Posted by: Scott | March 29, 2010

Beer Basics | The Wit

What can I say about witbiers? Quite a bit, apparently. You might remember the style from my last review, but here’s something you probably don’t remember (because I didn’t mention it): The first beer to push my OMG-I-LOVE-THIS button was a witbier. Gather ’round, folks — it’s story time.

Several years ago, back when I’d only tried cheap, mass-produced lagers like a Corona Light — most of which merely convinced me that some freaky cult had hypnotized humanity into thinking “BEER IS AWESOME” when it was actually an odd, bland beverage and nobody really liked it but rather forced it down to make new friends — anyway, a few years back I sampled an ale named Blue Moon (which, to be fair, is also cheap and mass produced), and that taste changed my life. With one sip my inquisitive side went berserk, and questions poured out. What made this beer unique? How could one taste so different from another? And what in the flying hell was a “witbier” anyway?

Short answer: It’s a Belgian-style wheat ale. During the past decade or two, the style has exploded across North America. But, despite its recent popularity, the wit extends as far back into history as the 1400s, when monks in Belgium’s Brabant region first recorded a recipe for this delicious brew. At some point people started calling the style “wit,” which means “white” in Dutch, because of the pale, cloudy contrast it created among the popular dark beers of the era. Witbiers nearly went extinct after the wars and big-business lagering of the 1900s, but in 1966 a Belgian man named Pierre Celis revived it by starting a little brewery in his hometown east of Brussels. The name of that town? Hoegaarden. And now you know — the rest of the story.

So, Celis resurrected the fabled wit, and now it’s nearly conquered the world. A fortuitous turn of events if you ask me; the witbier boom has introduced thousands to the world of exotic foreign beers (yours truly included). I blame the style’s light, crisp body and unique flavor profile for its comeback. All witbiers have hints of sweet oranges and zesty herbs. But only the best witbiers offer a nuanced blend of citrus, vanilla, and spicy wheat; a golden hue, pale yet vibrant, and mysteriously cloudy; a creamy medium body with a pillowy head; and a dry, sometimes tart finish. When brewed with care and skill, a witbier can defeat even the crispest lager in a contest of refreshment.

OK, I’ve mentioned the word wheat a time or two, so if you’re familiar with wheat beers, you might be wondering about the difference between a wibier and a hefeweizen. Damn good question. Hefeweizen is the name for a German-style wheat beer. It means “wheat with yeast,” which can be a tad misleading, as wheat beers usually employ a ratio of 50:50 wheat to barley. But those familiar hefe flavors — banana, cloves, etc. – are a product of the yeast strain used during fermentation. Witbiers employ different strains but also derive their citric spiciness from adjuncts such as orange peel and coriander. So they both have wheat in ‘em, but aside from that, they’re pretty different. Same goes for the numerous other types of wheat beers. But I don’t have time to get into that.

Instead, I’ll offer my top three favorite witbiers as recommendations. If you encounter any of the following beers, purchase one or more immediately:

Allagash White

St. Bernardus Witbier (Pierre Celis helped develop the recipe for this one!)

Hitachino Nest White Ale

And here’s one to avoid as though it’s got swine flu of the SARS:

Sherwood Forest’s Friar’s Belgian-Style White Ale. Don’t let the B fool you; it tastes like cigarettes.

Before we stop, let’s take a moment to finish the tragic tale of old Pierre Celis, founder of Hoegaarden brewery. In 1985, the original Hoegaarden brewery burned down. The building was uninsured. Celis received a loan from Interbrew (now Anheuser-Busch InBev) to rebuild it, but, after they pressured him to change his recipe, he sold them the brewery and began planning a move to Texas. Although he never actually relocated, he did start Celis Brewery in Austin (his daughter ran it), and for a while they brewed Celis White without any brewing conglomerates offering “suggestions” about ways to “enhance” the beer.

But all things must end: Miller Brewing bought Celis Brewery, ruined it with faulty business practices, and then shut it down and stripped it for scrap. Fortunately, no recipes were harmed; Michigan Brewing Company bought them up in 2002 and now produces Celis beers. Celis himself, 81, is living in Hoegaarden and planning his return to brewing. But, according to Beer-Pages.com, “This time there will be no pacts or deals with big brewers. ‘They’re bankers, not brewers,’ Pierre insists. ‘They buy you out and then they kill you.’” Something to consider next time you reach for a can of Coors.

Thursday: A review of one of the greatest beers on Earth.

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Responses

  1. I need to try it. Do they have it at total wine – i mean total beer.

    • You should be able to find lots of different witbiers at big liquor marts like Total Wine or Bevmo 😀

  2. I knew the first part of the Celis story, but not the second. That’s so sad!

    • I know! Poor guy. I definitely wanted to clarify what happened to Hoegaarden after the so-so score I gave it. I’m guessing it used to taste a lot different.

  3. Excellent post, very informative….I wasn’t sure, to be honest with you, the difference between a hef and a witbier…I know what I like when I taste it, but I need to work on my general beer knowledge

    • Thanks! The Internet is a great place to learn. Most of my beer knowledge was self-taught while surfing the web. But I still had to look up/double check a bunch of the details in this article.

  4. I’m liking the beer history post. Reading about beer is almost as much fun as drinking beer.

    • I agree … as long as you stress the word “almost” 😀 Glad you’re enjoying the new focus on history.


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