolution resulted in new styles that were clean, clear, consistent products. They were also visually appealing when hoisted in another important innovation, the clear drinking glass that replaced the opaque stein.
But some brewers held steadfast to their seemingly passé brewing procedures, among them the producers of Bavarian wheat beers and the Belgian witbier. Both beers are cloudy, sedimented and lightly hopped. Witbier brewers, moreover, retained a devotion to the style’s gruit history by continuing to employ exotic spices in the kettle.
By the end of the 19th century, lagers were entrenched as the beers of choice in most of continental Europe, with Belgium being the main holdout. As the beer landscape became more homogenized, dedication to local specialties began to wane. While there were at one time as many as 30 breweries in Hoegaarden, by 1960 there were none. Only a few breweries anywhere in Belgium were making witbier.
A Witty Traditionalist
The fact that witbiers are popular and widely brewed today can be attributed to the tenacity and vision of a single man, Pierre Celis, who worked in Hoegaarden as a milkman. Fascinated by the brewing process he had observed as a youth, Celis decided to do something about his beloved witbier. He cobbled together the De Kluis brewery with used equipment and starting brewing in 1966. His beer was an unexpected hit among beer lovers. It exuded a natural, unrefined, whole-foods aura, something that industrialized countries seem to have lost after World War II.
Celis’s revival of the style fueled an interest by many other breweries in Belgium. Today, many witbiers are brewed throughout the country, well beyond the original domain, even into West Flanders.
There is yet another blissful chapter of Pierre Celis’s witbier resurrection. Celis brought his enthusiasm for Belgian beer and brewing to the United States in 1992 and opened a brewery in Austin, TX, bearing his name. Using a combination of Belgian, North American (some of it local), and exotic ingredients, he created Celis White, an excellent witbier that rivaled any Belgian import.
Just as important, Celis White generated immense interest in witbiers by North American brewpubs and microbreweries, and created an excellent market for many authentic Belgian imports. Hoegaarden is the best-known import and is the classic example, but other exceptional brands can be found, such as Dentergems, Blanche de Honnelles, and the very distinct Steendonk. All are a little different from the other and delicious. The very refreshing Blanche de Chambly from Unibroue in Quebec is available throughout North America. US brands are fairly numerous with Allagash, Boston Beer Co., Victory Brewing, Coors, and Rogue interpretations widely available, just to name a few.
A Striking Profile
Witbiers brewers in general follow a fairly well-defined script. The grain bill is about half malted barley and half raw wheat. Occasionally, a small amount of oats is used also, but usually only about 5 percent.
The malted barley is very pale, usually a Belgian or German pilsner malt. North American breweries might opt for a pale 2-row variety grown in the United States or Canada. Raw wheat is used instead of the malted wheat found in other wheat beers. The wheat that traditionally goes into a witbier is hard red winter wheat. German weizenbier uses roughly the same amount of wheat, but it is malted, and a very assertive yeast, both of which create a beer quite unlike a Belgian witbier. Witbiers are generally about 4.5 to 5 percent alcohol by volume.
Hops are chosen to impart an herbal character. East Kent Goldings or Saaz are the usual choice, but New World breweries might opt for a domestic hop. Witbiers are hopped to a fairly low bittering rate of about 20 IBU. The hops are faintly noticeable but do impart a distinct quality that enhances the overall impression of the beer.
The other kettle additions are what really make witbiers unique. Liberal doses of spices, most commonly coriander and Curaçao orange peel, impart both aroma and flavor. It seems that no spice is off limits. Some brewers are wryly cryptic about their choice, while others proudly announce their preference. Cumin, chamomile, grains of paradise, ginger and cardamom are just some that have been perceived or proclaimed.
Witbiers are a beautifully complex sensory experience and the perfect summer beer. Inspection of the bottled product reveals, quite often, heavy sedimentation. This is due partly to the use of wheat, which produces a turbid wort, but also to the fact that witbiers are bottle conditioned or unfiltered. The yeast may be an addition at bottling time, or the original, carried throughout the entire fermentation period. In the glass, traditionally a thick, masculine tumbler, the milky, straw-colored appearance is even more striking. Kegged versions are no different. The head should crown the nectar in mousse-like fashion, due to the high percentage of wheat–hence protein–in the beer.
Liberating a witbier from its container releases an aroma that might be more aptly described as perfume. One might detect the fruit aromas aplenty, but that is just the beginning. Most prominent among the bouquet is that of coriander, used copiously and freshly ground in most cases. The bitter Curaçao orange peel that is added to the kettle provides a fairly diverse character. Citrus notes and an herbal, almost tea-like aroma are contributed by the Curaçao. This complements the similar qualities of the hops rather nicely. A late addition of hops in the kettle is also common, further augmenting the aroma.
The taste of a witbier is no less stunning. Though the beer is very light in color, the mouthfeel is substantial and silky smooth, again owing to the wheat, and to a lesser degree, oats. Some witbiers are fairly dry, but most have a slightly sweet, honey-like flavor. Often a light lactic character is present, through inoculation with a lactobacillus or addition of lactic acid, providing a delectable sweet-sour flavor. All of the aromatic qualities are transposed in the flavor. It is sensory heaven redux with multiple fruity and herbal flavors.
Witbiers recall a simpler and less-refined era. It is somewhat ironic that some might consider it odd or nontraditional for a beer to contain such things as raw grains, spices, and orange peel. The truth is that witbiers are quintessentially traditional and have remained true to their roots as a farmhouse, rural beverage with a touch of the exotic. The best of two worlds.
Tasting Notes: Dubbed "La Biere Blanche Originale," it is not only the original but also the classic example, the witbier that catalyzed the revival of the style. Full of body, flavor and aromatics, it has a mellow sweetness and a light, balancing tart edge. Bottle conditioned, with a bulging bouquet of coriander and citrus. Sports a meringue-like head when poured. Widely available in bottles, and increasingly on draft. A great pleasure anytime, but especially in summer.
Unibroue Blanche de ChamblyABV: 5
Tasting Notes: Witbier from the well-respected Canadian brewery, it displays the French-Canadian influence in the name as a bière blanche. It pours with a thick, dense, pearly head and is a shiny yellow-gold color. The signature witbier flavors and aromas are all there in perfect balance. More prominent when compared to others is a faint "cellar" character that one would expect from some other Belgian styles--definitely an enhancement to the character.
Rogue Half-E-WeizenABV: 4.8
Tasting Notes: Made with North American 2-row malted barley, malted wheat and Saaz hops. Spiced with coriander and the unusual choice of ginger. A bit drier and hoppier than most witbiers, and the spices are somewhat subdued, but the Saaz hops and herbal character make the dryness very enjoyable. This beer has a wonderful quenching finish, reminiscent somewhat of Belgium's famous golden ales.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is a research analyst at Duke University in Durham, NC, and an award-winning homebrewer.