Witbier was hazy before it was cool. In the current haze craze of the craft beer industry it is important to revisit some of the styles that were founded on haziness. The style is called witbier in Flemish and bière blanche in French, both meaning “white beer,” a reference to the pale cloudiness that helps define this style. Witbier, or its bulkier title of Belgian-style White Ale, gets its characteristic haze from the use of unmalted grains and the kind of yeast being used. This style uses a surprisingly large amount of unmalted grain (up to 50% of the grain bill) with wheat and oats being the most common ones used. During malting the starch in the grain gets converted into sugar by enzymes. Unmalted grains have all of the big starchy carbohydrates still inside them, and since these compounds can not be fermented by yeast, the resulting brew has a full, chewy mouthfeel. The starches and extra protein from the unmalted grains stay suspended in the liquid, alongside the yeast, giving the beer its distinct white haze.
The other defining characteristic of witbier is the combination of spices it contains. Witbier is traditionally brewed with coriander and dried curaçao, the classic bitter orange peel that flavors liqueurs like triple sec and the aptly named blue curaçao. Although bitter varieties are more traditional, some brewers will use sweet orange peel to give the beer a more distinctive “orange” character as the bitter type has more of a tea-like character. There is also the option to use fresh orange peels, versus dried, to give the beer a brighter fruit character. Historic examples were said to have a distinct tanginess from lactobacillus cultures and brewers today will often use acidulated malt or a dash of brewer’s lactic acid to achieve the same effect.
It is also important to make a distinction between witbier and hefeweizen, the “other” cloudy wheat beer. While there are several production and ingredient differences between hefeweizen and witbier, the biggest difference can be found in their flavor. Hefeweizen has a characteristic banana and clove note that is derived from yeast. Witbier has a peppery citrus character from the use of its distinct spices. Hefeweizen is brewed with more malted wheat, rather than unmalted grains, and relies more heavily on yeast for its cloudiness. To taste an interesting example of hefeweizen try the newly released Braupakt Hefe Weissbier by Sierra Nevada and Weihenstephaner. This collaboration beer uses chinook and amarillo hops from Sierra Nevada to impart notes of peach and pomelo peel to the gentle banana aroma. The beer is available in six packs or swing by Hoffmann Brat Haus to try it alongside some German fare.
A witbier pioneer
Witbier would have faded into history if it were not for one man, Pierre Celis. Witbier dates back to the Middle Ages and remained popular up until the early twentieth century. But at the turn of the century, witbier (along with every other beer style), soon found itself being replaced by pilsner and the other golden lagers that began to take over the world’s beer market. By the 1950s there was only one witbier brewery left in the world, Tomsin, and it soon closed its doors. Pierre Celis had worked for Tomsin as a young man and had fond memories of both the job and the beer. Then in his forties and working as a milkman, the middle-aged Pierre decided to change the direction of his life. He purchased some vintage brewing equipment and set out to recreate the defunct white beer he remembered so well. In 1965 he opened up De Kluis (“The Cloister”) brewery and named the witbier after the town where Tomsin and this new brewery was located, Hoegaarden. Using his memories from working at the Tomsin brewery, and with input from locals who still remembered the beer, Pierre recreated the recipe, resurfacing this lost style of beer.
Hoegaarden was an incredible success and over a twenty year period Pierre sent witbier around the world. But in 1985 there was an unfortunate brewery fire, and due to a lack of insurance, Pierre was forced to sell the company to Interbrew (now AB Inbev) which inevitably led to the beer being changed and reformulated. Five years later Pierre and his daughter Christine built a new brewery in Austin, Texas, called Celis Brewery. It was once again successful and after ten years of operation they were struggling to keep up with demand in the brewery. The brewery needed to expand to meet expectations and in 2000 Miller Brewing offered to buy them out so that the needed expansions could take place. The acquisition was finished in 2001 and under Miller the brand was quickly whittled away, soon becoming non-existent. Michigan Brewing eventually bought the Celis brand including the recipes and original equipment however they went bankrupt in 2011, the same year that Pierre Celis passed away. Pierre’s legacy lives on today and there is hope on the horizon for the Celis family. Just last year Christine and her daughter Daytona re-launched the Celis Brewery in North Austin and are brewing all of the original beers that were available from their first Texas brewery.
Once in a blue moon
In 1995 Coors Brewing Co. (now MillerCoors) was establishing a new experimental branch of the company to try and take advantage of the enormous success that craft beer was seeing. This new unit was headquartered at Sandlot Brewery at Coors Field in Denver, Co. They initially offered four products which included a nut brown, honey blonde, seasonal pumpkin ale, and a witbier. Over time the multiple products were discontinued and they rebranded the label and brewery name to just focus on their most successful product, witbier. The new label was called Blue Moon Belgian White. Backed by MillerCoors’ marketing team and their international distribution network, Blue Moon has had unrivaled success, becoming the most popular pseudo-craft beer in the United States. AnheuserBusch made sure to jump in on the action and introduced their competitor, Shock Top, soon after. Much to the dismay of beerdoes, MillerCoors has put considerable effort into hiding the fact that they make Blue Moon. Despite Blue Moon’s questionable labeling and marketing practices (and whether the beer even counts as a witbier), the widespread popularity of Blue Moon has at least helped introduce macro beer drinkers to a greater range of beer flavor.
Today there are countless examples of white beer on the market. While the original Hoegaarden is no more, there are luckily some accurate representations of Pierre’s vision still available. One of the best examples of witbier on the market is St. Bernardus Wit and Pierre Celis was actually consulted with to help fine tune this beer. It is now available in cans, giving the beer a fresh frothy character and an enhanced silkiness that really makes the other flavors shine. Allagash White is another shining example of the style and probably the most popular American representation of witbier. This beer style allows for a lot of creative license in the spices used and often times brewers will add various botanics to distinguish their witbier. Telegraph’s White Ale incorporates local chamomile into the brew that results in a delicate herbal complexity. Hitachino Nest White Ale uses nutmeg and a touch of orange juice to give it a dry, spritzy character that finishes with a white pepper note. But of all these spice additions, one of the more interesting combinations has just recently came out.
Pete Johnson of The Brewhouse and Zambo of Santa Barbara Brewing Company have collaborated to create Hawking’s Wit. This collaboration beer celebrates the life and contributions of Stephen Hawking. Pete was a Nasa rocket scientist during the cold war and Zambo originally studied aeronautical engineering so both brewers have a storied past with aerospace and a deep appreciation for what Stephen Hawking did for the world. They wanted to model the spice blend after his favorite meal, the Indian dish chicken jalfrezi. Pete and Zambo brewed their witbier with ginger, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, and mixed peppercorns to give the brew a subtle, but complex, spiciness. Of course they had to use galaxy hops to fit with the outer space theme. Hawking’s Wit is available now so make sure to swing by and try this unique interpretation of witbier. And just in case you can’t get enough astrophysics and beer, Astronomy on Tap takes place the first Wedensday of every month at M8RX Nightclub & Lounge. The next one will be on Wednesday, June 6, at 7:30 pm and these free talks will explore dark forces and gravity. And if astrophysics talks don’t get your mind in a haze, at lease a little witbier will.
Originally published in the Santa Barbara Sentinel, May 30, 2018