This week’s Know Your Styles is being brought to you by John Steckert (vyvvy on the forums). Without any hyperbole, John is probably one of the most knowledgeable beer guys in St. Louis, so I’m excited he helped out with this series!
Thanks again to Paul from the Wine and Cheese Place in Clayton for supplying the beers for this feature. Also, if you’re interested in writing a Know Your Styles article, feel free to email me. Here’s a great beer to beat this June heat:
Hoegaarden – not just a brand of beer on the shelves. Hoegaarden (pronounced “who garden”) is a village about a half hour east of Brussels. There are records of breweries existing in this village as early at the 1300-1400s. At that time, and long thereafter, the beverages would be made according to the grains grown in the area. This area’s soil was well suited for wheat, and not far away were areas that were fertile for barley. Wits traditionally use malted barley, unmalted wheat and possibly a small amount of oats. The earlier versions of this style probably did not use hops, but instead used herbs and spices to offset the sweetness of the malt. This is represented in today’s style of witbier being spiced with coriander and Curaçao orange peel. Other spices are acceptable in the beer such as chamomile, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, cardamom and grains of paradise; however, they are generally a much more minor flavoring. Even today with hops being used in the beer, they are generally not very prevalent in the taste.
In the 1500s the beer industry in village of Hoegaarden was doing so well they were able to organize their own brewer’s guild and in the early 1800s there were over thirty breweries in the village due in large part to the high quality witbier that was produced from the area. However, the glory days were in trouble due to the lager revolution that began in the early 1800s. The lagers that had begun to be produced were crystal clear, lighter in color, had higher level of consistency and only used hops as a balance to the malt. By the end of the 1800s the beer world was being taken over by lagers, even in Belgium which is hard to fathom considering what the beer landscape used to be and what it is in today’s age. Hoegaarden was a small village that once was home to over thirty breweries and in the 1957 the last Hoegaarden brewer closed down and the witbier style had died.
Pierre Celis, a milkman from Hoegaarden, was talking among his friends and reminiscing about the witbiers of years gone by and his enjoyment of them. Celis had helped in a brewery in his younger years and knew some of the production procedures. He decide to make a change in the “white” liquid he worked with and opened a brewery in 1966 called De Kluis in his early 40s. This brewery is now well known as the Hoegaarden Brewery. Celis thought that his beer would lend itself to the older crowd and was surprised when it was welcomed and enjoyed by many of the younger beer lovers. The brewery was a success, but with success came other problems. After a while the demand became so high at times that he couldn’t keep up with it. In attempts to expand the brewery after a devastating brewery fire the financial strain became too much for Celis and in 1985 he sought financial assistance from Interbrew. Yes, this is the company that became InBev when they merged with AmBev in 2004.
After Celis selling the brewery to Interbrew he moved to the United States in 1992 to open up the Celis Brewery in Austin, TX where he made his witbier called Celis White for the U.S. market. Once again there was a financial strain and he sought assistance from one of the big guys, this time it was Miller brewing. This was not the most comfortable of relationships and in 2000 Miller withdrew from the relationship and the brewery closed. A version Celis White is still being produced in the U.S. by the Michigan Brewing Company. There is also a Celis White brewed in Belgium by Brouweif Van Steenberg, who is also the brewer of Gulden Draak and Piraat. The popularity of this style has grown dramatically over the years and many versions of witbiers can be found throughout Belgium, the United States and other countries.
This article was a reason to sample as many wits as I could due to this being one of my favorite styles. The beers I sampled of this once dead, now resurrected, style are St. Bernarus Wit, Ommegant Witte, Hoegaarden, Avery White Rascal, New Belgium Mothership Wit, Blanche de Bruxelles, Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca, Unibroue Blanche de Chambly, Blance de Namur, Allagash White, Charleville Half Wit Wheat, Boulevard Zon and Mattingly BrightSide Belgium White. All of the wits I sampled were between 4.4%-5.5% in alcohol. There is not much deviance in the alcohol content in witbier.
