Witbier, literally “white beer,” is a wheat beer of Belgian origin and ancient tradition. While the though the terms “witbier” and “weissbier” are often used interchangeably, there are important characteristics of a true Witbier that make it distinct from its similar wheaty cousins.
A Little Chemistry
All wheat beers are ales, meaning that top-fermenting yeast is added to the wort of barley mash, hops, and wheat. In the case of Witbier, a small amount of oats are sometimes added to this mixture. In addition to the presence of oats, Witbiers primarily differ from other wheat beers in that they have higher percentages of wheat in their composition, and the wheat is added raw and unmalted. Witbiers, like hefeweizen, are unfiltered, but the raw wheat translates into even thicker sediment. Additional yeast may also be added during the bottling process, especially if the beer in question is bottle conditioned, which increases the level of sediment even more. This gives Witbiers their extremely pale and cloudy appearance, and thus, their name.
The Witbier style was first created before beer was hopped, and so Curacao orange and/or coriander were added to produce a balancing bitter taste. Although hops are used in modern Witbiers, brewers generally add only a small amount to avoid muscling out the traditional citrus flavor and spicy aroma.
A Little History
Like the story of most Belgian beers, this one begins with monks. In fourteenth century Belgium, Leuven, to be precise, a group of monks made the first recorded Witbier. This would continue to be a local specialty. As technology improved, brewing moved out of the monasteries and started to become a fully-fledged industry. A Guild of Brewers was formed in Hoegaarden in the sixteenth century, which helped put the town on the map, as well as solidify it as the home of what is now probably the most popular Witbier currently produced.
Witbiers remained a popular local concoction for several centuries, but as beer making (and drinking) practices changed, Witbiers fell out of favor. For one, as filtering changed the complexion of ales of the time, the introduction of hops radically changed their flavor. Technological advances also made lagers, which are brewed at much colder temperatures and for longer periods of time, available on a large scale. Perhaps most interestingly, the introduction of the clear beer coincided nicely with the expanding use of the clear glass. The murky depths of Witbiers, which went largely unnoticed in steins, suddenly stuck out like a sore thumb.
The Witbier style was revitalized in the mid-twentieth century by Pierre Celis, a Hoegaarden milkman who formed the De Kluis brewery, which produced the town’s traditional type of beer. Celis’ beer was a hit, and soon the style was being reproduced in breweries all over Europe. Celis moved to Austin, Texas in 1992 to start the Celis brewery, which produces Celis White. The popularity of Celis White in the States entrenched the Witbier as a viable American style, so much so that even Coors produces one: the surprisingly good Blue Moon.
A Little Suggestion
Drink some Witbier! Specifically, if you are in the Boston area, visit Charlie's Kitchen in Harvard Square, where they will serve you a Hoegaarden in a comically gigantic and properly hexagonal Hoegaarden glass. Witbiers are best served in large, wide glasses, and should not be consumed straight from the bottle. A rather complicated pouring process (some bottles come replete with diagramed instructions) will ensure that the sediment is evenly distributed, which is rather the point of Witbiers in the first place.
And, of course, personal experience.