Note: in the current (2015) BJCP Style Guidelines, Belgian Wit is Style 24A in Category 24 Belgian Ale which contains the maltier to balanced, more highly flavored Belgian and French ales.
Belgian Wits are delicate beers. As with most delicate beers, they can be difficult to brew correctly. Too much bitterness, too much spice, too thick or heavy, and not enough freshness are some of the major flaws of Witbiers. Before we get into how to brew a great witbier, let's look at the history of this beer.
Belgian Wit or witbier (sometimes and originally called white beer) is a style of wheat beer which originated in Belgium. The beer is a product of geography and it can be traced back to the area east of Brussels, from which the cities of Louvain (which made biere blanche de Louvain) and village of Hoegaarden (which made blanche de Hougaerde) were the major producers of Belgian Wit beers. The region was a part of the Netherlands at one time and is a renowned wheat growing region. The Dutch connection also favored another characteristic of Belgian Wit beers, the spices. At the time the beer was originating, the Dutch pretty much controlled the spice trade and thus could get the freshest coriander and curacao orange peels from the Dutch Antilles. As most of you know, using spices in beer goes back to the old way of brewing before the widespread use of hops arrived. Spices were used to add interest and balance to a beer which would otherwise be flat tasting and bland.
In its heyday, these beers were brewed by over thirty brewers in Belgium. But as time passed, and lagers took over, the Wit suffered the same fate as most other styles of the day that fell from favor. The style almost went extinct after World War II, with the last of the Hoegaarden breweries closing down around 1955 and the last in Louvain surviving into the mid 1970's. As luck would have it, Pierre Celis longed for the refreshing flavors of his youth and revived the style in 1966. The comeback, of course, was a big success. There are now many styles of Belgian Wit brewed by many breweries in the beer's traditional homeland and throughout the world.
Belgian Wits are first and foremost Belgian Wheat Beers. The wheat and malt flavors should carry the beer with the spices in the background to add subtle interest. One of the biggest mistakes homebrewers make when they first attempt to brew a Belgian Wit style recipe is over spicing. Spices are generally added at the end of the boil, taking the place of the late hop addition. Use the freshest spices you can find. I like to grow cilantro for the flavor it gives to guacamole and pico de gallo, and guess what the seeds of the cilantro plant are called, coriander. For those that don't grow their own, find a reputable online spice purveyor which turns over their inventory often. Wherever you get your coriander, crush a few seeds before you brew and judge the aromatics. If they are lacking, you will need to increase the amount in your recipe. If you are using fresh seeds, you may need to reduce the amount.
The use of dried bitter orange peel is often debated. Many judges expect that traditional flavor, but many are simply looking for a big fresh citrus note. Most good Wit recipes call for using the zest from an orange. Try different types to add interest. I added about 7 whole crushed cumquats to my wit and the results were amazing.
The use of Chamomile is optional. I added some in mine but you have to be careful as it can overpower the other spice notes. You want a light floral or herbal note in there and that's all. The key here is balance. If you can't find chamomile in your market, look in the boxed tea isle. You will find many teas made with chamomile. Simply open a bag or two and dump the contents in to the wort with the other spices.
Another key characteristic of a Witbier is the color. It should be very pale with a hazy shine to it from the suspended proteins of wheat (thus the name white beer). Believe it or not, getting a cloudy beer when you want one is more difficult than many think. The problem is haze stability. The proteins only stay in suspension for a little while and then settle out. Once they settle out, they will settle more quickly the next time you stir them up. In his book Brewing with Wheat Stan Hieronymus suggests the secret is a protein rest at 122 deg F (50 deg C) during the mash and a non-flocculating yeast.
One secret, or not so secret, ingredient in many award-winning homebrewed Wits is oats. It gives the beer a softness, a smoothness, and a silkiness that most judges have come to expect in the style. Rolled oats (about 5% of the total grist) are probably best for this recipe.
The reason for a subdued bitterness is that the Belgians traditionally used aged hops in their Wits. Aged hops add little hop flavor, aroma, or bitterness and are often used only for their anti-bacterial properties. The amount of hops should be just enough to balance the sweetness and no more.
References: Information about this article on Belgian Witbier was adapted from the BJCP style guidelines for 2008, the book Brewing Classic Styles 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, written by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer, the book brewing with Wheat-The "Wit" and "Weizen" of World Wheat Beer Styles written by Stan Hieronymus, the article On Style - Wit Beers from the website North American Brewers.org and reprinted with permission from Gregg Smith, and the article from Brewing Techniques called brewing in Styles- Witbier: Belgian White written by Martin Lodahl.
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