Blanche de Noire
What’s black and white and beer all over? It could only be a dark witbier. It’s a lip-smacking sundae of a drink: soft and creamy, overlain by a gentle cocoa roastiness, topped off with the fruity complexity of a Belgian yeast strain. It is profound and fascinating, but at around 6.5 percent alcohol, it won’t knock you over, important if you’re interested in a second one. If you’re not yet familiar with this style, you’re missing out.
Unibroue’s excellent Chambly Noire is the standard bearer, but these beers are everywhere in Quebec right now, and are just starting to break into our consciousness here in the States. While the dark beer may have been just an attempt to fill a hole in the huge range that is Unibroue, such beers do have historical precedent. New Belgium brews a black Belgian ale called 1554, the earliest reference to such a beer they could find in the history books. A text by Lacambre, 1851, lists a number of dark Belgian wheat ales, including Diest, Gulde Bier and Peetermann. Most were colored by a fairly highly colored ambree base malt and a very long boil, often with chalk added, which changes the pH of the wort and allows a lot of color to develop. All of those beers died out by the middle of the 20th century.
Another historical thread is the influence of English and Scottish beers on Belgium in the late 19th century. Import duties at that time were extremely low and, because of their huge scale, British brewers could bring their luxurious beers in cheaper than the Belgians could brew them themselves. As a consequence, great gobs of pale, Scotch and porter were consumed in Belgium. After WWI, the Belgians started brewing similar styles on their own. A “poorter” still survives there: Sterkens, from Moortgat, but as it declares itself to be a Reinheitsgebot recipe, it seems to owe nothing to the earlier wheat-based recipes.
So we’re left without a living link, which just means we’re free to pick and choose from history and reinvent it however we see fit. I’ll be using the best of modern materials and approaches, skipping some of the incomprehensible complexity of the old Belgian brewing procedures. Originally, all the Belgian wheat beer styles called for the use of unmalted wheat, and often other grains such as oats, spelt, buckwheat and in some, even broad beans. Raw wheat contributes a marvelously rich and creamy texture to beer, but it requires the use of a complicated adjunct mashing procedure, in which the raw grains are mixed with a little malt and raised through a number of upward mash steps before being boiled and then returned to the rest of the mash, where it raises the whole mess to saccharification.
For most brewers this is a little much. Excellent results can be obtained by using malted wheat, but in larger proportions (as much as 70 percent in a proper witbier). Since we’re making this thing up, we’ll stick to a more sensible proportion of 40 percent. Instant oats add a layer of smooth creaminess to the recipe—they seem to work well in small amounts without a complex adjunct procedure. A healthy dose of melanoidin (aromatic, dark Munich) malt will give us a little chewy/toasty character, and we’ll be relying on the very smooth and soft flavor of German Rostmalz (Carafa) for the rest of the color and a soft, toasty edge. Don’t forget the rice hulls, as the huskless wheat malt needs a little help with lautering.
This is a lightly hopped beer, one that given the current dire hop supply situation, you might even be able to brew without hocking the family jewels. The hops are there strictly for balance, and in this application almost any variety you have should work, although I like the chocolaty quality of Northern brewers. I have included a dash of coriander, as well as some licorice root and a very small amount of star anise. Other seasonings such as black pepper, cardamom and orange or tangerine peel might work here, as long as they’re subtle. The idea with Belgian beers, is to use the spice to enhance the aromas of the malt, yeast and whatever else is there without it being obvious what the specific spices are.
You should by no means feel compelled to brew this recipe as-is. Witbier admits quite a lot of stretching and pulling in various directions while still retaining its soul. Hop ’em if you got ’em; this could handle up to about 40 IBU before getting lopsided. This recipe could be knocked back to about three-quarters of this gravity for a nice dark summer quaffer. Or, you could go the other way and bump it up another percent or two, make the spices a little more prominent, and dub it a Noel Noire, for a gloriously dark Christmas.