Which beer style, once almost extinct, is a perfect choice for summer? That’s an easy one, it’s Wit.
Originating in Belgium, Wit evolved as a product of geography and world conquest. It’s roots go back to the area of Brabant just east of Brussels which extends toward the city of Liege. A part of the Netherlands in the early 1800’s, this was a wheat growing region and the Dutch word for wheat “Tarwe” is still seen on many of the Wit beer labels.
The Dutch connection is also significant for the other major characteristic of Wit. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch virtually controlled the spice trade. Thus, coriander along with Curaçao orange peel from the Netherland Antilles, and other spices found their way into the beer. The addition of spice wasn’t by chance; rather, it derived from the older method of brewing practiced before the widespread use of hops. And modern ingredients have found their way into the mix. According to one source, adding a shot of citric acid just before bottling is not uncommon.
Once there were more than thirty brewers in Belgium making Wit beer. Over time the style fell from favor and in 1954 the last of these breweries ceased operations. It was in 1966 that Pierre Celis, missing the old style, started producing a Wit beer, Hoegaarden, from his De Kluis brewery. As a young man, Celis helped out at a wit brewery in his hometown of Hoegaarden. His resurrected beer gained favor among a younger set of beer drinkers in and, by the 1980’s, the style was once again popular – popular enough to be bought out by the large European concern, Interbrew (which over the years and several acquisitions became A-B Inbev).
Almost everything about Wit beer was a bit different and this difference starts at the beginning of the brewing process. A grain bill for Wit is different from others of the wheat beer family because it’s brewed with 45 – 50 percent unmalted wheat. This does two things, it provides a very white, dense, rocky head and it produces a cloudy, hazy beer. The haze is a direct result of the high protein content in wheat. Proteins are long molecules, long enough to refract light as it passes through the beer.
The Belgians proudly flaunt this cloudiness and leave the finished beer unfiltered. Some versions also use a small amount of oats, amounting to about 5 percent, to add a touch of silky mouth feel.
Like other beers of this country, traditional Wits use aged hops yielding very low levels of hops in both aroma and perceived bitterness. What is noticeable are the spices. These are not jump up and grab-you spices; they are a harmony of sophisticated sublimity. You should be able to identify clearly the orange and coriander’ which are commonly used, along with other spices favored by individual brewers. Although certainly discernable they should be, in the finer versions, well balanced.
You may also detect notes of honey and apple and perhaps a faint trace of the horse blanket quality described as “house character” in many Belgian beers. However, Wit does not exhibit any of the banana or clove notes of their German wheat beer neighbors.
Bottled within four to five days of primary fermentation, Wit beers were intended to be consumed within two weeks of conditioning. This might be the source of observations by old timers that many Wits had a lactic character like its cousin Berliner Weise. In fact, this trait diminishes as the beer ages. The result is a Wit more like the soft, slightly sweet profile we expect in today’s versions.
A few years after selling off his Belgian brewery Pierre Celis had the need to brew again. Thankfully he demanded a location with water which replicated Belgium’s, and he found that match in Austin, Texas. Although now gone its impact on Craft Beer remains. Grateful fans of Wit beer embraced this American version just as the people of Belgium popularized his original. Perhaps the greatest, lasting honor of Pierre’s career is the number of breweries which now produce the style. And it’s a perfect choice for summer.
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Copyright Gregg Smith – His latest book “American Beer History” a non-fiction awards winner is available on Amazon