by Martin Lodahl (Brewing Techniques)
As the North American beer consumer has grown in sophistication, it is only natural that the Belgian styles have become hot items. The Belgian brewing tradition is remarkable for its variety and imagination; whatever characteristics you may want in a beer, there is some Belgian style that either now has or once had those characteristics. This time of year, when the emphasis is on beers of relatively light body and a refreshing crispness, the hottest of the Belgian styles is that superb cooler, the “white” beer.
Called biere blanche in French and Witbier (or simply Wit), in Flemish (pronounced somewhere between the English “wit” and “wet”), this type of wheat beer was once the dominant style in the area east of Brussels, from which the city of Louvain and the village of Hoegaarden shipped competing variants of the style to the rest of Europe. In the 18th and 19th centuries the advantage went to “biere blanche de Louvain,” with more than 30,000 tonnes (~6,400 bbl) shipped annually to Brussels, where for many years the beer was sold by the cask in an open-air market appropriately called La Place de Louvain. A Brussels city ordinance, dated “1 Floreal An VI” (20 April 1798) in the short-lived calendar of the French First Republic, banned the open-air trade in blanche de Louvain in any location adjoining a public street, ending the curious custom. The “blanche de Hougaerde” of the time was quite similar but never enjoyed the same popularity as its rival, presumably because of the larger town’s greater resources for production and distribution.
As happened with many distinctive beer styles, the lager revolution of the 19th century made serious inroads into the traditional Witbier markets, and in the years immediately following World War II the style was on the brink of fading away. Jackson reported that the last of the Hoegaarden breweries producing this style had been closed some 10 years when Pierre Celis revived the style in 1966, though one Louvain brewery soldiered on into the mid-1970s.
The revival was a complete success; there are now many beers of this style, brewed both inside the style’s traditional homeland and out. Celis’s De Kluis brewery, producer of Oud Hoegaards (sold in North America as Hoegaarden White) is now part of the Interbrew brewing giant. Celis meanwhile has started a new brewery near Austin, Texas, which produces the elegant and crisply beguiling Celis White.
THE CHARACTER OF WIT
So what is this style? First, it’s a type of wheat beer. As with most wheat beers, the relatively high protein content leads to haze, giving the beer a light golden color and hence its name. Traditional recipes describe the grist as around 54% malted barley, 41% unmalted wheat, and 5% unmalted oats, though considerable variation was surely present. The malt was the extremely pale “wind malt,” air-dried rather than kilned, and made from two-row barley. Modern formulations rarely use this malt because it is expensive and difficult to obtain. Original gravity is usually around 11–12 °P (1.044–1.048), and it is lightly hopped (<20 IBU) with low-alpha hops, generally Styrian Goldings, Saaz, or Kent Goldings.
Hops are far from the only flavoring, though. In a practice harking back to before the days when beer was universally hopped, Witbier is spiced, usually with coriander and the peels of both sweet and bitter oranges and frequently with at least one more “secret spice” known only to the brewer and the brewer’s herb merchant.
Historical evidence suggests that these beers were once intensely sour, and although modern examples tend to be dry, few are more than lightly tart. The lightness of body from the wheat and a firm tartness from the hops, bitter orange, and yeast offset perfectly the smoothness of the oats and the sweetness of the sweet orange, making this among the most refreshing of beer styles.
In its heyday, it was hugely popular with the grain and beet farmers in the area where it was made, and today’s examples combine the crispness of a hot-day refresher with a delicacy and complexity that makes them a delight to the palate at any time.
MAKING A WIT
Ingredients: This is a style that can work well with customary brewing equipment and processes, though the materials require some special handling in many systems.
Unmalted materials. Naturally, the first consideration is the use of raw wheat, which is likely to prove troublesome in a British-style single-temperature infusion mash, with poor yield and an awkward (or simply stuck) sparge. Decoction mashing has proven to be a very successful way to approach this material, but it is labor-intensive and beyond the capability of many brewhouses. Some sort of temperature program is very desirable with raw wheat, so if your system isn’t capable of it, flaked wheat may be a better choice.
Using wheat malt will produce a rather different effect and a beer that resembles the familiar American wheat more than a Witbier. I’ve read reports of attempts at the style using malted wheat, in which the product bore the clovelike phenolic notes of a Weizen. My own experience has been somewhat different, tending more toward a greater palate fullness than is desirable in a Wit, along with greater sweetness. The cloviness of a Weizen is a yeast effect.
Almost any variety of wheat seems to work reasonably well. White wheats and winter wheats generally provide the least protein. The raw wheat should be milled to about the same degree of crush that would be used for wheat malt. The kernels, however, are much harder, so you can expect it to be a significant strain on your mill. If your mash involves a protein rest, don’t be terribly concerned about the amount of flour produced, unless your mash tun is susceptible to stuck mashes. In any case, it is best to go a little easy on the unmalted ingredients used and on the depth of the grain bed in the lauter tun until you know what your equipment can handle.
Rolled or steel-cut oats can be used with a decoction mash, but it is perhaps best to stick with the rolled oats for other mash types.
