Just as important, Celis White generated immense interest in witbiers by North American brewpubs and microbreweries, and created an excellent market for many authentic Belgian imports. Hoegaarden is the best-known import and is the classic example, but other exceptional brands can be found, such as Dentergems, Blanche de Honnelles, and the very distinct Steendonk. All are a little different from the other and delicious. The very refreshing Blanche de Chambly from Unibroue in Quebec is available throughout North America. US brands are fairly numerous with Allagash, Boston Beer Co., Victory Brewing, Coors, and Rogue interpretations widely available, just to name a few.
A Striking Profile
Witbiers brewers in general follow a fairly well-defined script. The grain bill is about half malted barley and half raw wheat. Occasionally, a small amount of oats is used also, but usually only about 5 percent.
The malted barley is very pale, usually a Belgian or German pilsner malt. North American breweries might opt for a pale 2-row variety grown in the United States or Canada. Raw wheat is used instead of the malted wheat found in other wheat beers. The wheat that traditionally goes into a witbier is hard red winter wheat. German weizenbier uses roughly the same amount of wheat, but it is malted, and a very assertive yeast, both of which create a beer quite unlike a Belgian witbier. Witbiers are generally about 4.5 to 5 percent alcohol by volume.
Hops are chosen to impart an herbal character. East Kent Goldings or Saaz are the usual choice, but New World breweries might opt for a domestic hop. Witbiers are hopped to a fairly low bittering rate of about 20 IBU. The hops are faintly noticeable but do impart a distinct quality that enhances the overall impression of the beer.
The other kettle additions are what really make witbiers unique. Liberal doses of spices, most commonly coriander and Curaçao orange peel, impart both aroma and flavor. It seems that no spice is off limits. Some brewers are wryly cryptic about their choice, while others proudly announce their preference. Cumin, chamomile, grains of paradise, ginger and cardamom are just some that have been perceived or proclaimed.
Witbiers are a beautifully complex sensory experience and the perfect summer beer. Inspection of the bottled product reveals, quite often, heavy sedimentation. This is due partly to the use of wheat, which produces a turbid wort, but also to the fact that witbiers are bottle conditioned or unfiltered. The yeast may be an addition at bottling time, or the original, carried throughout the entire fermentation period. In the glass, traditionally a thick, masculine tumbler, the milky, straw-colored appearance is even more striking. Kegged versions are no different. The head should crown the nectar in mousse-like fashion, due to the high percentage of wheat–hence protein–in the beer.
Liberating a witbier from its container releases an aroma that might be more aptly described as perfume. One might detect the fruit aromas aplenty, but that is just the beginning. Most prominent among the bouquet is that of coriander, used copiously and freshly ground in most cases. The bitter Curaçao orange peel that is added to the kettle provides a fairly diverse character. Citrus notes and an herbal, almost tea-like aroma are contributed by the Curaçao. This complements the similar qualities of the hops rather nicely. A late addition of hops in the kettle is also common, further augmenting the aroma.
The taste of a witbier is no less stunning. Though the beer is very light in color, the mouthfeel is substantial and silky smooth, again owing to the wheat, and to a lesser degree, oats. Some witbiers are fairly dry, but most have a slightly sweet, honey-like flavor. Often a light lactic character is present, through inoculation with a lactobacillus or addition of lactic acid, providing a delectable sweet-sour flavor. All of the aromatic qualities are transposed in the flavor. It is sensory heaven redux with multiple fruity and herbal flavors.
Witbiers recall a simpler and less-refined era. It is somewhat ironic that some might consider it odd or nontraditional for a beer to contain such things as raw grains, spices, and orange peel. The truth is that witbiers are quintessentially traditional and have remained true to their roots as a farmhouse, rural beverage with a touch of the exotic. The best of two worlds.