Welcome to the Belgian Style Series of blog posts. During this series, we will look at the many beer styles produced in Belgium. In each post, we’ll focus on one major style and explore it in depth.
Our style for this post is Belgian Witbier (White Beer in English and Biere Blanche in French). It’s called white beer because it is very pale and has a hazy - or “white” - appearance due to suspended yeast and wheat proteins. Witbiers are made from barley malt and a high proportion of unmalted wheat. They are fresh, effervescent and best consumed young. In recent years, witbiers have seen growing popularity in Europe and have become a favorite style of craft breweries here in the United States.
A Long History with a Recent Revival
Historically, the witbier style has been around for hundreds of years – with records of witbier being produced in Belgian monasteries as far back as the 14th century. The farming area around Louvain, east of Brussels, became known for its many witbiers. Over the years, though, as clear, golden lagers became the rage across Europe, witbiers lost popularity and had died out completely by the 1950s. Then, in 1966, a milkman by the name of Pierre Celis revived the style in the small Belgian village of Hoegaarden, and its popularity has grown steadily ever since. Today, Hoegaarden Wit remains the classic example of witbier and enjoys worldwide distribution.
Rustic and Exotic Ingredients
Witbiers are traditionally half malted barley (pilsner malt) and half unmalted wheat (hard red winter wheat). Sometimes, a small proportion of oats and/or malted wheat is used as well. Hops are typically herbal - East Kent Goldings or Saaz varieties - and bittering is low, usually around 20 IBUs. The most unique ingredients in witbier, though, are spices – a throwback to the days when more than just hops were used to counter the sweetness of the grains.
The most common spices in witbier are coriander and bitter Curacao orange peel, although ginger, cardamom, cumin, chamomile or grains of paradise show up in many examples.
Complex Sensory Profile
Witbiers are typically bottle or cask conditioned and unfiltered, casting a bit of sediment. They are 4.5 to 5.0 percent alcohol by volume and sport a dense, mousse-like head. Their perfumy aroma leads to a silky mouthfeel and a slightly tart, honey-like flavor with fruity and herbal notes.
Witbiers are quintessentially Belgian – combining a refreshing rural character with an exotic touch. They have long been a summertime staple, but in recent times have gained year-round popularity.
Witbier Tasting Panel
The Bruz tasting panel recently tasted a variety of commercial witbiers from both Belgian and North American breweries. Tasting them all together was a rare opportunity to compare a range of beers in one sitting.
The panel liked the Belgian (and Canadian) examples best. The hands-down favorite was St. Bernardus Wit, which was clean, aromatic, flavorful and perfectly balanced. Not surprising as Pierre Celis himself helped the St. Sixtus monks formulate the recipe. Close behind it were Unibroue’s Blanche de Chambly, Hoegaarden Wit, and Blanche de Bruxelles. Again, balance, complexity and harmonious aromas and flavors put these at the top of the list.
From U.S. craft breweries, Allagash White and Ommegang Witte rivaled their Belgian counterparts, with Samuel Adams Cold Snap (Winter Seasonal) joining them. Avery’s White Rascal was true to the style and Blue Moon showed particularly well for a macro-brewery offering. Alaskan White was surprisingly one-dimensional while Anheuser Busch’s Shock Top came in a distant last.