What is a witbier?

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First Posted: 7/15/2013

Style: Witbier

Brief History: Throughout history many beers styles have come and gone and the witbier style was another that was nearly gone and forgotten. The witbier style, witbier meaning “white beer,” has been around since the 1500s and grew in popularity steadily over the years, peaking in the late 1800s throughout Europe. However, by the 1950s the style was all but extinct thanks to a few wars, brewery consolidations, and the growth of various lagers. But in 1966 a milkman named Pierre Celis established the De Kluis brewery next to his house in Hoegaarden and his witbier-styled beer took off in popularity. The brewery became extremely successful, but a disastrous fire in 1985 changed things quickly. Afterwards, Celis was financially ruined and was forced to sell to brewing conglomerate Interbrew (now AB InBev), which still produces Hoegaarden to this day. Nevertheless, this one man single handedly saved an entire beer style and thanks to him we can enjoy the fruits of his labor today!

Standard Characteristics: Witbiers are unfiltered and give the appearance of being cloudy. They are typically very pale straw to very light gold in color with a dense white frothy head with good retention. The ABV range for Witbier is not very wide, ranging only from 4.5 to 5.5 percent, so these are definitely sessionable beers that can be enjoyed in larger quantities. They also have very low bitterness with almost no hop bitterness coming through with a moderate amount of spices used. One note, though, is that these beers do not typically age well despite being refermented in the bottle, and are best enjoyed as fresh as possible.

Nose: A moderate amount of sweetness in the nose, typically that of honey along with light wheat aromatics and spice. The appearance of citrus is also standard, typically orange or lemon, and in the background there can be a complex herbal spicy or peppery note.

Body: Witbiers tend towards the medium-light to medium body to allow for the refreshing qualities of this beer to shine through. They can have a smoothness that can almost be cream-like in feeling; this is from the wheat. The finish on the beer should be quite dry and should also have a high carbonation.

Taste: The taste should match the nose almost perfectly in that it’s a mild sweetness, again tasting of slight honey, which should be apparent along with citrus fruits. The main highlight of this beer should be the refreshing qualities between the sweetness, citrus, and spices being perfectly balanced so that no one characteristic outshines the other, but instead melds together.

Food Pairing: Witbiers are absolutely perfect for light faire, especially on hot summer days. This is also a beer that is goes well with a wide range of brunch plates, whether it be an omelet, bacon, sausage, or a grilled ham and cheese sandwich. Witbiers are a perfect accompanying beer for salads as well in that they are able to add to the dish without taking anything away from it; not an easy feat by any means when it comes to salads. Mexican and Thai dishes are also wonderful here in that they have citrus notes in many dishes that will highlight the citrus in witbiers.

Recommendations: The witbier style is extremely approachable by all, regardless if one is a newbie to the craft beer world or an experienced craft beer drinker. The style has been popular in the United States for quite some time and many are very familiar with it already. So the question is: what ones should I be on the lookout to try? Well, I compiled a list of what I humbly think are great witbiers to try, so if any of these are new to you write them down and ask for them at your favorite craft beer store.

  • Hoegaarden Original White Ale
  • Allagash White, Allagash Brewing Company
  • Witte, Brewery Ommegang
  • White Rascal, Avery Brewing Company
  • Blanche De Chambly, Unibroue
  • St. Benardus Witbier, Brouwerij St. Bernardus
  • Hitachino Nest White Ale, Kiuchi Brewery

Remember, always enjoy responsibly! Cheers!