Nick Carr on June 15, 2016 0 Comments History of Belgian-Style Witbier All of Belgium’s modern brewing history can be traced to sustenance brewing, either on the family farm or in monasteries. The witbier style, also known as bière blanche in the French speaking part of Belgium, is no different. It’s origins as a monastery brew stretches back to at least the 14th century and a time when all brewing ingredients came from local crops, and hops had not yet gained the monopoly they later would in the brewing world. Instead, specific combinations of herbs and/or spices known as gruit were used to balance the sweetness of the malt, but both their medicinal and sometimes intoxicating qualities were also welcomed in the brew kettle. The farming communities and monasteries in the province of Broadbent, and particularly around the cities of Leuven and Hoegaarden, became well known for their witbiers. By the 16th century, there was over two dozen brewer’s plying their trade in the small village of Hoegaarden. As hops slowly choked out other bittering herbs, Belgian brewers made the transition reluctantly. Many Belgian styles, witbier included, pay homage, even today, to a history abounding in the use of other herbs. Further changes in the brewing landscape caused a shift in consumer popularity. Lager brewing gained a foothold and slowly began to clamber across Europe. Though Belgium probably held out the longest, even they succumbed, no longer able to compete with the lighter, crystal-clear lagers. Through the late 1800s and into the 1900s, one by one Belgian brewers found no other alternative but to shut their doors. Hit especially hard was the witbier style and the area around Hoegaarden. In 1957, the last Hoegaarden brewery closed shop. That could have been the final gloomy note in witbier’s history, but for one man. Enter the hero, Pierre Celis. A milk-man who dearly loved the local brew, he made it his self-prescribed mission to revive the witbier style to its former glory. In 1965, Celis built a small brewery in his shed and after experimenting with various witbier recipes, released his first belgian wit to the public in 1966. It found a willing and exuberant audience, an audience ready for a backward glance and rediscovery of styles left behind in the rural landscape of the country’s past. Riding the coattails of his unexpected success other brewer’s dug in attics and dusted off old witbier recipes. In 1978, Celis moved his brewery to an abandoned soft drink facility and renamed it De Kluis (The Cloister). When a fire destroyed the brewery in 1985, he found himself in a bit of a spot. The brewery was under-insured and in desperation he sold a piece of it to Stella Artois. Three years later Stella merged with Piedboeuf and became Interbrew. Almost immediately, Celis ran into disagreements with those in charge about how his beer should be brewed. Refusing to compromise his craft he sold the rest of the shares to Interbrew. Then in 1989 he packed up, and headed for America. He settled in Austin, Texas, with plans for another brewery already simmering. With help from his daughter Christine, he opened the Celis Brewing Company in 1992 and began to brew Celis White. It was a hit with the burgeoning craft beer crowd. But, again, he had the misfortune of falling in with big beer. This time it was Miller and after more disagreements — again largely about craft compromise in search of higher profits — he opted out and moved back to Belgium. A year later Miller shelved the Celis name in the wake of waning sales, due in large part to the very compromises Pierre fought against. From 2002 until its closing in 2012, Michigan Brewing Company had the rights to the Celis trademark, but when the company went under in 2012 the name and all its rights returned to the Celis family. A few years later, Christine Celis relaunched the family business, bringing back her fathers original witbier recipe along with the first brewmaster hired to brew it. Not many styles owe their revival and renewal in popularity to a single man. Witbier does. Today, it continues to be a force in not only its home country, but has found new and fertile ground in America’s flourishing craft brewing scene. Style Profile The guidelines for the Belgian-Style Witbier are set by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) Style Committee. The below details are a summary of what a Witbier should represent. Quick Characteristics Color Range: 2–4 SRM Original Gravity: 1.044–1.052 Final Gravity: 1.008–1.012 IBU Range: 8–20 ABV Range: 4.5–5.5% Aroma: Light & sweet maltiness with possible grainy tartness; Possible notes of honey or vanilla; Yeast