With summer not-so-gently pounding on the door, it’s time to spotlight the summer quenchers. Few offer the complexity and satisfaction of Belgian witbiers. Beyond the light, soft body and tart, lemony finish, they present enough layered aroma and flavor to rival heartier wintry beers. Witbiers tantalize the senses with evocative reminders of the season. Textured with wheat, rambunctiously yeasty, with herbal hoppy hints, and scented with pungent spices, witbiers are a bounty in a tumbler. Add to that a touch of rustic and magical Belgian individuality and brewing history, and this is a transcendent treat to beat the heat.
Witbiers are another example of a style that nearly expired, but is now as popular as ever following an enthusiastic rebirth. Alternatively called bière blanche in French, wits share a history with many of the enduring Belgian beer styles: a product of monasteries developed as a regional specialty. They were an expression of that which was available in the area east of Brussels, including the city of Louvain and the village of Hoegaarden, in the farmlands of Brabant.
Blessed with sinfully rich soil and a feisty agrarian culture, the area was home to farmers who tended fields of barley, wheat and oats, all of which are utilized in traditional witbiers. There is mention of monastic witbier from as long ago as the 14th century in Belgium. The monks, and later secular brewers, retained the practice of adding spices to the kettle long after hops became the predominant form of flavoring. This is evident in today’s witbiers, though today they are of a more exotic nature. This is not terribly surprising, as some of the so-called “spice islands” were colonized in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when Belgium was part of the Netherlands. Indigenous herbal gruit constituents gave way to foreign spices.
The city of Hoegaarden was so interested in protecting its unique product that a brewer’s guild was formed there in the 1700s. In fact, it was easily the dominant style of beer immediately east of Brussels, around Louvain and Hoegaarden as recently as the 18th century. The two municipalities were fierce competitors at the time, with Bière Blanche de Louvain being more popular than Blanche de Hougaerde. As there is no evidence that the Hoegaarden was an inferior product, Louvain witbier was likely able to promote its product more tenaciously because of its well-heeled status as a city brewery. This is not to say that Hoegaarden wasn’t a highly-respected brewery in its own right, as at least twenty breweries specializing in witbier were in operation there in the 19th century.
The 19th century, however, saw a change that would usher in the decline, and ultimately, the near-death of many regional brews, including witbier. The advent of pale brews, especially pale lager in Continental Europe, nudged many traditional, artistic brews aside. The clamor over the bright, golden beers was due in some part to novelty, but also to improved shipping and commerce. In other words, the world became smaller, and local fare seemed old-fashioned; the new products, exhilarating.
In Hoegaarden, this slow demise culminated in 1960, when finally, there were no witbiers being brewed. In fact, witbier was brewed in only a few places anywhere in Belgium by then. All but extinct, witbier had on its side one of the great proponents of craft beer in the past 40 years, and he was not about to let something so personally significant disappear so easily. His name is Pierre Celis, and his spunk and vitality are symbolized in the very beer he resurrected and without whom, we’d be drooling over memories of Belgian witbier.
Modern Wit and Wisdom
Pierre Celis grew up and worked in the area around Hoegaarden. Lamenting the loss of his cherished witbier, he decided to make his own on a commercial level. He purchased some used brewing equipment, fitted out a small brewery and by 1966, was producing. He named the brewery De Kluis (The Cloister ) in reverence to the roots of monastic witbier brewing. Through his efforts, quaint and anachronistic became popular, ironically not just because of its novelty, but also because it was a reversion to a more natural, less-refined product, something that had been in serious dearth at the time.
The popularity of Celis’ witbier spurred on others to produce their own, and by the mid-80s, many were being brewed in Belgium. Celis brought his expertise to Austin, TX, and with the same approach of using local ingredients as much as possible, founded the Celis Brewery in 1992. His influence can still be seen today across America and Canada, as a great proportion of microbreweries and brewpubs produce some version of a witbier.
A Witty Pose
What is it then, that defines a witbier? While the word itself literally means “white beer,” there are two attributes that are necessary in a formulation worthy of the name: the grist must contain up to 50 percent wheat, and it must have summary scent of spices.
These are dubbed white beers, and not wheat beers as the Germans designate their similar brews, because of the pale, almost milky glow of the brew. They are indeed turbid, and for more than one reason. First, the wheat is unmalted, leaving a bit of residual starch in the beer. Secondly, the high protein content of wheat naturally leaves a bit of precipitous haze in the finished product. Third, bottled offerings are usually bottle-conditioned, leaving a fair measure of yeast in suspension when poured
The under-modified, raw wheat is lighter in color even than malted wheat, and this is what contributes to the very pale, white-gold appearance. With wheat constituting about half of the grist, the remainder is a pale, continental pilsner type malt, usually grown in Germany or Belgium. American brewers might opt for a domestic two-row for their interpretations, a worthy substitute. At times, and traditionally, a small amount of oats is added, but usually not more than at five percent total. The manifestation of the raw wheat on the palate is a silky-smooth, soft mouthfeel; a playful tart and honeyish contrast; and noticeable fruitiness.
Of concomitant importance in a witbier is the use of spices. The predominant spice is always coriander in a classic witbier, and it should be obvious in the nose. Freshly ground, and added late to the kettle to retain its aroma, it should fairly burst from the glass.
The second most common spice addition is curaçao, or bitter, orange peel, which adds mysterious complexity to the brew. It is grown in Spain, Italy, and North Africa, and is characteristically herbal, reminiscent of chamomile rather than orange, and compliments the savory coriander well. More spices may be added, but traditionally in small amounts as sort of a background note. Some brewers are cryptic about their choices, but chamomile, anise, grains of paradise, peppercorns, ginger, or nearly anything similar could conceivably be used. The marriage of the spice blend, and the raw wheat is one made in heaven to the senses.
Hops are used at quite modest levels. Those that exhibit spicy and herbal notes (imagine that) like Saaz, Styrian Goldings, and East Kent Goldings are best as they blend deftly with the other nuances. Witbiers should pour with a copious, lingering head, due to the high proteinaceous wheat, and higher than average carbonation. This only adds to the wonderfully intricate bouquet, as the mousse dissipates and releases its perfume. Very modest at 4.5 to 5 percent ABV, witbiers are certainly a quenching session brew. They are at their prime when fairly young, as they should be consumed in their most spirited and vivacious aromatic condition.
While most of the common witbiers are offered year round, brewpubs will often concoct them for their summer repertoire. Be on the lookout for them. For summer refreshment, witbiers are as appropriate as any brew, and more complex. They are reminiscent of the fragrant season, and soft enough to sit well on a hot day. So, when that summer wind, comes blowin’ in…savor a witbier.
Hoegaarden Original White AleABV: 4.9
Tasting Notes: The archetype from the Brouwerij van Hoegaarden, and known thereabouts as La Bière Blanche Originale, Hoegaarden Original was the definitive springboard for witbier. Hazy and straw-gold, and crowned with a regal, billowing, snowy head that releases an intricate perfume of honey, citrus, vanilla and especially coriander. It tiptoes lightly on the palate, with a surprisingly full body and a touch of sweetness. The flavor mimics the aroma. Imminently refreshing, soft and complex. Classic in every sense of the word.
Allagash WhiteABV: 5.2
Tasting Notes: Portland, ME is home to the Allagash Brewery and this outstanding American-brewed witbier. The pour presents all of the requisite traits of a classic witbier, a murky-blonde brew showcasing a fluffy meringue that extends above the rim. The bouquet is a bit muted, with notes of orange, lemon, chamomile and coriander poking through. Silky-smooth in mouthfeel, the taste is tart, slightly fruity and sweet, with a kiss of hops at the finish. The crisp carbonation and acidity give a sparkling finish.
St. Bernardus WitbierABV: 5.5
Tasting Notes: From the Brouwerij St. Bernardus in Watou, Belgium, this witbier was tailored with the help of the master himself, Pierre Celis. Dark-gold, with a moussey, lingering, lacey head. An earthy, citrus aroma, with hints of coriander and orange. The body and flavor are fuller than most wits, with a yeasty chewiness and good malt backbone. A paradoxical mix of sweet and dry, with a tart lemon-orange and herbal wrap. Bigger all the way around than most, a pleasantly divergent version.
K. Florian Klemp
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.