Beer styles never seem to die out completely, although occasionally they’ve come close. One of the best Lazarus acts yet has been the Belgian witbier (known as Biere Blanche among the French speakers in Belgium).
Just as the Bavarian wheat beers (weissbier) almost totally succumbed to the introduction of pale lagers, so too did the Low Countries’ wheat beer. Once extremely popular in and around Brussels, the beers had virtually disappeared when Jean de Clerq published his landmark brewing text in 1957. De Clerq described several variations and lightly sketched the hopelessly old-fashioned brewing processes used to make them.
Pierre Celis, who lived in the brewing center of Hoegaarden in Belgium, single-handedly revived the style in 1966. His De Kluis brewery reintroduced Belgium to “white” beer, so-called because of its golden-white sheen. Earlier versions of witbier had apparently been intensely sour, but Celis’ Hoegaarden Wit was instead tart and refreshing. Other breweries joined the revival as Hoegaarden flourished, and today there are dozens of witbiers in Belgium, Holland, and northern France.
Celis’ success was great enough, in fact, that he was bought out by the giant Interbrew, which continues to produce Hoegaarden Wit, although its version seems toned down and less interesting than the original. Celis moved himself and his beer to Texas (which seemed at the time ridiculous), where Celis White has been met with a surprisingly welcoming audience. Or perhaps not so surprising, for witbiers are ideally suited to hot summer days.
Whether from Flanders or Austin, Texas, witbiers are intended to be flavorful and refreshing. Unlike their near cousins in Bavaria, witbiers are brewed with raw, unmalted wheat. The result is somewhat lighter and crisper than weissbier, without the latter’s characteristic clove-vanilla flavors. White beers are actually golden but with a distinct haze and a frothy white head. They were certainly known as white beers originally in contrast to darker beers, much as the pale Bavarian wheat beers were called weiss or white in contrast to the more common brown beers.
If we can call weissbier spicy because of the phenolic notes from wheat malt and a special yeast, witbiers are truly spicy — for spices are an integral ingredient. Before the use of hops became universal, medieval brewers added many different plants to their beer to flavor it and protect it from spoilage. Only the Belgians retain the practice today, alongside hops.
The most common spice used is coriander, which puts witbier in curious company. Coriander is the seed of coriandrum sativum, the plant perhaps more commonly known as cilantro or Chinese parsley. Food writer Bruce Cost has noted that coriander/cilantro is the most commonly used herb on the planet, a basic ingredient in the cooking of China, Southeast Asia, India, and Latin America.
Coriander doesn’t make witbier taste like fresh salsa but rather contributes a certain citrusy zest. The spiciness is further enhanced by the use of dried orange peel — bitter orange, also known as Curacao Orange.
In common with Berliner weiss, another German wheat beer, witbier may contain a lactic acid element that further enhances the beer’s tartness. The acidity, mandatory in Berliner Weiss but optional in witbier, comes from the action of Lactobacillus cultures.
Witbiers are composed of roughly equal portions of raw wheat and malted barley. Traditionally, the malt was what is known as wind malt, which was dried without kilning and subsequently very pale. With the very low color from the wheat, this results in the characteristically pale gold color.
Raw wheat is readily available (cheap!) at health food stores or the bulk section in any well-stocked market. Raw wheat is also extremely hard and much more difficult to grind than malted wheat or barley. It likewise calls for special efforts in the brewhouse because of its high protein levels. Decoction mashes, which are complicated and time consuming, will help considerably, as will step-infusion mashes with a long (45 minutes) protein rest.
If complicated mash programs sound like too much work, or the difficulty of grinding the wheat is too great, the simplest solution is to substitute flaked wheat for the raw wheat. I have recently seen torrified (puffed) wheat in the homebrew market, and this might be an interesting alternative to explore.
Few of us have access to wind malt, but any good two-row malt of very low color will be fine.
Some witbiers, including the original Hoegaarden (but not the new version), contain about 5 percent oats, which are credited with adding some smoothness to the beer. Again, rolled oats are readily (and cheaply) available at any grocery and lend themselves to any sort of mash.
Extract brewers have their work cut out for them in producing authentic witbiers. Raw and flaked wheat require mashing, and the barley/wheat extracts in the market are made with malted wheat. Getting authentic flavor and color is tough. The Half-Wit extract recipe (at right) is a good place to start, but some experimentation will definitely be required.