adds notes of pepper & spice; Hoppiness will be low & balanced, with spicy or herbal qualities; Citrusy fruitiness possible; No vegetal characteristics in this style. Flavor: Sweet maltiness with possible notes of vanilla, honey or orange zest; May have tarty wheat flavors; Herbal spices should be noticeable; Little to no hoppy flavors; Low bitterness; Vegetal, soapy or excessive bitterness is not acceptable. Appearance: Ranges from straw colored to pale yellow-gold; Dense and creamy white head with excellent retention; Clarity will be hazy and cloudy. Mouthfeel: Smooth, creamy mouthfeel; Medium-light to medium body with high carbonation; Dry finish. Serving & Storage Temperature: 40-45°F Shelf Life: 3-6 months Suggested Glass: Tulip Glass Food Pairings: Salads; Light Fish or Lobster; Bacon or Ham; Scrambled Eggs; Feta Cheese; Citrus Desserts Appearance: These are not filtered so they will have a cloudy haze that may appear almost milky in some cases. Color will be from a sun-soaked straw to a pale yellow-gold. Head will be dense, white and creamy. Retention should be excellent. Aroma: Malt will be light, sweet, slightly spicy, with light wheat tartness and some graininess; can often carry whispers of honey and/or vanilla. Coriander lends to the herbal complexity of the yeast bringing added peppery and spicy notes. Can also be spicy and herbal from the hops, but this should not overshadow the beer’s underlying characteristics. Some fruitiness may present as citrus and/or orange. All should work together to bring a balance. Spices should not overpower the fruity, floral, and sweet scents. Any vegetal or vegetal-like characteristics present would be wrong for the style. Mouthfeel: Unmalted wheat can create a smooth creamy mouthfeel. Body runs medium-light to medium. Carbonation is high lending an effervescent spritzy character, which builds nicely on light acidity and a lack of harsh bitterness to bring a feeling of freshness. It should keep to a middle ground; neither too thin nor too heavy. Finish is dry. Taste: Malty-sweet with possible whispers of vanilla and/or honey pairing with the citrus/orange zest of the fruit. May also carry low wheat flavors including some tartness. Complex mix of herbal spiciness, including coriander, should be noticeable but not overwhelming. Hop flavors will be low if there at all, showing as spicy and earthy; but should not be so strong they hid the other spicy flavors. Bitterness will be low, unobtrusive, and should not carry into the finish. Any pithy bitterness from the orange peel is inappropriate, as is any vegetal, soapy, ham-like, or celery-like flavors. Food Pairing: Witbier is a great partner to lunch. Salads are its soulmate no matter the topping. Light fish, lobster, sushi, and smoked salmon shine bright when set to the dance of a witbier. Cheese, eggs, ham, and bacon; all those things combined in so many beautiful ways to beat away those midday hunger pangs find a soothing embrace here. Any sort of cuisine carrying citrus flavors (sauces, marinades, desserts, etc.) is in good company with a witbier, but don’t go too hot. Witbier is too shallow a pool to bury driving heat. Serving: For best presentation and greatest appreciation, a Belgian witbier should be served at around 40-45°F in a tulip. They are best stored at cellar temperatures away from light and enjoyed within 3 to 6 months. *Reference: The 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines Award-Winning Examples of the Style Hoegaarden Wit from Hoegaarden Brewery, Inbev Belgium (Hoegaarden, Belgium) World Beer Cup Winner, Gold, 2016 & Silver, 2012. Available: Year Round. Gentleman’s Wit from Camden Brewing Company (London, UK) World Beer Cup Winner, Silver, 2016 & Bronze, 2014. Available: Year Round. Plum Island White from Newburyport Brewing Company (Newburyport, MA) World Beer Cup Winner, Bronze, 2016. Available: Year Round. Allagash White from Allagash Brewing Company (Portland, ME) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Gold, 2015. World Beer Cup Winner, Gold, 2012. Available: Year Round. White Rascal from Avery Brewing Company (Boulder, CO) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Silver, 2015. Available: Year Round. Optimal Wit from Port City Brewing Company (Alexandria, VA) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Bronze, 2015 & Gold, 2013. Available: Year Round. White Ale from Saint Archer Brewing Company (San Diego, CA) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Gold, 2014. Available: Year Round. Ommegang Witte from Brewery Ommegang (Cooperstown, NY) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Silver, 2014. Available: