After celebrating July American-Style, we head back to Belgium for the fine month of August. As we begin to enjoy–and savor–the last month of summer, we will explore a light yet flavorful style. Thus, Witbiers are the focus of our palates this month.
All Witbiers are wheat beers, but not all wheat beers are Witbiers (repeat that three times fast). Wheat beers are brewed with a high proportion of wheat, and are top-fermented–thus, ales. The Witbier, which is derived from the Flemish name for “white beer,” should not be confused with the Weissbier, which is German for “white beer.” Confusing, no? Well, to clarify, let’s look at the numbers: Weissbiers are brewed with 50% wheat and 50% malt, while Witbiers are brewed with more wheat and are flavored with an array of spices–from coriander to orange zest. The wheat protein, along with the yeast that remains suspended in the brew, makes the Witbier look cloudy, or white, when cold.
BEER SNOB ALERT: As we begin this exploration, we kindly ask you to ignore the fact that Blue Moon claims to be a Witbier. It is not (really) a Witbier. Alright, maybe it’s a Belgian-style Witbier in some right, but it is certainly not indicative of the style. Do not be fooled!
The Witbier has its origin in 14th century Belgian monasteries. France also likes ’em and calls the style “bière blanche.” And of course, American breweries have adopted this style as their own and sometimes refer to them as “Wittes.” The more names for a style, the more delicious the beer (if the Witbier is any indication).
If you’re hopped out from last month’s serving of brutal IPAs, this month is the one for you: the Witbier was created in medieval times as an alternative to using hops. Instead of dousing the brew in hops, a mixture of spices called “gruit” was introduced to preserve the ale. Historically, gruit included a wide variety of spices and herbs; now, it’s largely coriander and orange, and sometimes a nontraditional ingredient.
The Witbier was insanely popular among farmers in Belgium for the same reason that Saisons were: they were light, crisp, and had a low ABV. (Witbiers typically range from 4.0-7.0%.) These farmers, predominantly of grain and beet, hailed from east Belgium, where two breweries developed two different Witbiers: one from Louvain, and the other from a small town called…wait for it…Hoegaarden. Believe it or not, the beer from Louvain was more popular throughout Europe (where it was called “bière blanche de Louvain”) than its Hoegaarden counterpart–clearly history vilifies them in the end.
While both were widely consumed for centuries, the inception of the lager in the 19th century and, later, the decline of beer consumption post-WWII led to the Hoegaarden facility shutting down production in the mid-1950s. (Louvain followed in suit in the mid-1970s.) But it wasn’t long before milkman-turned-beer savior Pierre Celis decided to revive the Witbier in the 1960s at the Hoegaarden facility.
To call the revival a success is an understatement: Hoegaarden is now owned by megabeeropolis Interbrew (apparently a forced sale between Celis and Interbrew), and Celis has since opened a brewery in Austin, TX and produces Celis White.
Pierre Selis, the man who resurrected the Witbier
So, what to expect from a Witbier?
Sight: The Witbier is unfiltered, and thus quite cloudy. The color can range from a pale yellow (think Hoegaarden) to a medium orange. As mentioned, the cloudiness is also due to the suspended yeast and wheat proteins seen when the beer is cold.
Smell: Coriander, citrusy, and peppery, with a light grain aroma.
Flavor: Witbiers are always spiced, so coriander and other spices will be prevalent, but not overpowering. (Coriander, when not used appropriately, can give it a slight ham-like taste.) There may be a sweetness, like honey or vanilla, and citrus, like orange peel. It could be very slightly hopped, and due to the presence of lactic acid, could be a little tart or sour, like a lambic. Witbiers are the ones you tend to see served with a lemon; but be forewarned: that will obviously change the flavor profile of the beer.
Feel: Crisp but a little creamy, with a thin-to-medium mouthfeel and lively carbonation.
So call it what you will–a Witte, a Bière Blanche, or a Witbier–but whatever your preference, this month, cool down during the dog days of summer with this fine Belgian (or Belgian-style) wheat beer. Cheers!