Raw wheat berries are available in white and red varieties at natural groceries, as are whole raw oats. White wheat is lighter in color and has less protein than red, making white the preferred variety. Mill wheat and oats separately from barley, and inspect the size of the grind, which should resemble coarse grits. Adjust your mill if necessary.
The third option, and the most ambitious, is a cereal mash that will maximize the use of raw grains. It takes a little juggling with two simultaneous separate mashes. Infuse the raw grains and 20 percent of the barley malt with warm water (2 quarts water per pound of grain) in a large kettle. Heat this mash to 122 F and hold for 15 minutes. Raise the temperature to 150 F and hold for another 15 minutes. Then bring all of this to a boil for 15 minutes. Be ever-vigilant about scorching. Meanwhile, have the remaining 80 percent of the barley malt (and rice hulls) at a thick, protein rest stage (122 F) in your mash tun. Add the cereal mash (after boiling) gradually to the barley malt in the mash tun, and aim for 150 to 155 F for the entire mash. Rest for one hour, mash out and sparge as usual. As always, an iodine test can be performed before mashing out to ensure conversion.
The spice aspect of witbier is quite often the star of the show, and coriander deserves top billing. Always purchase whole fresh corns and never use preground coriander. Ethnic and natural groceries carry them in bulk. Don’t compromise on this ingredient. Grind the corns during your brew session, and add in the last 5 minutes of the boil. One-half to 1 ounce per 5 gallons is the common dose.
The citrus component is another important cog, complemented and accented perfectly by the fresh sweetish scent of coriander. Bitter orange peel, the traditional ingredient, is available at homebrew shops and offers sharp citrus and herbal notes. It is just as good, if not better, to use the zest of fresh sweet orange for a more aromatic, resinous effect. Bitter peels (from Curacao or Seville oranges) are used at about one-half ounce per 5-gallon batch and can be added with the coriander. If you choose the zesty route, use one or two navel, blood, Cara Cara or Valencia oranges. Tangerine or kumquat would be a nice twist, as would a little lemon zest for tartness.
Unlike other wheat beers, witbier is made better with a solid, though mellow, hop profile. All kettle additions are quite welcomed and blend superbly with the fruity, herbal and grainy nature of this beer style. Choose low alpha acid European hop varieties that express earthy, floral, lemony and herbal notes, such as German nobles, Saaz and East Kent or Styrian Goldings. American cultivars with those Europeans as a pedigree (such as Mount Hood, Sterling or Willamette) can be substituted. Hops rates from 15 to 20 IBU are optimal, with noticeable aromatic additions an excellent choice for the hop profile.
Fermentation should be carried out with authentic witbier yeast. Wyeast Laboratories (#3942, #3944) and White Labs (WLP400, WLP410) are good sources. They are essential to obtaining the spicy and phenolic accents so associated with the style. You can select among those further to include fruity, sweet or tart notes in your brew.
Beyond Conventional Wit
Witbier can also be made with other base grains or specialty malts. Rye is a convenient option, since raw, flaked and malted versions can be purchased. I’ve also had brown rice, millet and buckwheat wits made from gelatinized raw grains. For all-grain, partial mashers and extract brewers, specialty and/or toasted base malts can provide extra flavor and color for red, brown and black witbiers (in spite of the obvious oxymoronic naming). Consider some of the spices and herbs that might pair with malts such as Munich, caramel and black malt or roasted barley. Dark strong witbiers make excellent holiday beers. Another alternative is adding honey to the mix. Lighter aromatic varietals such as orange blossom, clover and wildflower are excellent candidates. Witbiers are also excellent for imperializing and unusual sugar additions.
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.