Beer

Beer Education: Belgian Witbier

(Note: This is a modified version of a piece I wrote for the Stormcloud Brewing Co. mug club members.) 

I want to share with you about another traditional, Belgian-style beer – the Witbier. Witbiers are described as refreshing, elegant, tasty, moderate-strength wheat-based ales.¹ Cheers!

The Witbier is a 400-year-old Belgian Beer Style.¹ In Flemish, the word “wit” means “white”, and signifies a beer made with wheat.² According to Garrett Oliver, Brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewery, in the 1500s, “spices from far-flung lands started to become available in Europe” and quickly found their way into European cooking – and brewing.³ The Witbier is a relic from this movement, often incorporating one or more spices into the brew, popularly coriander or Curacao orange peel⁴ but sometimes ingredients like chamomile, cumin, cinnamon, and Grains of Paradise.¹ Records show multiple variations of white beer brewed in the Flanders region of Belgium because wheat grew especially well there, and unmalted grains were cheaper for brewers to use than malt. Early Belgian Witbier was usually brewed during the summer months and meant to be consumed quickly as a summer refresher. This beer began to be made year-round and became quite popular in Belgium – that is until World War I. The war forced wheat to be rationed for bread making only.² By the 1950s, Witbier had nearly gone extinct – “a victim of wars, fashionable lagers, and brewery consolidations.”³ Fortunately, a man named Pierre Celis changed it all. Celis, a milkman and former brewery employee, held a certain fondness for Witbier, and set about reviving it.² He started a new brewery called De Kluis, which was dedicated to creating a Witbier called Hoegaarden, named for the town where the brewery was located.⁴ It became quite popular, and inspired other Belgium as well as international breweries around the world to brew Witbiers.

Witbiers have light, grainy, spicy wheat aromas, often with a bit of tartness. Moderate perfumey coriander, often with complex herbal, spicy, or peppery notes may appear in the background. You’ll also get moderate zesty, citrusy-orange fruitiness.¹

The Witbier’s appearance is very pale straw to very light gold in color. The SRM, or Standard Reference Method is a way brewers measure a beers color, and Witbier should range between 2-4.¹ See SRM chart below.

Additionally, it may appear hazy from the wheat and oats.²

With the Witbier, the mouthfeel tends to have medium body, smoothness and light creaminess from the unmalted wheat and oats.¹

The flavor traits of the Witbier are similar to its aroma – pleasant malty-sweet grain flavor (often with a honey and/or vanilla character²) and an orange fruitiness. Herbal-spicy flavors are common and subtly balanced. There may be a low spicy-earth hop flavor, but it won’t get in the way of the spices. Additionally, hop bitterness will be medium-low, and won’t interfere with the refreshing flavors of fruit and spice.¹

Some brewers add another traditional touch to their Witbier by conducting a limited lactic fermentation, blending in a portion of soured beer, or adding lactic acid to enhance the tart crispness of the beer.²

The book The Brewmaster’s Table³ suggests several excellent food pairings with the Witbier. Author and Brewmaster Garrett Oliver states that, “as nice as some other beers are with salads, witbier has to be the overall winner.” He does caution against using dressing that is overly sweet, and suggests that vinaigrettes are the best way to go.

Later, Oliver says, “at brunch, Witbier tastes better than the best orange juice you’ve ever had.” He continues to say that “the orange aromatics awaken the senses and then provide a beautiful counterpoint to egg dishes” and “bacon and sausages will swoon before its quenching acidity.”

Another pairing he calls “a real star” is Witbier and fish, because it is light enough to complement “even the most delicate fish” while with stronger dishes it “lifts the oils and brightens flavors without disturbing the essential qualities of the fish.”

I hope this post offered you some insight to yet another wonderful beer style. Keep your eyes peeled, Stormcloud Brewing Company may be releasing a limited small-batch Witbier in the very near future!


References

¹ BJCP Beer Style Guidelines. 2015 ed., Beer Judge Certification Program, 2015, pp. 48-49.

² De Baets, Yvan, editor. Belgian Beer Styles Course. Cicerone Certification Program, 2020, pp. 48-50. Road to Cicerone®.

³ Oliver, Garrett. The Brewmaster’s Table. First Eco Paperback ed., HarperCollins Publishers, 2005, pp. 81-96

⁴ Oliver, Garrett, editor. The Oxford Companion to Beer. Oxford University Press, 2012, pp. 842-843.

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