What you should be seeing
Witbiers are pale straw to golden in color and is cloudy due to the yeast and/or proteins contained in the beer. Unlike many beers, the sediment of witbiers is meant to be consumed with the beer. Generally you will want to pour into your glass a little over ¾ of the bottle and then swirl the bottle and pour the rest into your glass. Not only will this produce an attractive milky appearance to the beer and dense white heat that has good retention, but as an added bonus getting all of the yeast into your glass will help your hair and skin due to the nutrients found in the yeast. Beauty benefits from drinking beer.
Most of the beers I sampled were colored fairly similarly yellow / golden. A couple were lighter yellow (Hoegaarden, Avery) and two were more on the orange / golden side (St. Bernardus, Ommegang). All of them had attractive, good-sized, white heads.
What you should be smelling
There can be moderate sweetness, but often has a bit of tartness. There can be light grainy wheat, some spiciness, moderate coriander, and orange fruitiness. The beers can be quite complex for a lower alcohol beer and also include herbal, spice peppery notes and some zestiness. The hops should be fairly low with spicy traits. While spices are there, they should not be overpowering.
The wheat was not overly prevalent in any of the beers sampled. A couple that had some age did have a sweeter, more malt prevalent side. The Blanche de Bruxelles and Ommegang were the smoothest of the bunch while the drier were the Hoegaarden, Mattingly, Avery and Unibroue. The Avery was also the heaviest I had displaying the coriander; Jolly Pumpkin had the most spiciness of the bunch, but it seemed to incorporate more than just coriander. Mattingly also had some ginger present. All examples had orange present with the aged showing more of dullness and the fresher displaying a more lively presence. Throughout it seemed the fresher, the better, for the style.
What you should be tasting
Wits will generally have a light pleasant sweetness that can display honey or vanilla notes on the initial taste, but often finish refreshingly crisp and dry and sometimes even have tartness to them. They can even have a light lactic tartness. Zesty citrus can be present from the dried Curaçao orange peel (Curaçao oranges are bitter oranges that are actually green when ripened). Herbal and spicy flavors are present due to the coriander and other spices that can be present. A small spicy or earthy presence from hops can be present, but minor. Bitterness shouldn’t be present.
Most examples had a medium / thin body with the Ommegang and St. Bernardus being the most full bodied of the bunch and Charleville being the lightest bodied. The palate generally started out smooth and finished crisp with Jolly Pumpkin, Blanche de Bruxelles and Mattingly being the crispest of the group. The spicing of coriander was prevalent in all that were sampled. Other spices noticed were traces of possible cinnamon in Blanche de Bruxelles, slight ginger in Mattingly and a variety of spices that come from Jolly Pumpkin which could be from other spices used, the barrel aging utilized or a combination of the two. Orange zest was also noticeable in all samples with Allagash showing more crispness and a noticeable sharpness from Jolly Pumpkin. Other traits noticed were light oak and bit of funk from Jolly Pumpkin, some powdery traits from New Belgium and the driest wit I’ve probably ever had from Mattingly.
How you should be drinking
Wits are adaptable to many styles of glassware. Many sources state that they should be served in a tumbler or weizen glass. The Hoegaarden tumbler is quite attractive and very sturdy as well. However, I think they go great in tulip glass and especially New Belgium’s globe glass.
Wits flavorful, but not overwhelming assertiveness, pair well with shellfish, salads, creamy cheeses and fresh fruit. The spices in the beer will also lend it to pair well with spicy foods such as Thai food or Indian Curry dishes.
What you should be buying
The original, Hoegaarden, is one to try for sure (regardless of your feelings towards InBev). Other Belgian offering available are Vuuve, St. Bernardus Wit, Blance de Bruxelles and Blanche de Namur. Unibroue from Canada has a respectable Blanche de Chambly. There are many good US examples to buy at your local bottle shops such as Jolly Pumpkin Calabaza Blanca, Allagash White, Victory Whirlwind Wit, New Holland Zoomer wit, Avery White Rascal, Ommegang Witte, and our local Charleville Half Wit Wheat. A couple that are only on tap in the area are Mattingly BrightSide Belgian White available year round and Schlafly Wit which is a summer seasonal.
Hefeweizen, American wheat and gruit