No brewing culture mirrors that of the homebrewing community quite like that of Belgium. The romantic perception is that Belgian brews are closer to their agrarian and monastic roots. Romantic and idiosyncratic, it is a parallel universe that homebrewers can relate to since their own creations are based on personal whim and unconventional ingredients, not to mention the intimacy of the homestead. Witbier (Flemish for white beer), or biere blanche (French) fits this philosophy perfectly, with its rough-hewn yet delicate profile, infusion of exotica and rustic ingredients. It is a style that can be highly personalized, made in relative traditional fashion to fend off the blazing summer heat or used as a canvas to create infinite interpretations.
One look at a commercial witbier shows that it is not a highly refined brew. Bottle-conditioned, hazy, pale yellow with a billowing pearly head, slick, full mouthfeel and perfumed with a bright, vibrant dose of fresh spices. Generally associated with the Flemish portion of Brabant province, witbiers are often thought of as farmhouse beer—eccentric with a direct, personal connection to quaint brew houses, crafted and consumed locally. Commercial wits are known for their subtle brand-to-brand differences.
The classic blueprint consists of roughly equal parts pale malted barley and raw wheat, an optional dash of oats, low to moderate hopping, late additions of fresh coriander, dried bitter orange peel—perhaps a third spice—and fermentation with definitive witbier yeast. All-grain brewers will need to brew with respect for the raw grains and high protein concentration. Extract brewers can use common wheat and malt extract combinations for perfectly suitable versions.
The choice of barley malt is an easy one: Go for the palest and, since it will be doing twice the normal work, one with high diastatic power. Belgian or German pilsner malt is a capable workhorse for converting the adjunct grains, as is American two-row in a pinch. Six-row malted barley has marginally higher conversion potency, but is generally unnecessary. Never use pale ale malt. Always use a pound of rice hulls as a lautering aid and start your runoff carefully to prevent a stuck mash.
There are easy, intermediate and challenging (authentic) ways to make all-grain witbier. The easy, hassle-free method is to mash with flaked wheat and quick (flaked) oats along with the barley malt in a two-step infusion. Flaked grains are pre-gelatinized and will convert easily as is. Malted wheat can be used in place of flaked, but this will result in a slightly different flavor profile. In either scenario, start with a protein rest at 122 F (30 minutes), followed by a normal saccharification conversion for one hour at 153 to 155 F. Mash out and sparge as usual (don’t forget the rice hulls).
The intermediate method uses a three-step infusion and raw grains (not flaked) mashed with the barley malt. The temperatures rests must fit the common gelatinization range of wheat and oats, 125 to 145 F. Start with a thick (1 quart water per pound of grain) protein rest at 125 to 130 F for 20 minutes then infuse hot liquor to 140 for 20 minutes and then 153 for one hour. Mash out and sparge as usual. Stir frequently during the first two rests and half of the third rest before allowing your grain bed to settle. This method will gelatinize and convert the wheat and oats sufficiently enough. Once again, don’t forget the rice hulls.
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.
Cumin is often used as a complementary addition. Chamomile and lemon grass can add an airy edge to summer wits alongside coriander. Also consider culinary lavender, rose hips, heather tips and hibiscus flowers. Cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, ginger, juniper berry, peppercorn and grains of paradise would add a flicker of heat or holiday warmth, and licorice or star anise would pair well with darker versions of witbier. Common culinary herbs are certainly not out of the question either.
Classic Witbier (all-grain)
OG 1.050, 20 IBU
Mash the following with the cereal/malt mash outlined in the article:
Cereal mash: 4# raw wheat, 0.5# raw oats, 1# Belgian Pilsner malt
Malt mash: 5# Belgian Pilsner malt
Bittering hops: 1 oz. Saaz, 60 minutes
Flavor/aroma hops: 1 oz. Saaz, 10 minutes
Add 0.75 oz fresh ground coriander, 0.50 oz bitter orange peel, and 0.25 oz chamomile or cumin 5 minutes before knockout.
Ferment with Belgian witbier yeast
For a faux classic Witbier, replace the raw grains with flaked, and mash with a 2-step infusion. For extract, replace the grains with 6# of wheat DME.
Red Hot Wit (partial-mash)
OG 1.060, 25 IBU
Mash the following with the 2-step infusion mash outlined in the article :
1# Caramunich III®
3# wheat malt
3# Vienna malt
Sparge as normal and add 4# wheat DME. Bring total volume to 5.5 gallons, and bring to a boil.
Bittering hops: 1.5 oz Halletauer
Flavor/aroma hops: 1 oz Saaz, 10 minutes
Add 0.75 oz fresh ground coriander, zest of one orange or two tangerines, and 0.25 oz fresh ground grains of paradise or white pepper 5 minutes before knockout.
Ferment with Belgian witbier yeast.