Witbier: A hazy shade of summer

A once-dead minor historical style, what is now known as Belgian witbier, can be traced definitively to the work of one man, Pierre Celis. Its popularity is probably due more to the fact that Celis sold the brewery and brand to Interbrew (now AB InBev) who heavily promoted and supported it. While some breweries claim linkages to the middle ages, this particular style most certainly died and was later re-invented in the second half of the 20th century.

Before the days of hazy IPAs, witbier was one of the few intentionally cloudy beer styles produced. The use of unmalted wheat, as well as its medieval heritage, meant that it was often described as having a complicated mashing program and difficulty in production. The use of rare or possibly secret spices led to its mystique. And the fact that it could be a bit fragile and subject to souring meant that it could be difficult to get a good example. Yet it became quite popular among homebrewers who are always up to a challenge.

Witbier means white beer in Flemish (Dutch), and is also known by its French name of the same meaning, bière blanche. So, Belgian white is an acceptable translation, and many consumers just call it a wit for short. White refers both to the color of the beer and the fact that it uses wheat, which produces whiter-colored beers than those made with barley (often called red beers). The reflective “shine” evident in a witbier simply reinforces its whiteness without having to ask to speak to the manager.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) groups witbier in Category 24, Belgian Ales, along with Belgian pale ale and bière de garde (technically, a French-origin beer). These are mostly standard-strength, relatively balanced, non-sour beers without an aggressive yeast character. There are other style categories for higher-alcohol beer, sour beer, and beers of the type originating in monasteries. Witbier is Style 24A in the style guidelines.

Witbier History

Belgian white beers are a traditional family of styles produced in the Leuven area as early as the 14th century. The current-day Leuven district (arrondissement) is the eastern half of the Flemish Brabant province, which is located just to the east of Brussels in north-central Belgium. The modern witbier is not the only type of white beer, with Blanche de Louvain, Peeterman, and Hoegaarden types cited in Stan Hieronymus’ Brewing with Wheat, which in turn cites Georges Lacambre’s 1851 book Traité complet de la fabrication de bières et de la distillation des grains. Hieronymus’ book devotes three chapters to this style and is a good reference for anyone looking to dig deeper.

These three “white” beers were different, with the Leuven type beer being fairly popular. Peeterman was described as a darker beer using calcium hydroxide and a long boil to darken the wort. Hoegaarden was described as local and rustic. Brewing professor Jean de Clerck found them to be often infected with Lactobacillus and of varying sourness. De Clerck’s 1958 A Textbook of Brewing makes only the briefest mention of the styles as “old type,” “very out of date,” and “extremely complicated.” The Hoegaarden brewery claims they first brewed in 1445 by local monks, but this is not the same brewery and not the same recipe as used today.

While some breweries claim linkages to the middle ages, this particular style most certainly died and was later re-invented in the second half of the 20th century.

All of these styles died out before the modern craft era. They were fairly popular refreshing summer beers before World War I interrupted wheat supplies in Europe. The last brewery to produce the Hoegaarden-type, Tomsin, closed in 1957. But there is linkage to the older styles as the rebirth is well documented. Pierre Celis, a milkman by profession, worked at Tomsin and later recreated the style in 1966 in his hometown of Hoegaarden. Michael Jackson’s books describe these events in vivid detail. His Great Beers of Belgium devotes an entire chapter to the style.

Celis opened the De Kluis brewery and began producing a white beer called Hoegaarden, after the eponymous town. A small town of several thousand people, it had 30 breweries in the mid-1700s, but only six before World War I. Celis sold the brand to Interbrew in 1985, after expanding the brewery in the 1970s and later having a fire. The marketing muscle of a large brewing conglomerate led to the widespread availability of the style in modern times.

Celis later founded Celis Brewery in Austin, Texas in 1992 to produce a similar style in the U.S. As Interbrew had changed the recipe, he was brewing his original version. Celis eventually sold his brewery to Miller in 2000, which closed the brewery in 2001. Miller later sold the brand to Michigan Brewing, which went bankrupt in 2011. A new Celis brewery run by Pierre Celis’ daughter Christine reopened in Austin in 2017.

The story of business dealings with large industry “partners” is a sad one for the original modern version of the beer, but it did serve as inspiration for many imitative products. So, the style was reborn and continues to live on, but the history is not exactly contiguous. Modern versions should not be taken to be surviving examples of medieval brews, despite some tenuous linkages. Of note, Pierre Celis did consult with St. Bernardus to create their version of witbier in Watou, Belgium. Van Steenberge also brews Celis White for the Belgian market. Modern Hoegaarden is definitely a big industry product, not a small-town craft beer.

Pierre Rajote wrote in the Belgian Ales style book in 1992 that there were only two breweries making the beer in the 1980s, but by 1990 there were more than 20 brands. He described the beer as being traditionally from Leuven, but now produced across Belgium. Consulting different references from various points in time has a way of showing various snapshots in history that can build a story when pieced together.

