As the weather turns to sunny and warm, I inevitably start craving different styles of beer. A lot of the world has no problem drinking stouts all year long, and lagers and lightweight IPAs are always great during summer, but my thoughts mostly turn to effervescent saisons and witbiers. The east coast has an ongoing enjoyment of cream ales, amber lagers and white beer, but over here on the west side a good wit isn’t always easy to find. Wits are often overshadowed by hoppier ales or worse, suffer from an association with the few prominent macro white beer brands that occupy a large space on shelves and in bars. Witbiers have a long, interesting history, involve real creativity, recipe balancing and often complicated brewing methods.
Wit (Dutch for white and pronounced with a “v”) beers are old concepts–about 400 years old, in fact, but they fell out of common brewing practice somewhere along the line, probably in the 1950s. The Belgian brewer Pierre Celis revived the beer a decade or so later (his original brewery is now owned by ABI and produces Hoegaarden) and the style spread again on a larger scale to other parts of Belgium and the US. Of course, Belgium isn’t the only country to brew a white beer–France has its bière blanche and Germany has its weissbier. However, most of the American examples are closer to the Belgian version.
The most traditional way to brew a witbier involves a large portion of unmalted wheat, pilsner malt, sometimes oats, a specific yeast strain, light continental hops and a spices–usually bitter orange peel and coriander, but sometimes other spices as well. It should be noted that brewing with a large portion of wheat is a challenging idea, and unmalted wheat has further challenges. Wheat, unlike barley, lacks a husk, and can easily create a stuck mash if not treated properly. Barley husks act as mini-filtering devices and allow the sweet wort to drain during the lautering process. Any under or non-modified grains need to be cooked, and/or brought up to a specific resting temperature to accomplish many things, mostly helping the sugars to become available for fermentation. Essentially, to brew this style in the traditional way, you need access to certain types of grain, a special mashtun/brewhouse and a setup of open fermentors–all things that American breweries are not usually set up for. Thankfully there are other versions of witbiers out there that aren’t as old-school but are still delicious. Getting the right flavors out of yeast is also a key part of this style, and of course is with all styles–but the focus on yeast flavor in a witbier is usually much more prominent–and as with hefeweizens, the yeast is not removed from the beer upon packaging. Yes kids, this is the original haze.
What about the spices? I’ve written previously about the use of coriander in beer. It’s an important flavor component in white beers alongside dried orange peel. Depending on brewery, both sweet and bitter orange are added, and sometimes even more fun spices–ginger, grains of paradise, chamomile, lavender–much like the aromatics in gin or aquavit, the ingredients vary. The right combination is a challenge–all the flavors should complement but not overwhelm the spicy, sweet notes of the malt and the big yeast esters. All these complicating factors make the style quite an accomplishment when done well.
I’d encourage you to try more witbiers at local breweries or buy packaged versions–I’d love to see more focus on the style on this side of the country especially. It should also be noted that Pierre Celis’s daughter Christine Celis now runs the new Celis Brewery in Austin, Texas where she and her daughter Daytona Camps (a third-generation brewer) make the Celis White and other brands.
If you’re seeking advice on where to start or continue tasting white beers, here are a few I recommend: