The Amazing Shape-Shifting Beer
I have a conflicted view of beer styles. As historical artifacts, beer styles are endlessly fascinating to study. They generally represent confluences—and compromises—of technology, agriculture, cuisine and geology that make the most of what a region has to offer. This means that existing styles are usually quite wonderful to drink, and I’m all for that.
But as a brewer who approaches the craft from an artistic point of view, I’m not always interested in precisely reproducing a particular style, challenging as that may be. I do it, of course, but it’s more for the experience of getting inside and finding out what makes a style tick. More importantly, I like to use the basic style as a springboard, a starting point for producing beers that are more distinctive personal expressions.
Belgian witbier is such a style. Deceptively simple, it is actually quite a challenge to brew in an authentic manner, as I have written in these pages before. In its classic form, wit is a modest-strength (1040 to 1045), pale, cloudy beer, brewed from malted barley (50 percent), unmalted wheat (45 percent) and oats (5 percent), which gives it a smooth, creamy mouthfeel. It is lightly hopped, spiced with orange peel and coriander, and often possesses a certain lactic acidity.
With such well-defined parameters, one would expect that to deviate from tradition would be to invite the whole glorious creation to fall apart into muddled chaos, but the spirit of witbier endures. You can make it stronger, darker or hoppier, and the essence of it still shines through.
Interpretations within the Framework
If you think about it, this makes sense. Historically, white beers were brewed all across northern Europe, from about 1400 on. These usually shared common characteristics: pale color; hops as opposed to gruit herbs; wheat or other non-barley grains; lactic acid character; and a role as beers meant for quick consumption rather than extended aging. It stands to reason that brewers in different cities would evolve different interpretations within this framework. The style of white beer that Pierre Celis revived is usually referred to as “Louven wit,” and it is just one tiny remnant of the once much broader white beer family.
This plasticity makes it a great framework within which to experiment. I was drawn into this years ago in an attempt to recreate Hoegaarden’s Verboden Vrucht, which I hadn’t tasted, but I knew it to be stronger, darker and maltier, but with similar orange and coriander spicing as the wit. After a few experiments, the beer turned out pretty good, but an error in hop calculation in one brew led to a doubling of hop bitterness. This turned out to be a delicious mistake that opened up the style to further rearrangement.
Stronger versions exist in the real world, too. There’s a beer restaurant in Bruges called Den Dyver that has an 8 percent version brewed for it by Brouwerij De Gouden Boom. As one would expect, the beer is absolutely fabulous with food. In this country, Tim Rastetter and Ray Spangler cooked up a barley-wine strength version called Wit Lightning at the short-lived BrewWorks in northern Kentucky a few years back. So, there are plenty of options.
Before we tear into the mini recipes, a word about unmalted wheat. A curious jerrymandering of the Belgian taxation system encouraged brewers to use up to half unmalted grain, as it saved them money. This was mashed using an intensive process much like the American adjunct procedure still used to brew mass-market “pilsners.”
The adjunct receives a separate cooking process, along with a small portion of the malted barley. This adjunct mash is ramped up through a protein rest (122 degrees F), then saccharification (150 degrees F), before being boiled for 15 minutes or so. This is then glorped back into the malt mash, which is at 122 degrees F, and the whole mess raised up to 150 degrees F. If you want to use unmalted wheat, I highly recommend this time-consuming process.
Infusion mashing doesn’t do enough to break down the starches in the raw grain to make them available to the malt enzymes. If you wish to use your usual infusion mash for this style, skip the raw wheat and use malted wheat instead, and raise the proportion to 75 percent of the batch for a standard wit. An infusion mash will manage to pull some useful character out of oats whether they’re malted or not.
Now, for the Recipes
A few notes. All of these recipes use lower proportions of wheat and oats than a normal wit because for the higher gravity beers, smaller proportions are needed to give an adequate amount of character. All of these recipes are formulated for a standard infusion mash; rest temperature is indicated in the recipes. Yield is calculated at 75 percent; your mileage may vary. A pound or two of rice hulls will aid in sparging.
If you want to brew these with extract, I would suggest replacing all the pale malts (wheat and barley) with a good wheat ex-tract (pound for pound for liquid extract; 25 percent less for dry), then using a mini-mash for the colored malts. Hop rates are calculated for whole hops; for pellets, use 25 percent less.
Be sure to scrub citrus fruit thoroughly before zesting. All the spices should be added for the last 5 minutes of the boil. Use a not-too-extreme Belgian yeast strain, at temperatures in the high 60s if you can manage it. Carbonation for all these should be on the high side.
Don’t limit your deconstruction of a beer style to wit; there are lots of others that are ripe for the picking. Of course, this is by no means all that can be done with (or to) the wit style. If you want something really extreme, take that wit wine recipe and make an ice beer out of it!