Year Round. ZON Belgian-Style Witbier from Boulevard Brewing Company (Kansas City, MO) Great American Beer Festival Winner, Bronze, 2014 and 2013. Available: Unknown. More Popular Witbier’s To Try St. Bernardus Witbier from Brouwerij St. Bernardus (Watou, Belgium) Celis White from Brouwerij Van Steenberge (Lindenlaan, Belgium) Alaskan White from Alaskan Brewing Company (Juneau, AK) Nest White Ale from Kiuchi Brewing (Naka, Ibaraki Prefecture, Japan) St. Bretta from Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project (Denver, CO) Tips for Brewing a Belgian Witbier If you’re interested in brewing your own witbier at home, here are a few things you should know going into it. Click Here to Buy a Witbier Brewing Kit Grain Bill: The grain bill for a Belgian witbier is straight forward but changes slightly depending on how you decide to run your mash. The recipe is simple, usually consists of a 50/50 blend of unmalted wheat and very pale malt. When choosing your barley malt you want to go with the palest possible, while still having an eye for quality. You also want to make sure it has the diastatic power needed for the extra work created by the unmalted wheat. For authenticity, use Belgian or German pilsner malt, though American pilsner or even 2-row will also do the job. Avoid pale ale malt because it is kilned at a slightly higher temperature than either pilsner or 2-row. The decision about what kind of wheat to use is going to depend on what sort of mash you decide to run. Something I’ll address in greater detail below, but for now let’s just look at your three choices of wheat; flaked wheat (the easiest to use), unmalted wheat (authentic, but the most challenging to use), and malted wheat (not authentic at all, but easy to use). Note that using malted wheat will create a flavor profile hard to rectify with the style and more in line with the American Wheat style. If you decide to go with the raw unmalted wheat, it can easily be found in most co-ops or whole food markets in the “bulk” section. If you have a choice between white and red wheat, I’d recommend going with the white and remember you’ll have to mill it yourself. Grinding wheat will strain your mill (or work your arm) a little more than usual because wheat berries are quite tough. You want the wheat to look like course grits after milling. Along with the wheat, a measured amount of oats (5-10%) is often used to enhance the body and smooth mouthfeel and these too are easily bought in both flaked and rolled forms. Some rolled oats have not been wetted and may need a cereal mash while all flaked oats have been wetted. Extract brewers may have some trouble duplicating the witbier style profile using extracts alone. The pale malt extract (pilsner or 2-row) will not be hard to find, but all wheat extract is made with malted wheat and both raw and flaked wheat (and oats) require a mash. It’s almost inevitable that you will have to do at least a partial mash to get the qualities of the wheat and oats. The Mash: If you are using raw wheat mix it in with the rest of your grain along with a measure of rice hulls to help with sparging. You’ll either have to do a decoction or a step infusion mash. A decoction mash would be authentic, but it is also the most complicated and time consuming. In a decoction mash, a portion of your mash is “pulled,” boiled, and then returned to the mash. This is often done multiple times to raise the temperature through multiple steps. If you take this one on be sure to research it a bit first. In his book Radical Brewing, Randy Mosher suggests something of a hybridized version of this process. Cook a mixture of the wheat, oats, and 5 to 10 percent of your base malt for 15 minutes at a 122°F. At the same time get your main mash up to a protein rest at 122°F. Raise the oats and wheat to 150°F for another 15, then boil for another 15 minutes. At this point your main mash will have been at protein rest for 45 minutes and you can use the mini-mash to raise its temperature up into the saccharification range of between 52° and 55°F. I’ve never tried this route but it would be easier than a full decoction, while seemingly still affording you some of the same benefits. A step infusion mash can also work, but may not provide the same body and complexity as a decoction. Here use hot water to raise the temperature of the mash through its rests. You want, at the very least, a protein rest at around 122°F for up to 45 minutes. Then you can raise the temperature of the mash up to your saccharification temperature of between 150° and 155°F for 60 minutes. Mash out by raising the temperature to 168°F. If using flaked wheat