Brief History: Throughout history, many beer styles have come and gone, and the witbier style was another that was nearly forgotten. The witbier style, witbier meaning “white beer,” has been around since the 1500s, grew steadily in popularity over the years and peaked in the late 1800’s throughout Europe. However, by the 1950s, the style was all but extinct thanks to a few wars, brewery consolidations and the growth of various lagers. But in 1966, a milkman named Pierre Celis established the De Kluis brewery next to his house in Hoegaarden, and his witbier styled beer took off in popularity. The brewery became extremely successful, but a disastrous fire in 1985 changed things quickly. Celis was financially ruined and forced to sell to brewing conglomerate Interbrew (now AB InBev) who still produces Hoegaarden to this day. Nevertheless, this one man single-handedly saved an entire beer style, and thanks to him we can enjoy the fruits of his labor today.
Standard Characteristics: Witbiers are unfiltered and give the appearance of being cloudy. They are typically pale straw to light gold in color with a dense white frothy head that has good retention. The ABV range for witbiers is not very wide, ranging only from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent, so these are definitely sessionable beers that can be enjoyed in larger quantities. They also have very low bitterness with almost no hop bitterness coming through, and a moderate amount of spices are used as well. These beers do not typically age well despite being re-fermented in the bottle and are best enjoyed as fresh as possible.
Nose: There is a moderate amount of sweetness in the nose, typically that of honey along with light wheat aromatics and spice. The appearance of citrus is also standard, typically orange or lemon, and in the background, there can be a complex, herbal spicy or peppery note.
Body: Witbiers tend toward the medium-light to medium body to allow for the refreshing qualities of this beer to shine through. They can have a smoothness that can almost be cream-like in feeling; this is from the wheat. The finish on the beer should be quite dry and should also have a high carbonation.
Taste: The taste should match the nose almost perfectly in that a mild sweetness, again tasting of slight honey, should be apparent along with citrus fruits. The main highlight of this beer should be the refreshing qualities delivered between the sweetness, citrus and spices being perfectly balanced so that no one characteristic outshines the other but melds together instead .
Food Pairing: Witbiers are absolutely perfect for light fare, especially on hot summer days. This is also a beer that is perfect with a wide range of brunch plates as well, whether it be an omelet, bacon, sausage or a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Witbiers are a perfect to accompany salads as well in that they add to the dish without taking anything away from it, not an easy feat by any means when it comes to salads. Mexican and Thai dishes are also wonderful here in that they have wonderful citrus notes in many dishes that will highlight the citrus in witbiers.
Recommendations: The witbier style is extremely approachable by all, regardless if one is a newbie to the craft beer world or an experienced craft beer drinker. The style has been popular in the United State for quite some time and many are very familiar with it already. So the question is: What witbiers should I be on the lookout to try? I compiled a list of what I humbly think are great witbiers to try, so if any of these are new to you, write them down and ask for them at your favorite craft beer store.
Hoegaarden — Original White, Allagash — Allagash White, Brewery Ommegang — Witte, Avery — White Rascal, Unibroue — Blanche De Chambly, Dogfish Head — Positive Contact, Brouwerij St. Bernardus — St.
Derek Warren is a beer fanatic, avid homebrewer and beer historian. Derek can be heard weekly on the Beer Geeks Radio Hour at noon on Sundays on WILK 103.1 FM with past episodes available on iTunes.