Americanized versions exist and remain popular. Coors Brewing developed Blue Moon in the 1990s (which outsold all craft brewing combined at one point), although it uses different types of oranges than the original style. Allagash Brewing Co.’s White was developed around the same time and is well-regarded in the brewing community, but is a bit more bitter than the Belgian versions. I see these versions as inspired by the original, but with American twists.

Sensory Profile

Witbiers are a pale wheat beer with spices accenting the yeast character. Despite some American versions being aggressive with the spicing, the beers should have a restrained, delicate character where the spicing doesn’t overpower the other flavors. The suspended proteins and yeast make the beer have a milky white sheen that is characteristic, and the high wheat content gives it a bready flavor.

The classic spice profile is dried Curaçao (bitter) orange peel and coriander seed. Used in liqueurs like Triple Sec and Cointreau (as well as some gins), Curaçao orange is very aromatic. Fresh coriander seeds have a lemony, slightly earthy character. This citrusy complexity adds to the general fruitiness of the yeast fermentation profile. A light spiciness is desirable, but not a heavily clove-y character. Restraint is desirable when using spices. Spices should be fresh; old or oxidized versions can have an unwanted celery, ham, or soapy quality.

Witbier doesn’t have a strong hop character. Rajotte writes that “hop aroma has no business in white beer” and many examples seem to have around 12 IBUs, so this is not a bitter beer either. Yet it is also not a sweet beer; the finish should be dry. The impression some have of sweetness comes from the low bitterness and the fruity aromatics.

Because of the unmalted grains, there tends to be some moderate body to the beer. The combination of body and dryness, along with high carbonation, leads to a refreshing character without seeming thin. The high carbonation and protein content of the beer gives a very rocky, creamy head. The color of the beer is very pale, straw to pale yellow, but the cloudiness gives it a whiter appearance.

The wheat and barley give the beer a slightly bready flavor, but often with a lightly honey-sweet quality. As an approximately 5% ABV beer, this is a standard-strength product that doesn’t have big bold flavors or noticeable alcohol.

Some mention of a lactic sourness is noted in older versions of the style, although it is not clear that this is intentional. The older methods of production could introduce this, and many note that the beer is best enjoyed fresh. Some sources mentioned the beer being pasteurized to remove this character, so I tend to think it was an unintentional rustic element that just happened sometimes. As a dry, low bitterness, high carbonation beer, sourness is not really needed to make it refreshing. A light tartness is allowable because of the historical nature, but it isn’t really a part of the modern style.

Brewing Ingredients and Methods

The white beers of Belgium are principally characterized by their use of unmalted (raw) wheat, which causes some issues in brewing that must be addressed. Wheat is frequently 30–60% of the grist. Other unmalted grains such as oats or spelt may be used as part of the grist, but are typically only a small percentage (typically 10% or less), if used at all. In his book A Textbook of Brewing, Jean De Clerck mentions 5% oats, for instance. Pale barley malt is the remainder of the grist, not necessarily Pilsner-type malt but it should be low color. Some sources say that the wheat doesn’t have to be raw, but most examples do use unmalted wheat.

Since the style began hundreds of years ago before brewing processes and science was well-understood, many of the processes for dealing with the wheat were long and complex. Modern methods can certainly reduce these times, but many traditional methods were based on trial-and-error rather than solving particular problems. De Clerck described cereal mashes and mixed mashing methods with wheat boiled separately and multiple mash rests. Much of these processes seem to be dealing with making sure the wheat is properly gelatinized before it is converted, and then to avoid scorching of the viscous mash.

Modern approaches can use pre-gelatinized flaked wheat (and oats) to avoid the laborious mashing processes. Some flavor could be compromised by using these ingredients; in his book, Radical Brewing, Randy Mosher recommends performing a cereal mash to better preserve that character. It’s definitely a trade-off, but I consider it to be a very advanced method. I wouldn’t use it on my first attempt at the style; better to understand the fermentation and spicing first. Most commercial breweries today seem to be using a step mash process. Homebrewers can use rice hulls if working with the huskless wheat makes lautering difficult.

The coriander and orange peel are highly aromatic, so use them late in the boiling process or at the end of the boil. Avoid excessive contact times to keep from extracting too much astringent qualities from the spices, since those are not desirable in the finished profile. Some experiment with different types of citrus or orange varieties, and also with coriander of different origin (Moroccan versus Indian). These experiments are interesting, but remember the classic profile as a reference. Curaçao orange peel is always dried, never fresh. If using fresh citrus peel, take care to avoid any white pith.

There are several Belgian witbier yeast strains available. Wyeast 3944 (Belgian Witbier), Wyeast 3942 (Belgian Wheat), Wyeast 3463 (Forbidden Fruit), White Labs WLP400 (Belgian Wit), and White Labs WLP410 (Belgian Wit II) among liquid strains while SafAle T-58 and Mangrove Jack’s M21 (Belgian Wit) can be used for dried strains. The water of the Hoegaarden region is described as being hard and calcium-rich; I don’t find the beer to have a minerally profile, so I think you have some latitude here.

