No brewing culture mirrors that of the homebrewing community quite like that of Belgium. The romantic perception is that Belgian brews are closer to their agrarian and monastic roots. Romantic and idiosyncratic, it is a parallel universe that homebrewers can relate to since their own creations are based on personal whim and unconventional ingredients, not to mention the intimacy of the homestead. Witbier (Flemish for white beer), or biere blanche (French) fits this philosophy perfectly, with its rough-hewn yet delicate profile, infusion of exotica and rustic ingredients. It is a style that can be highly personalized, made in relative traditional fashion to fend off the blazing summer heat or used as a canvas to create infinite interpretations.
One look at a commercial witbier shows that it is not a highly refined brew. Bottle-conditioned, hazy, pale yellow with a billowing pearly head, slick, full mouthfeel and perfumed with a bright, vibrant dose of fresh spices. Generally associated with the Flemish portion of Brabant province, witbiers are often thought of as farmhouse beer—eccentric with a direct, personal connection to quaint brew houses, crafted and consumed locally. Commercial wits are known for their subtle brand-to-brand differences.
The classic blueprint consists of roughly equal parts pale malted barley and raw wheat, an optional dash of oats, low to moderate hopping, late additions of fresh coriander, dried bitter orange peel—perhaps a third spice—and fermentation with definitive witbier yeast. All-grain brewers will need to brew with respect for the raw grains and high protein concentration. Extract brewers can use common wheat and malt extract combinations for perfectly suitable versions.
The choice of barley malt is an easy one: Go for the palest and, since it will be doing twice the normal work, one with high diastatic power. Belgian or German pilsner malt is a capable workhorse for converting the adjunct grains, as is American two-row in a pinch. Six-row malted barley has marginally higher conversion potency, but is generally unnecessary. Never use pale ale malt. Always use a pound of rice hulls as a lautering aid and start your runoff carefully to prevent a stuck mash.
There are easy, intermediate and challenging (authentic) ways to make all-grain witbier. The easy, hassle-free method is to mash with flaked wheat and quick (flaked) oats along with the barley malt in a two-step infusion. Flaked grains are pre-gelatinized and will convert easily as is. Malted wheat can be used in place of flaked, but this will result in a slightly different flavor profile. In either scenario, start with a protein rest at 122 F (30 minutes), followed by a normal saccharification conversion for one hour at 153 to 155 F. Mash out and sparge as usual (don’t forget the rice hulls).
The intermediate method uses a three-step infusion and raw grains (not flaked) mashed with the barley malt. The temperatures rests must fit the common gelatinization range of wheat and oats, 125 to 145 F. Start with a thick (1 quart water per pound of grain) protein rest at 125 to 130 F for 20 minutes then infuse hot liquor to 140 for 20 minutes and then 153 for one hour. Mash out and sparge as usual. Stir frequently during the first two rests and half of the third rest before allowing your grain bed to settle. This method will gelatinize and convert the wheat and oats sufficiently enough. Once again, don’t forget the rice hulls.
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist who thinks there is no more sublime marriage than that of art and science.