Witbier

Hoegaarden witbier

 

Introduction

Belgian white beer (or Witbier) has a unique cloudy-white appearance with very little bitterness, some spiciness, and a slightly sour/tart finish. There is a very light sweetness with soft, creamy feel that is not cloying or heavy. None of the flavours or aromas stand out, making for a light refreshing beer with a moderate alcohol level usually hovering around the 5% ABV mark. Wit beers are usually quite cloudy from starch haze, with a very light straw to light golden colour. It's a refreshing beer for hot summer days.

Arguably the most popular commercial version of this beer is Hoegaarden, named after the village near Tienen in Flanders, which was the modern birthplace of witbier. Records of brewing in the village date back to 1445, when the local monks were enthusiastic brewers, but the tradition died out in the 1950s as consumer tastes moved towards different styles.

Ten years later, Pierre Celis, a milkman who had grown up next to the brewery and sometimes helped with brewing, decided to try to revive the style. He started a new brewery, called de Sluis, in his hay loft. He used the traditional ingredients of water, yeast, wheat, hops, coriander seed, and dried bitter (Curaçao) orange peel. In the 1980s, with demand for the product continuing to grow, Celis bought a former lemonade factory, to expand his brewing operations.

Hoegaarden witbier

Things changed after a fire in 1985. As is traditional in Belgium, several brewers offered their help to keep the business going and Interbrew (now InBev) lent money for the purchase of other buildings to rebuild the brewery. Over time, Celis felt very strongly that the company used the loan to pressure him to change the recipe to make the beer more "mass market". So Celis decided to sell them the brewery and moved to the United States where he set up the Celis Brewery in Austin, Texas, to continue making witbier to what he described as the 'original' Hoegaarden recipe. It was later acquired by Miller Brewing who eventually closed the brewery and sold the equipment and brand names.

Most Witbier recipes will call for crushed coriander seed along with the zest of fresh (or dried) oranges. We find that much of the spicy flavour behind a Belgain Wit already comes from the yeast (White Labs WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale or Wyeast 3944 Belgian Witbier) so we will often completely leave out the coriander and orange peel. Try it either way and see which you prefer.

One easy way to try both ways without actually brewing the beer twice is as follows:

  1. Brew the recipe as listed but omit the coriander and orange peel from the boil.
  2. Once the beer is done fermenting, make a tea with the coriander and orange peel by boiling them in a cup or two of water for 5 minutes.
  3. Slowly add the tea to a pint of beer with eye dropper or syringe (without needle), a few drops at a time, stirring gently and tasting.
  4. If you prefer the results, add a little bit at a time to the entire batch, stirring gently, until the taste is where you like it.

Remember that you can't remove spices once added so go slowly, and depending on the age of the coriander seed and orange peel you use, the amount of flavour imparted can vary. For a variation, try fresh bitter orange peel instead of dried. Make sure to only use the outside skin of the orange, none of the inner (white) pith as that tends to be bitter.

Some recipes will also call for chamomile flowers as a reportedly "secret" ingredient that Celis used in the original Hoegaarden recipe. He debunked this in later interviews indicating that coriander and bitter orange peel was all that he ever used.

Want to start a never-ending debate amongst brewers? Ask them if a Witbier (or any other beer for that matter) should be served with a slice of lemon or orange. (This is a trick question as there's no right or wrong answer).

Hoegaarden witbier

Brew up a batch and let us know how you like it!

