Witbier

by: BeerAdvocate on 06-19-2002
Summer is here (well sort of), global warming is increasingly getting worse and the SPF 40 just barely works on our pale, pasty white skin. But there's no need to fear, as there's always beer to help quell the heat and cool our minds. The usual pale lager is great to have around in a pinch, but when we like to have something light that actually contains flavour, the Belgian Style Witbier comes to mind.

This style of beer is a lot older than many think, and in one form or another, it has been around for over 400 years. History mentions that the style earned its name due to the fact that Witbiers were much paler than the more common "darker" beers of the time and as such, took on the label "wit", which means "white." They are, however, not actually white, but the name is good for the distinction. These wheat beers are traditionally cloudy, pale brews, unfiltered and bottle-conditioned; the cloudiness adds a bit of uniqueness and depth to the color. Brewers use malted barley and/or raw, un-malted wheat as a base for this style. From there, spices and herbs are used to cut the wheat flavors. This spicing process came about well before the advent of hops, when it was common to add herbs and spices to balance the sweet brew with complex and tasty flavor combinations. The traditional spices and herbs used in creating Witbiers are orange peel (the bitter variety) and coriander; most brewers will also add their own secret mix of spices and herbs along with the two.

Today the Witbier style is quite similar to the style of yore, although hops are a part of the process, as well as modern brewing techniques. Some brewers even stick to another Old World brewing method of adding oats to the mash to create a depth of sweet smoothness within the brew. On its own, wheat ensures that head retention is not an issue – adding oats makes it even less so. And, as mentioned, hops are now a part of modern recipes, but they are used sparingly as to not over-bitter and mask the spices and sweetness. Hops employed tend to be varieties that will complement the spices and herbs, the most popular being the spicy Saaz variety.

Now between wheat proteins, yeast, spices/herbs and whatnot, there's going to be a hell of a lot of floating material or sediment (goodness) in a Witbier. This goodness should be swirled and poured into the glass as you would with a German Hefeweizen in order to experience the beer's full character. Of course, this is also personal preference, but you’d be missing out doing otherwise.

Examples

Although the behemoth brewery group Interbrew produces it, Hoegaarden is by far the most popular example of the Witbier style, and it is a fine example of such. However, there are better and more interesting examples to try. Try throwing your taste buds some …

- Allagash White Ale
- Blanche de Bruges
- Blue Moon (Belgian) White Ale
- Boston Beer Works West End Wit
- Hitachino Nest White Ale
- Manneken Pis Belgian White Ale
- Sam Adams Summer Ale
- Saranac (Belgian) White Ale
- Smuttynose Belgian Style White Ale
- Unibroue Blance De Chambly
- Wieckse Witte
- Victory Wirlwind Witbier
- Vuuve

This age old style brings more sophistication to the palate than its supposed trendy profile in the beer scene. Though the complexities don't deter it from being highly drinkable, it also holds onto a bit of mystery (its cloudiness and origins) for many drinkers. That said, it's certainly a beer than can be enjoyed year round, but when the summer rolls around it doubles as a stellar thirst quencher.
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