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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Exploring the Styles of Beer: Belgian Wit

With the weather really starting to heat up now, there are few things that scream thirst quencher like a cold, crisp Belgian Witbier.  Before we start, note that this style is not to be confused with the American Wit that is becoming more and more common.  Because of that, we'll save the Blue Moon discussion for another time, and stick to some fantastic beers for now.

This beer is said to have developed from the centuries old traditions of monks brewing throughout Europe and specifically in the Belgian region.  However, this beer become really popular when two types of it began to be sold by cask in the town of Brussels in the 18th and 19th centuries.  When lagers began to overwhelm the beer market, and when laws made the sale of beer by cask on the streets in Brussels illegal, witbiers went into a serious decline, and even bordered on being obsolete in the 1960s with only one of the original breweries struggling to survive.  Enter Pierre Celis.  Celis brought around the resurgence of the Belgian Wit style by creating Hoegaarden White.  In the mid 1980s, Celis's brewery burned down, and only with the help of some major commercial breweries was he able to survive.  It was then that those major breweries essentially drove him out and adapted the recipe for Hoegaarden to what it is today.  There are now many more great examples of this style that are readily available today.

What to Expect in a Belgian Wit:
The first thing you will notice is that this beer is cloudy.  It is an unfiltered beer that gets most of that cloudiness from the wheat that is used to brew it.  Typically this beer is brewed with around 50% base malt, 40-45% wheat, and sometimes 5-10% oats.  The oats add good mouthfeel and a sort of creaminess to this brew.  In both the aroma and taste, you should immediately notice orange and lemon notes that are complimented by a herbal spiciness.  The addition of corriander is surprisingly what boosts the citrus in this style, while the addition of bitter orange peel actually lends less to citrus notes and more to bitterness.  The yeast that is used typically gives a clove like flavor and aroma that should be subtle and not overpower the other flavors.  While many people like to enjoy this style with a lemon or orange in the beer, the citric acid will actually kill any head retention the beer might have, and will overpower the subtle spiciness that makes this beer great.

Great Commercial Examples:
Hoegaarden White- The original.  This is the brew that got me into craft beer, and even though it may be a dumbed down version of Celis's original, it is still a great example of this style.  The corriander really shines through in this brew.

Ommegang Witte-  This beer is on the darker side of Belgian Wits, but is an interesting take that really allows the yeasty flavor to shine above the rest of the flavors.  Orange and lemon notes keep this one on the refreshing side.

Allagash White-  A great example showing that American brewers have really figured out this style.  A cloudy light golden pour, with a head that sticks to the glass well.  The yeasty flavors and aromas are well backed by orange flavors and a bold array of spices that include what tastes like a white pepper.  There is also some additionaly fruity flavor that really helps round out the spiciness.  One of the greatest beers that is being produced in New England.

Unibroue Blanche de Chambly-  This is a unique take on this style that really allows the fruity flavors to come through while the yeast kind of takes a backstage.  There are more dried fruit aromas that come through with the usual spiciness, and then the orange peel flavor follows at the end.

How to Brew Your Own:
This recipe really sticks to the classic Belgian Wit and avoids becoming an American Wit, by using flaked wheat and not wheat malt.

Mash at 153 for 1 hour
5 lbs Belgian Pils
4 lbs Flaked Wheat
1/2 lb Flaked Oats

60 minute boil
At the start of the boil add 1 oz of Saaz hops. (This is it for the hop additions as hop flavor and aroma should be minimalized.)
With 5 minutes to go in the boil, add 3/4 ounce of cracked, whole coriander and 3/4 of an ounce of bitter orange peel.

Once the wort is cooled, pitch a Belgian Wit yeast such as Wyeast 3944 or White Labs WLP400.


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