Witbiers are hopped, but hops barely figure into the flavor profile. British and Continental low-alpha varieties are most appropriate (Kent Goldings, Saaz, Hallertauer or American clones such as Mt. Hood or Liberty, for example). Distinctively American hops such as Cascade are all wrong, as are high-alpha varieties.
Spice is an unusual ingredient and something brewers may be unsure about. Use good, fresh coriander seeds (grind them just before use if you have a mortar and pestle) and add during the final moments of the boil. Start with about 0.75 to one ounce per five-gallon batch.
Bitter orange peel is apparently common enough in Europe but is tough to find in the United States. Fortunately as the interest in Belgian beers has grown, homebrew suppliers have begun to stock the more exotic ingredients. Check your local store or mail order sources. The peel is added late in the boil when about 20 minutes remain.
There are several possibilities for yeast strains, but a favorite (which also makes superb strong Belgian ales and Trappist-style beers) is Wyeast 3944.
The witbier brewers who use lactobacillus pasteurize the beer after the correct level of sourness is reached. Obviously, this isn’t a particularly useful technique for homebrewers, and even the bravest might be reluctant to allow lactobacillus loose in the brewhouse at any rate. A facsimile can be achieved by using food-grade lactic acid (88 percent) at bottling. Levels of five to 15 milliliters in a five-gallon batch work well, but the beer will require some time (one to two months) for the flavors to blend.
This month’s guest recipe is from David and Melinda Brockington. It is an all-grain recipe that David notes is in a continual state of change. He writes: “This recipe has done well at competition, taking a blue in a regional competition here in the Northwest and a second place at the 1993 Dixie Cup, where Pierre Celis himself judged the beer.”
Half-Wit (5 gallons, extract)
- 4 lbs. Alexander’s extra light malt extract
- 1 lb. Laaglander extra light dry malt extract
- 1 lb. dry wheat malt extract
- 3 lbs. flaked wheat
- 2 lbs. 2-row lager malt (crushed)
- 2.25 oz. Saaz hops (3.2% alpha acid), 2 oz. for 60 min., 0.25 oz. at finish
- 1 oz. coriander for 5 min.
- 0.5 oz. bitter orange peel for 20 min.
- 1-quart starter of Wyeast 3944
- 3/4 to 1 cup of corn sugar for priming
Step by Step:
Soak the flaked wheat and lager malt together in 1 gal. of 150° F water for 90 minutes, then rinse to kettle and add extracts. Add sufficient water to bring to 2.5 to 3 gals. Boil for 30 minutes, add 2 oz. hops. Boil for 40 more minutes. Add orange peel. Boil 15 minutes. Add coriander. Boil five minutes, turn off heat, and add remainder of hops. Add wort to pre-boiled, chilled water to 5 gals. Aerate thoroughly, and pitch yeast. Follow normal fermentation and bottling procedures, using 3/4 to 1 cup of corn sugar at bottling.
OG = 1.050
Zoso White (10 gallons)
- 6 lbs. DeWolf-Cosyns Belgian
- pilsner malt
- 1 lb. Great Western malted wheat
- 5 lbs. unmalted wheat flakes
- 1 lb. oat flakes
- 2 oz. Mt. Hood, 21484, or Liberty hops (about 3.8% alpha), 1.25 oz. for 60 min., 0.5 oz. for 15 min., 0.25 oz. at end of the boil
- 17 grams Curacao, 9 g. for 20 min., 8 g. at end of the boil
- 23 grams coriander 20 g. for 5 min., 3 g. at end of the boil
- 1- to 2-quart starter of Wyeast 3944
Step by Step:
Mash grains for 30 minutes at 120° F. Raise temperature to 152° F and hold for saccharification (about 60 minutes). Sparge to 11.5 gals. and boil for 30 minutes. Add 2 oz. hops and boil for 40 minutes. Add 17 g. Curacao and boil 5 minutes. Add 0.5 oz. hops and boil 10 minutes. Add 20 g. coriander and boil five minutes. End boil and add remaining hops, Curacao, and coriander. Aerate thoroughly and pitch yeast. Follow normal fermentation and bottling procedures.
OG = 1.050
— David and Melinda Brockington