Few summer quenchers offer the satisfaction of Belgian witbiers. Beyond the light, fluffy body and tart, lemony finish, they offer enough layered aroma and flavor to rival hearty winter beers. Textured with wheat, boisterously yeasty, with herbal hints and scented with pungent spices, witbiers are a bounty in a tumbler. Add to that a touch of enchanting Belgian individuality, with a nod to brewing history, and this is a transcendent treat to beat the heat.
Witbiers (white beer in Flemish) are yet another example of a style that nearly expired, but is now quite popular following an enthusiastic rebirth. Called bière blanche in French (also meaning white beer), wits developed as a regional specialty east of Brussels, including the city of Louvain and the village of Hoegaarden, in the farmlands of Brabant.
Blessed with sinfully rich soil and spirited agrarianism, Brabant’s farmers tended fields of barley, wheat and oats, all of which are utilized in traditional witbiers. The practice of adding spices to the brewkettle remained long after hops became the predominant flavoring elsewhere. This is not terribly surprising, as some of the Spice Islands were colonized in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when Belgium was part of the Netherlands. Ancient local herbs gave way to foreign spices.
Witbier was the dominant style immediately east of Brussels as recently as the 18th century, but the 19th century onslaught of pale lager ushered in the decline of many regional brews. As the world became smaller, local fare seemed old-fashioned, and new products, exhilarating.
In Hoegaarden, the cradle of witbier, this demise culminated finally in 1960, when no witbiers were being brewed. 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. His name was Pierre Celis, and his spunk and vitality are symbolized in the very beer he resurrected and without whom, we’d be pining over memories of a vanished Belgian style.
Pierre Celis grew up and worked as a milkman around Hoegaarden. Lamenting the loss of his cherished witbier, he decided to make his own. 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 brewing.
The popularity of Celis’ witbier goaded others, 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.
What then, defines a witbier? These are dubbed white beers, and not wheat beers, because of the pale, almost milky glow of the brew. There are two requirements of this style: first, it must contain up to 50 percent wheat. Sometimes, a small amount of raw oats is added. The effect of the raw wheat and oats on the palate is a silky-smooth mouthfeel, a playful tart and honeyish contrast, and noticeable fruitiness.
Of equal importance in a witbier is the use of spices. The predominant spice is always coriander. Freshly ground, and added late to the kettle to retain its aroma, it should fairly gush from the glass.
The next most common kettle addition is curaçao (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 complements the savory coriander.
More spices may be added in small amounts as a background note. Some brewers are secretive 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 wheat is one made in heaven.
While most of the common witbiers are offered year round, brewpubs will often concoct them for their summer menu. For 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. Time to savor a witbier.