A Brief History of Witbier

Belgian beer is popular in America and worldwide, but some old-world Belgian ales that were once long-forgotten have made a surprising comeback. One such style is the witbier.

You’ve probably sampled something close to a witbier. Blue Moon, for instance, is a Belgian wheat ale that is a close relative of witbier, kind of a spin-off, if you will. And like witbier, you normally enjoy these beers with a slice of orange or an orange peel.

True witbier has a rich history and an even more interesting comeback story through the efforts of one brewer who refused to sell out or modify his original witbier recipe for the sake of mass production.

At TapRm, we appreciate an underdog, and a great beer, whether a pilsner or a pale ale. That’s why we love witbier, the unsung hero of pale, hazy beers with lots of carbonation and a spicy, citrusy finish. Pull up a chair, and we’ll tell you the tale about the rise, fall, and rebirth of this classic white beer.

What Is Witbier

A witbier is a Belgian-style wheat ale that is both pale and cloudy. Witbier is unfiltered and usually contains a combination of oats and wheat in grist. Usually, the wheat is not malted. Witbier always contains spice, most notably coriander and orange peel.

Witbier is crip, clean, bubbly, and tangy. Usually, it is enjoyed with a slice of orange or orange peel as garnish. It might also be known as Bière Blanche or witte, and it’s usually served in a tulip glass.

They tend to be lighter than German weissbier, with less clove flavor. It’s distinct from other wheat beers as well, including Hefeweizen and Berliner Weisse. Witbier is also significantly less malty than a Dunkel.

The History of Witbier

Like many ancient beers, the actual origins of witbier are a bit murky at best. We do know that at the turn of the 14th century, monks in monasteries located in the French-speaking part of Belgium were brewing beer using locally available herbs and spices. This beer used unmalted wheat, which meant that the beer had a pale color, giving it its name.

These monks used wild yeast strains and bacteria during fermentation, which means that witbier actually began as a sour. Witbier brewers today have eliminated the wild yeast and bacteria, thus eliminating the would-be sour classification.

Popularity

Witbier, or “white beer,” became very popular during the 16th century. During this time, beer was usually much darker due to the necessary process of drying malt over an open flame. The charred malt gave beer not only a dark hue but also made it unpredictable.

The resulting beer had different tastes depending on the level of scorching the malt received. Witbier became popular for its nuanced color, but also for the predictability of flavor it had.

The Fall Of Witbier

By the 1800s, new advances in beer-making technology, including air-drying malt, made it possible for brewers to better control the outcomes of the beers they made. This switched the focus from witbier to newer, darker, and more robust ales and lagers.

By 1930, there were only a few breweries still producing witbier, and one of them was in the town of Hoegaarden.

The Rebirth of Witbier

We can attribute our current affair with witbier to one man, Pierre Celis. Growing up in Hoegaarden in the 30s and 40s, he became familiar with witbier and the brewing process from a neighbor who owned a brewery.

Celis helped his neighbor at the brewery while simultaneously working on his family’s dairy farm. After WWII, his neighbor’s brewery was forced to close. At the urging of friends and family, Celis began brewing witbier at home in 1965. His production grew, and he purchased used brewing equipment to keep up.

Eventually, Celis opened a brewery and began distributing his witbier commercially. Unfortunately, the brewery burned to the ground. To rebuild it, he was given financing by a large beer conglomerate. He reopened as Hoegaarden Brewery but eventually sold his shares of the company when his financial backers wanted him to change the recipe for faster distribution.

Relocating his family to the United States, he opened a brewery in Texas. Miller Brewing expressed interest, and he sold a portion of his investment to them. Almost immediately, they requested changes to the way witbier was made, to make it faster and cheaper to produce.

Celis refused to sacrifice quality for quantity and sold his share in the company. Miller immediately ceased production of witbier, and it seemed that would be the end of this pale tale.

Witbier Today

Thankfully, you can still find witbier today, thanks to craft brewers all over the country who have discovered Celis’s passion for the white wonder and begun to create new variations on their own. Although they may not be made from Celis’s personal recipe, they are crafted in the same historical fashion as the old world witbier that provided the groundwork for Celis’s Hoegaarden brew.

