Take a moment and raise your glass to the brewing revivalists, without whom we’d not be in such a great place. In North America, we laud kindred spirits Fritz Maytag, Jack McAuliffe, Ken Grossman and Jim Koch, among others, for rekindling that brewing passion. In Britain, the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) is responsible for revitalizing real ale. For a singular stylistic resurrection, though, see the efforts of Pierre Celis, who personally witnessed the demise and near extinction of his beloved witbier and single-handedly did something about it. Celis was a common and humble beer lover who sought only to bring back a piece of his artisanal heritage and sense of tradition. To him, that was represented in a simple glass of witbier.
Today, Belgian witbier, bière blanche in French, is among the more popular styles brewed and consumed in North America, and is fully embraced once again by brewers throughout Belgium and beyond. The unmistakable appearance and fresh, bountiful fragrance portends a refreshing, wholesome drinkability.
It has been postulated that the domestication of wild wheat (emmer) and “invention” of brewing were conjoined events some 12,000 years ago, and possibly the impetus for the earliest civilizations. Barley has largely replaced wheat as a brewing grain, but thankfully, not altogether. In more recent times, wheat-centric beers were common from Western Britain to Northeast Europe. Devonshire white ale, Broyhan mumme, lambic, witbier, göse, Bavarian weizenbier, Berliner weisse and Einbecker bock were all popular wheat beers in centuries past. Some of these have vanished, while others have been modernized, and some have even retained their wild, unruly roots.
Witbier evolved as the specialty of Dutch-speaking Flemish Brabant Province east of Brussels. There wheat, barley, oats and sugar beets are grown. The brewing legacy is just as fertile. Witbier breweries thrived in villages, abbeys, cities and farms.
Leuven was the premier witbier brewing city in Flemish Brabant a few centuries ago, but the hamlet of Hoegaarden, where brewing dates to 1318, would become world famous for it. Those brews were made with pale barley malt, raw wheat and oats. Hops were widely cultivated in the region, especially Germany, and the water was perfectly suited to brewing.
It is unknown exactly when witbier acquired its signature spicy character, but it has been part of the profile for centuries. The Netherlands became a prodigious importer of exotic spices after widespread colonization and the formation of the Dutch East India Company in 1602. The witbier style is about 400 years old, so it coincides with that timeline.
Beers flavored with herbal blends called gruit were once the norm in Northern Europe, until those concoctions lost out to hops in most places. It may be that some brewers never saw a reason to eliminate them altogether, using them alongside hops, so a taste for botanical beer never disappeared. At some point, though, exotic botanicals were introduced to witbier. Today, classic witbier is made with a tropical ingredient (Curaçao orange peel) and a temperate one (coriander).
Witbier made Hoegaarden a commercial brewing hotbed for a spell. There were 19 breweries there in 1730 and 38 in 1758. By 1940 there were but three remaining in the village. In 1957 only one brewery remained, the Oude Brouwerij Tomsin. Its doors were closed that year, bringing commercial brewing in Hoegaarden to a sad finale. The brewery’s flagship beer was Oud Hoegaards Witbier, a hometown prototype destined for the dustbin of history upon closure. If not for the nostalgic lamentations of Pierre Celis, who dearly missed his cherished witbier, we’d not be enjoying wietbiers today.
Pierre Celis’ desire to recapture the history and brewing art of his hometown is legendary. The son of a dairyman, he loved nothing more than to relax with a witbier after a hard day’s work. Energetic and enamored with beer, he often helped Louis Tomsin in the brewhouse, next door to his own house. The story goes that while enjoying beers with friends in 1965, Celis vowed to revive witbier. He cobbled together a small brewery (21-barrel capacity) in a cowshed. He modernized a bit from the outdated manual-labor intensive operations of Tomsin, but kept his brewhouse simple and utilitarian.
He fiddled with the recipe for the better part of a year and released his first commercial batch on July 1, 1966, under the auspices of the Brouwerij Celis. His first year he produced 300 barrels, which increased to 250,000 barrels by 1990. The timing was perfect.
The 1960s was a period of great artisanal awakening in the culinary world. Fed up with industrialized food and drink, people turned to more natural, organic items and a rediscovery of traditional, old-fashioned sensibilities. CAMRA was founded on this principle, as was American microbrewing. Celis could not have found a more accepting public for his folksy wheat beer.
He changed the name of his brewery to De Kluis (The Cloister) in 1978, in reverence to the monastic roots of his beer and brewhouse. De Kluis was purchased by Interbrew a few years later, and the name changed to Brouwerij Hoegaarden. In light of those maneuverings, Celis was primed to explore other brewing options.