Malts. Traditionally, two-row pale malts have been the base malt in a Wit grist, but at least one commercial brewer today is using six-row as well, presumably for its additional diastatic power. The diastatic power of North American domestic two-row pale malt, however, is not that much less than that of its six-row counterpart, and it seems to work well in this role. A more authentic flavor can be gained by using the excellent Belgian Pils malt now available, though at the expense of as much as 20 °Lintner of diastatic power. I do not recommend using pale ale malts; they are both too low in diastatic power and have too much caramel flavor for the style.
Hops. This is not a hoppy style, but it uses hops to dry the flavor by balancing malt sweetness. The principal addition, then, should be for bittering. If late hopping is done it should be with a hop that accents spicy notes, such as Saaz, rather than one emphasizing the floral, such as Cascade.
Spices. One of the most difficult things to do in the Wit style is to get the spicing right. A Wit with no spices is no Wit at all, but one in which the spices (especially sweet orange) are overdone tastes cloying and heavy, lacking the deft touch that’s a primary characteristic of the style.
Especially when brewing commercial-sized batches, it is a good idea to start with a smaller scale prototype batch, keeping in mind that spice scaling is decidedly nonlinear. In scaling up it would be wise to err on the side of caution and have a batch that’s at least salable, if not as assertive as desired.
It is possible to do some postboil correction for wimpy spicing by soaking the material in an unflavored vodka to make what Randy Mosher refers to as “potions.” In his outstanding new book (5), Mosher suggests using a liqueur to provide the citrus flavors, but my own experiments along those lines have been unrewarding, the liqueur providing too much residual sweetness without the firm bitterness of the dried peel. When adding the bitter orange in the kettle, however, the use of liqueurs would be an excellent way to add sweet orange flavor.
Two entirely different types of orange are used by the traditional producers of this style, one of which has been much harder to get than the other. The sweet orange, available as dried peelings, appears to be little, if any, different from the standard grocery store orange. The bitter, or Curacao orange, is grown in Spain, Italy, and North Africa, and although well known in Europe has been very difficult to find in North America. This situation has begun to change, however; some brewing suppliers now import it from Belgium. If you locate some of it, don’t be put off by its appearance; it has a grayish, putty-like color, looking not at all like it came from an orange. Another promising possibility is a domestic bitter orange that a spice dealer mentioned to me. Apparently, it is primarily used for making marmalade, and I have yet to taste a batch of beer made with it. A good starting point for bitter orange is around 0.75 oz in a 5-gal batch (and no more than 4.5 oz/bbl in larger volumes), perhaps a little more for the sweet.
The other traditional spice is coriander, which should be ground freshly before use. A good starting point for this spice is also 0.75 oz in a 5-gal batch. You will develop your own “trademark” Wit flavor by balancing these three spices.
You may want to experiment with some other spices as well, preferably at levels so far in the background that the spice can’t be individually identified. Good candidates include cumin, cardamom, anise, and black pepper. All spices should be added at the knockout of the boil or in the last 15 min before knockout to try to retain as many of the aromatics as possible.
Sour-flavor contributors. One other significant flavor should not be overlooked — tartness, or sourness. The fashion for very sour white beers has passed, and neither customers nor judges are likely to welcome its return, but a little sourness agreeably dries the flavor and seems to boost the contribution of the orange and the hops.
Traditionally, the sourness came from a Lactobacillus infection of some sort. At least one producer today inoculates the beer with a Lactobacillus culture after primary fermentation, then pasteurizes to arrest its action when the desired degree of sourness is reached. Without this pasteurization, it would continue to sour, with unpredictable results. Many commercial brewers are appalled by the idea of deliberately introducing a lactic culture into their brewing environment; such cultures have a way of being easier to introduce than to get rid of.
One technique that’s been tried by amateur brewers is to sour the mash by adding some whole malt to it and allowing the microflora on the malt husks to multiply in the warm mash. Although I have heard of some successes, I have tasted more failures and suspect that you have as good a chance of being hit by lightning as of getting what you want from it.
At least some of the souring effect can be achieved through judicious additions of food-grade 88% lactic acid, though to my palate the result seems less pleasingly complex than the result of a good lactic infection. In a 5-gal pilot batch, 10 mL is a good starting point, adjusting to taste. By the time you reach 25 mL, the beer will definitely be sour.
Process: I said before that when brewing in this style, using a temperature program has its advantages. Especially if using raw grains, more than enough protein will be present in the wort to create the desired haze, so a mash schedule that enhances the degradation of beta glucans can be used without making the finished wort too clear. I have had excellent results using the (decoction) mash schedule outlined by Eric Warner. Expect the sparge to be slow.
In recent years, a number of white beer yeasts have appeared on the market. Those that I have tried appear to be the yeast component of the pitching culture and have performed well in that role. Jackson describes the fermentation procedure at De Kluis as a week of primary fermentation at 18–24 °C (64–75 °F), followed by three to four weeks of warm conditioning at 12-15 °C (53–59 °F). It is then dosed with glucose and a different yeast and left to condition for 10 days at 25 °C (77 °F). As with many Belgian styles, carbonation should be decidedly on the “spritzy” side.
The Wit style is very brewable and very drinkable, especially in the hot season of the year. Though there are plenty of problems associated with brewing this style well, it can definitely be done by the brewer willing to explore a little.
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