The Witbier Experience

A true witbier is a delicious, creamy beer with a thick, frothy head that is hazy, only slightly tart, and spicy.

What Color Is a Witbier?

Although witbier isn’t actually white, it’s one of the lightest colored beers available. Straw color to pale is the spectrum for a witbier.

There will also be plenty of golden haze in the background. The high carbonation enhances the golden color, giving a witbier a beautiful, nearly iridescent color.

What Kind of Aroma Can I Expect?

Witbier is malted today, but in keeping with tradition, the malt is necessarily low. On the nose, you’ll pick honey, vanilla, and spice. There’s also usually a bit of wheat which creates a delicate balance with the tangy, citrus scent of orange. Witbier should never smell earthy or vegetative. Sweet scents are also common for some witbiers.

What Is the Body of a Witbier Like?

Witbier is a medium-bodied beer usually described similarly to Baby Bear’s porridge: just right. Creamy, smooth, and milkshake-like, witbier has a very low acidity, a dry finish, and a high level of fizzy, zippy carbonation.

Bitterness

Bitterness is low, usually registering between 8-20 IBUs.

What Is the Flavor of the Witbier?

This wheat beer is about 50/50 wheat and oats. As such, you can expect a bread-like flavor. Witbier also contains spices, so coriander, bitter orange peel, and any other spice the particular brewer has added will be present. You may also notice citrus peel and a slightly toasty flavor from barley malt. Wheat usually remains unmalted.

Acidity and hops are low.

ABV

Witbiers have a low ABV between 4.5-5.5% making them sessionable and lower gravity than other Belgian beers, like Belgian strong blondes.

Witbier To Try Right Now

On deck at TapRm, we’re crushing on three witbiers made by a few certain craft brewers. Their goal is to build on the old world recipe and create new, highly sessionable and enjoyable, easy-drinking witbiers.

  • Allagash Brewing Allagash White. Balanced citrus and spice, this wheat beer is everything you love about a Belgian wheat with the spicy, hazy flavors of a true wit. With 5.2% ABV, this beer is the perfect addition to your all-day boat trip or simply sipping on the patio.
  • Ross Brewing Company Manasquan White. A true, old-style witbier, Ross Brewing’s Manasquan White has the flavors you want in a witbier. Coriander, orange peel, and lemon zest hit the nose and palate with a burst of citrusy goodness that screams summer. 5.1% ABV makes it super sessionable and highly approachable.
  • Port City Brewing Company Optimal Wit. Want an award-winning witbier? Here it is. Honored in 2013, 2015, and 2018, this medal-worthy witbier is unfiltered and contains a surprising ingredient: grains of paradise (a relative of ginger root). Combined with the classic coriander and orange peel spice, you’ll get a hint of peppery spice along with the crisp citrus complexity you expect from a witbier. 4.9% ABV keeps the complexity balanced with the approachability.

Our selection of witbier is always changing and evolving. Many of the craft brewers we work with only release their concoctions on a limited or seasonal basis. The takeaway: if you see something you want, grab it. They don’t always stay on our shelves for very long.

Sharpen Your Wit

Now that you know the history of the witbier, take your knowledge to the streets. Get a little gutsy and sample new and upcoming witbiers available by craft brewers.

If you have a hard time finding them on your store shelves or your local put, we can help. At TapRm, we’re helping passionate beer drinkers get their hands on beer created by the most obsessive beer brewers. By connecting the two, we’re building a better beer infrastructure.

Because we work with smaller craft brewers, we can let you enjoy beer you would never have access to unless you lived near the brewery. In return, these brewers get more exposure and have the opportunity to get their beer to more people. It’s a win/win.

So go for a witbier, or grab a few from TapRm, and share them with friends. Whether you prefer IPAs or you’re a saison fanatic, we’ve got something for you.

Sources:

The Rebirth of America's Original Witbier | PUNCH

Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines | Brewers Association

The history of Belgian beer | VISITFLANDERS

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