Celis was fond of the United States, and the blossoming specialty beer industry here loved Belgian beer. He chose Austin, TX, for his new brewery. The water was similar to Hoegaarden’s, and the hard, red winter wheat that he preferred could be grown in nearby Luckenbach. The gleaming, majestic Celis Brewery opened in early 1992. The quality of Celis White witbier was impressive. There is no downplaying the impact that he had on the worldwide scene.
Witbier has traditionally been made with roughly equal measures of Pilsner barley malt and wheat, and, optionally, a small amount of raw oats. The wheat portion is unmalted and raw, never flaked. Unlike some raw grains, wheat converts easily in the mash tun. Raw wheat is unkilned, keeping it lighter in color than malted wheat and giving true witbier an extremely pale, whitish-gold color. The high protein content of wheat and the unfiltered, bottle-conditioned state leaves witbier quite hazy. This also contributes to a fairly chewy, textured mouthfeel for a lower-gravity beer, 4.5 to 5.5 percent ABV on average.
Witbiers present a grainy, cereal profile, less “bready” than German hefeweizens. There is often a lightly sweet/tart complementary background.
Witbier yeast has a fairly neutral profile, though it does share some of the phenolic, vanilla and estery characteristics of Bavarian weizen yeast. Warm fermentation ensures that the footprint of the yeast will be fully articulated, often with notes of plum, apple, peach, apricot or melon. Hop rates are quite low, usually around 15-20 IBU. Hoegaarden uses East Kent Golding for bittering and Saaz for aroma. The bitterness is pleasantly subdued, and the hoppy aromatics herbal and floral. Most witbier brewers follow this general template.
The one thing that sets witbier apart from nearly all other brews is the liberal use of botanicals. Curaçao orange peel and coriander provide a potent but sublime citrusy and herbal nose, playing amiably with the discreet hop, grain and yeast components.
Some brewers personalize these additions, as grains of paradise, pepper, ginger and others are used. It has been surmised that Hoegaarden uses a third spice, but that has been debunked repeatedly, even by Pierre Celis himself. As delicious and quenching as witbier is today, imagine one of yore, with the tartness of spontaneous fermentation and some musty Brettanomyces.
Witbiers are best fresh, as the floral, fruity and herbal notes will diminish over time, but aged, drier ones are also a great pleasure. This is an excellent gateway beer, intriguingly flavorful, yet enticingly mellow. There are numerous excellent examples made by North American micros as well as a dozen or more stellar imports. We can thank Pierre Celis, who died in 2011, for the wealth of outstanding witbiers available today. Brewers were quick to recognize his foresight and genius, and the world was wise to try them. That is witty indeed.
Hoegaarden Bière BlancheABV: 4.9
Tasting Notes: The nouveau prototype, Hoegaarden Original has inspired countless imitators. Shiny straw-gold with a white mousse head that bursts with orange blossom honey, vanilla, clove and coriander. Lithe and silky in the palate, it has a soft, creamy mouthfeel and lively carbonation. The flavor offers delicate sweetness, cracker meal grain and an herbal mix of hops, coriander and chamomile. Hoegaarden Original is a classic that still stands proud among its imitators.
Allagash WhiteABV: 5.2
Tasting Notes: The Allagash Brewing Co. of Portland, ME, is among the finest Belgian-inspired specialists in the United States. Allagash White is without peer. Shimmering light gold, it effortlessly builds a rocky, sustained white head. The aroma has some clove, citrus fruit, yeasty phenol and muted coriander. It has a velvety-smooth mouthfeel, and the flavor is spicy and peppery, with chamomile tea and a sunny blend of fresh orange, lemon and peach. The sparkling carbonation and tartness bring it to a crisp finish.
St. Bernardus WitbierABV: 5.5
Tasting Notes: From the far western Belgian town of Watou, St. Bernardus Witbier may have become the vanguard of the style in its homeland. It was crafted under the critical watch of Pierre Celis himself. It pours a full, cloudy gold, with a dense meringue head. The bouquet has tart apple and pear, a hint of grassy hops and bold coriander. Light honey sweetness overlays a solid, chewy mouthfeel. Grainy maltiness with fresh, tart citrus notes and a coriander complement. Hearty for the style, yet soft and savory. An aromatic, flavorful powerhouse.
Blanche de ChamblyABV: 4.9
Tasting Notes: Unibroue, in Chambly, Quebec, is one of the pioneering Belgian-style craft breweries in North America, as famous for its creativity as its respect for tradition. Blanche de Chambly is pale, hazy gold and fragrant, with a lemony tart and spicy yeast aroma. Dryish and effervescent. The flavor is a mixture of cloves and coriander, honey and lemongrass, and fresh wheat bread. Very tidy and clean for a witbier and quite well-rounded. A perfectly quenching summer beer.
K. Florian Klemp
K. Florian Klemp is an award-winning homebrewer and general hobbyist.