Belgian white ale, witbier, biere blanche, whatever you want to call it, was one of the first true styles of beer that I sunk my teeth into over a decade ago, after years of living off American macro lager (for those in Upstate New York, that meant Labatt & Molson). It was truly a training wheels beer for me, and has been for a lot of others. We’ve been feeling some serious hot weather in this neck of the woods the past couple of weeks (…cough…finally), so being in need of a great summer seasonal, here are my 5 that will fit the bill nicely.
The History of Witbier
Witbier is a very popular style today, but surprisingly enough at one point it almost vanished completely from the landscape. Its origins date back to the Brabant region east of Brussels in Belgium in the 1500s, where wheat beer had been brewed for hundreds of years. By the 1950s, it had all but disappeared, due to wars, the big movement towards lagers, and breweries being bought and sold or closing down altogether. In 1966, a man named Pierre Celis, one of the greatest and most influential minds in the history of modern brewing, established the De Kluis Brewery, next to his house in Hoegaarden. He made a beer that the town had once been known for, and the road to recovery was being paved; however in 1985, a fire forced its sale to Interbrew, and Pierre moved to Texas to start over. At that point, he started the Celis Brewery, and although it was eventually sold to Miller, thankfully the Michigan Brewing Company bought the rights and has resurrected the entire line of his beers, and his flagship white ale is and always will be in my top 5.
A moderate sweetness with light notes of honey or vanilla and spicy, fragrant wheat aromatics will be the nose that is an earmark of these beers. They’re very pale straw to very light gold in color, with a cloudiness from starch haze and yeast and a dense, white, mousy head with lacing that should be present until the last sip. Witbier has an incredibly flavorful, refreshing sweetness combined with a zesty, orange-citrusy fruitiness. Herbal, spicy flavors from the coriander will be ever present, but should not dominate the flavor of the beer. Like Hefeweizen, hop bitterness is low to medium-low. They’re medium-light to medium bodied with a smoothness and light creaminess from the unmalted wheat and occasional oats, with a dry, tart finish.
Witbier and Food Pairings
Witbier is an incredibly versatile style when it comes to pairing with food, and is a no-contest winner with salads. If you’re having brunch, take my word for it—it will replace the finest orange juice you can get your hands on. It’s also terrific with fish, whether it’s a light halibut or smoked salmon. A seafood dish prepared with citrus will be a match made in heaven. Mexican, Thai, or Indian food, as long as its not too spicy, will also pair wonderfully.
How to Enjoy Witbier
One last note on this style. It’s become incredibly trendy to have a glass of Witbier, especially in a bar, with an orange slice on the rim of the glass, or even dropped into the beer, a habit that I admittedly bought into in my early days of being a beer geek. From my experience, 95% of the time the bartender will add it, a lot of the time without asking me. I suggest the next time you have one, omit the fruit. I’ve discovered over the years that while the orange slice is nice you really don’t want it to interfere with the flavor of the beer. So here’s to beating the heat and to my Upstate New York friends, try and get your hands on one of these before the snow hits in a couple of weeks. Cheers!
Top 5 Witbiers
St. Bernardus Wit (Pierre Celis Signature)
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