Homebrew Example

I’m not a fan of cereal mashes at the homebrew scale, so I’m going to use flaked wheat and oats rather than the raw grains. Pilsner malt is the rest of the grist, because the flavor is less grainy and the color is less dark than many other pale malts. While I call for German Pilsner malt, if you have Belgian malt (like Dingemans) use that instead. I want the final beer to be as pale as possible. A step mash helps break down the starches in the flaked grains, using a short protein rest and then a conversion temperature on the low side to encourage attenuation. I skip a higher temperature rest I normally use to build body since I know I have some oats in the grist, and they will provide mouthfeel.

Hops are minimal in this recipe. I keep the bitterness at the bare threshold level and omit any finishing hops since I don’t want them to clash with the spices and yeast. Noble-type hops are mellow in the flavor, so I use what is freshest for me (Sterling, in this case). Feel free to substitute another smooth hop to get the same IBUs.

A classic yeast strain with a cool fermentation temperature builds some yeast flavor without getting too extreme. Higher fermentation temperatures can make the beer seem less clean, in my opinion. The spices are traditional with the optional chamomile that some speculate is the secret ingredient in Hoegaarden. A short steep period post-boil extracts the flavor and aroma without too many tannins and unwanted characteristics.

The beer should ferment dry but not seem bitter because of the low IBUs. This should increase drinkability, as long as it is carbonated well. The spices shouldn’t be heavy, but if you find yourself wanting more, you can always make a quick “tea” of the parts you want to increase and blend it in post-fermentation. That is how I always fine-tune my spiced beers for competition since the freshness and intensity of spices can vary greatly.
Like a German hefeweizen, this beer can be fairly delicate and not hold up well over time. So enjoy it fresh and young, and make it again if you run out; this isn’t really a vintage style. If you make it right, it can be a very enjoyable summer beer.

Gordon Strong’s Witbier

Photo by Charles A. Parker/Images Plus

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.050 FG = 1.011
IBU = 12 SRM = 3.5 ABV = 5.1%

5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg) German Pilsner malt
5 lbs. (2.3 kg) flaked wheat
8 oz. (227 g) flaked oats
3.1 AAU Sterling hops (60 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 6.2% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) coriander seed, crushed
0.25 oz. (7 g) Curaçao orange peel
1.8 g chamomile flowers, dried
Wyeast 3944 (Belgian Witbier), White Labs WLP400 (Belgian Wit), or SafAle T-58 yeast
7⁄8 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
This recipe uses reverse osmosis (RO) water. Adjust all brewing water to a pH of 5.5 using phosphoric acid. Add 1 tsp. of calcium chloride (CaCl2) to the mash.

This recipe calls for a step mash process. Start by mashing in the grains at 122 °F (50 °C) using a 1.5 qts./lb. (3.1 L/kg) water-to-grist ratio. Hold at this temperature for 15 minutes. Through either infusion with boiling water or with a recirculating mash system, raise the temperature to 148 °F (64 °C). Rest at that temperature for 45 minutes, or until saccharification is complete.

Sparge slowly and collect 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort. If lautering is difficult, adding a pound (0.45 kg) of rice hulls can help.

Boil the wort for 90 minutes, adding the single hop addition 30 minutes after the start of the boil. Put all three of the spices in a tight mesh bag and add when boil is complete, stirring; remove after five minutes.

Chill the wort down to 64 °F (18 °C), pitch the yeast, and ferment until complete. After a short conditioning, rack the beer, prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate.

Gordong Strong’s Witbier

(5 gallons/19 L, extract only)
OG = 1.050 FG = 1.011
IBU = 12 SRM = 3.5 ABV = 5.1%

5.3 lbs. (2.4 kg) Bavarian wheat dried malt extract
3.1 AAU Sterling hops (60 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 6.2% alpha acids)
0.5 oz. (14 g) coriander seed, crushed
0.25 oz. (7 g) Curaçao orange peel
1.8 g chamomile flowers, dried
Wyeast 3944 (Belgian Witbier), White Labs WLP400 (Belgian Wit), or SafAle T-58 yeast
7⁄8 cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Start with 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of water in the brew kettle; heat water to 158 °F (70 °C).

Turn off the heat. Add the malt extract and stir thoroughly to dissolve completely. Turn the heat back on and bring to a boil.

Boil the wort for 60 minutes, adding hops at the time indicated. Put the spices in a tight mesh bag and add when boil is complete, stirring; remove after 5 minutes.

Chill the wort down to 64 °F (18 °C), pitch the yeast, and ferment until complete. After a short conditioning, rack the beer, prime and bottle condition, or keg and force carbonate.

Tips for Success:
This is one of those styles that is hard to duplicate the pillowy mouthfeel that the flaked wheat and oats provide by substituting with extracts. With the advent of the brew-in-a-bag systems, this is the perfect brew to give that type of system a try if you don’t currently brew all-grain. Just take it slow and steady through the temperature step and don’t worry if the resting temperatures are off some. We’re sure you’ll still be happy with the results. And be sure to use fresh spices.

Issue: March-April 2021