you’ll probably still want the rice hulls and a protein rest. In this case though, the protein rest can probably be kept to 15 to 30 minutes since we are using it just to break down some of the gums and make sparging a bit easier. Hops: Hop profile should be mellow and blend with the other complexities in the beer bringing balance to the sweet malt without yelling about it. Varieties used tend to run toward the restrained, low alpha acid, herbal and earthy. German nobles are the go to; Saaz, Hallertauer, East Kent Goldings, and Styrian Goldings, but American grown hops with European ancestries, such as Mount Hood, Willamette, etc., can work as substitutes. How and when you add your hops will depend a lot on your tastes and the variety. Remember, bittering is within the low range of 8 to 10 IBUs. Slight flavor/aroma character is appropriate for the style, but some may find it clashes too much with the other spicy flavors. Anything from a single bittering addition to all three kettle additions can find a place in the expression of the witbier style. If using late additions, use small amounts of a hop that will accentuate the spicy elements of the beer. Spices: Belgians seem to be some of the only brewers with a memory of what brewing was like before hops burst on the scene. That is to say, Witbier along with many other Belgian styles, still make use of other spices besides hops. In this case, coriander and bitter orange peel are authentic to the style, but don’t disregard the possibility of playing with some other spices as well. Always use restraint when adding spices or herbs. A little bit goes a long way. Coriander seeds are easily found in the herbal section of your local grocery store. Buy the unground seeds and grind when you add them; 5 minutes before the end of the boil. Usually an addition of 0.5 ounces to 1 ounce is about right for a 5 gallon batch. Bitter orange peel can be purchased from most homebrew suppliers, but you can also use the zest off of any fresh citrus (blood oranges, Valencia oranges, grapefruit, kumquat, ect.) to create a brighter more citrus-like character. For the dried peel use an amount at about 0.5 ounces per 5 gallons and for the fresh zest up the dosage by 0.25 to 0.5 ounces. Both can be put in the same time as the coriander; 5 minutes before the end of the boil. If you want to deviate from the authentic path other herbs that have potential here include cumin, sage, lemon grass, chamomile, ginger, peppercorns, spruce tips, and many others. Just remember: restraint, use small amounts, and simplicity, keep it to 2-4 herbs/spices. Also, don’t overlook the possibility of adding your spices to the fermentor. You can either do this in addition to or in place of boil additions. In most instances the hot water will help extract the flavors. In some cases, the heat will also transform the flavor somewhat. So, halving your addition, putting half in the boil and half in the fermentor, or going all in on the fermentor, are things to experiment with. The Boil: Using a 60 minute boil is pretty standard for the style, but 90 minutes can help reduce the chances of DMS. Add your bittering hops at 60 minutes. Any later additions you’ve chosen add at the appropriate time. Add any spices you want in the boil the last 5 minutes before flame out. Yeast: So you’ve got your grain bill, your hops, and your spices all calculated in, but you’re still missing the forth cornerstone to brewing a great Belgian witbier; the yeast. Belgian yeasts are some of the most expressive out there. You’re authentic recipe and good brewing practices won’t matter a wit to your witbier without Belgian yeast. Some good choices from Wyeast include; “Belgian Witbier” (3944), “Forbidden Fruit” (3463), or “Belgian Wheat” (3942). White Labs carries “Belgian Wit I” (WLP400) and “Belgian Wit II” (WLP410). If you are looking at using dry yeast, either Brewferm Blanche or Fermentis Safbrew T-58 should work quite well. Fermentation: You will get the best flavor results if you have the ability to raise the temperature slowly as the end of fermentation approaches. Start your fermentation at between 62-65°F. Keep the temperature on the cool side until the most lively part of the fermentation is complete. As the fermentation begins to slow, let the temperature rise slowly over the last two or three days, and allow it finish out between 70-75°F. The early cool temperature will help control ester and phenol production while the temperature climb will help with attenuation and cleaning up DMS. Once finished package as normal, looking for a carbonation of 2.5 to 3 volumes of CO2. Then it’s time to enjoy your labor! Cheers!