 

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Witbier

Size: 12 US gallons (post-boil @ 68F)
Mash Efficiency: 95%
Attenuation: 80%
Calories: 158 kcal per 12 fl oz
Original Gravity:
1.048 (style range: 1.044 - 1.052)
Terminal Gravity: 1.010 (style range: 1.008 - 1.012)
Colour: 1.6 SRM (style range: 2 - 4)
Alcohol: 5% ABV (style range: 4.5% - 5.5%)
Bitterness: 15 IBU (style range: 10 - 20)

Mash:
8.9 lb German Pilsner Malt (1.5-2.1L) (50%) 
8 lb Flaked Wheat (1-2L) (45%)
0.9 lb Flaked Oats (1-1.5L) (5%)
1 lb Rice Hulls*

Boil:
2 oz German Hallertau Hops (4.8%) - added during boil, boiled 60 min [15 IBU] 
3 oz Bitter Orange Peel - added during boil, boiled 5 min (optional - see text)
1 oz Crushed Coriander Seed - added during boil, boiled 5 min (optional - see text)

Yeast:
4 packs Wyeast 3944 Belgian Witbier yeast (or an appropriate starter)
- or -
4 packs White Labs WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale yeast (or an appropriate starter)

*Flaked wheat and oats do not have a husk so the natural filter bed in the Mash/Lauter Tun is greatly reduced as the recipe is 50% flaked wheat and oats. Brewers with systems that are prone to stuck sparges should add rice hulls at a rate of about 20:1 wheat to rice hull ratio to avoid stuck sparges. We do not need to use rice hulls with our electric brewery setup. More information.

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Notes / Process

  • Add 500mg potassium metabisulphite to 20 gallons water to remove chlorine / chloramine (if required).
  • Water treated with brewing salts to our Balanced flavour profile: Ca=50, Mg=10, Na=16, Cl=70, SO4=70 (Hit minimums on Ca and Mg, keep the Cl:SO4 ratio low and equal. Do not favour flavour / maltiness or bitterness / dryness. For balanced beers.). For complete details on how to adjust your water, refer to our step by step Water Adjustment guide.
  • The Flaked Wheat (1-2L) and Flaked Oats (1-1.5L) do not need to be milled as they have already been rolled flat and toasted. Add them to the mash as is.
  • 1.5 qt/lb mash thickness.
  • Mash at 122 for 15 mins, then raise to 155F and hold for an additional 90 mins.
  • Raise to 168F mashout temperature and hold for 10 mins.
  • ~90 min fly sparge with ~5.6-5.8 pH water (measured at mash temperature). Collect 14.9 gallons.
  • Boil for 90 minutes, adding hops per schedule. Lid on at flameout, start chilling immediately.
  • Cool the wort quickly to 68F (we use a one-pass convoluted counterflow chiller to quickly lock in hop flavour and aroma) and transfer to fermenter.
  • Aerate well. Pure oxygen from a tank may be used at a rate of 1 litre per minute for 60 seconds per 5 gallons.
  • Pitch yeast and ferment at 68F (wort temperature). We use modified stainless fermenting buckets in wine fridges.
  • Ferment until approximately 12 points from final gravity (2/3 of fermentation done) and then raise the temperature to 72F until finished. In our case we simply turn off the fermenting fridges and allow the beer to naturally rise to room temperature. Assume fermentation is done if the gravity does not change over ~3 days.
  • There is no need to use finings such as unflavoured gelatin.
  • Package as you would normally. We rack to kegs that have first been purged with CO2. We chill the kegs to near freezing while carbonating at the same time in a 6-keg conditioning fridge. After ~1-2 weeks at serving pressure the kegs will be carbonated and ready to serve. In a hurry? This beer is best served fresh so feel free to raise the CO2 pressure temporarily to 30-40 PSI to carbonate fast over a 24 period, and then turn back down to serving pressure. 
  • Carbonate this beer to higher than normal levels, around 2.5 to 3.0 volumes of CO2.
  • If you keg, you will find that over time the beer naturally clears as the protein haze and yeast settles. You may occasionally jostle or flip the keg to stir up the sediment to re-introduce the cloudy appearance. Some brewers will use a spare liquid out dip tube on the gas line such that the incoming gas hits the bottom of the keg and automatically stirs up the sediment every time a beer is poured. Others will use a tablespoon or two of flour at the end of the boil to set up a starchy permanent haze. The simplest solution is probably the most popular: Consume quicker. 😉

For detailed brewing instructions, see our Brew Day Step by Step guide.

Enjoy!

Questions? Visit our Witbier forum thread

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