In summer, a sojourn to the farmers market reveals both the bounty and the simple pleasures of the season. A beer that would be quite at home among the offerings are the witbiers, born on the farmland of eastern Belgium.
Witbiers are a complex sensory experience and the perfect summer beer.
Also known as bière blanche (French), witbiers (Flemish) are aromatic, rustic, spicy and complex. The name literally means “white beer,” a moniker derived from the cloudy, pale pose that they strike in the tumbler in which they are poured. The brewers of witbier showcase local ingredients in their craftsmanship, but combine them with products indigenous to faraway markets. This is an homage to Belgium’s history as both a farming culture and an importer of things exotic, a characteristically Belgian juxtaposition.
The Roots of Witbier
Belgium, like much of Europe, owes its brewing roots to sustenance brewing in monasteries. The earliest mention of monastery brewing in the home of witbier is in the 14th century. Different regional monasteries produced their own specialties. The area in and around Louvain, east of Brussels, became known for its witbiers. As the monks were highly regarded technicians in the art of brewing all over Europe, their products were coveted.
Local ingredients have always shaped the development of regional specialties, and such is the case for the witbier-brewing area. Until just a couple of centuries ago, beer was made with whatever fermentable grains were easily available. Small farms, utilizing very rich, productive soil, grew barley, wheat and oats of high quality. Naturally, these grains were used to produce the distinctive and unique character inherent in the witbier we enjoy to this day.
Before hops became the preferred flavoring agent in beer, brewers used a proprietary mixture of herbs, or spices, or both, known as gruit. This was used for its flavor, medicinal value, or often intoxicating effect. But, primarily, it was employed to counterbalance the sweetness of the malt, or simply to mask the sometimes dubious flavor of the beer. Brewing in this era was still a relatively uncontrollable craft that often relied on serendipity and the hand of God.
The small town of Hoegaarden was a major player in the brewing scene of the area now known as eastern Belgium. Here, brewers were prodigious and organized enough to form a Guild of Brewers in the 16th century. Breweries flourished in Hoegaarden to the point that, by the 19th century, over two dozen operated in the small village, its reputation due to its unique and high-quality witbier.
By the early 1800s, major changes in brewing technology were sweeping across Europe altering not only the character of beer, but also the manner in which beer was perceived. Gently kilned malts made for lighter-colored beers. Bottom fermentation at cooler temperatures, coupled with long lagering times, produced crystal-clear beer. Hops became the sole ingredient to balance and flavor the beer. This revolution resulted in new styles that were clean, clear, consistent products. They were also visually appealing when hoisted in another important innovation, the clear drinking glass that replaced the opaque stein.
But some brewers held steadfast to their seemingly passé brewing procedures, among them the producers of Bavarian wheat beers and the Belgian witbier. Both beers are cloudy, sedimented and lightly hopped. Witbier brewers, moreover, retained a devotion to the style’s gruit history by continuing to employ exotic spices in the kettle.
By the end of the 19th century, lagers were entrenched as the beers of choice in most of continental Europe, with Belgium being the main holdout. As the beer landscape became more homogenized, dedication to local specialties began to wane. While there were at one time as many as 30 breweries in Hoegaarden, by 1960 there were none. Only a few breweries anywhere in Belgium were making witbier.
A Witty Traditionalist
The fact that witbiers are popular and widely brewed today can be attributed to the tenacity and vision of a single man, Pierre Celis, who worked in Hoegaarden as a milkman. Fascinated by the brewing process he had observed as a youth, Celis decided to do something about his beloved witbier. He cobbled together the De Kluis brewery with used equipment and starting brewing in 1966. His beer was an unexpected hit among beer lovers. It exuded a natural, unrefined, whole-foods aura, something that industrialized countries seem to have lost after World War II.
Celis’s revival of the style fueled an interest by many other breweries in Belgium. Today, many witbiers are brewed throughout the country, well beyond the original domain, even into West Flanders.
There is yet another blissful chapter of Pierre Celis’s witbier resurrection. Celis brought his enthusiasm for Belgian beer and brewing to the United States in 1992 and opened a brewery in Austin, TX, bearing his name. Using a combination of Belgian, North American (some of it local), and exotic ingredients, he created Celis White, an excellent witbier that rivaled any Belgian import.