Get ready for summer with a refreshing, citrusy Belgian Witbier. We review what makes the style stand out and how to make one of your very own!
Belgian Witbier is my guilty pleasure in the craft beer world. In an industry that is pushing the extremes of bitterness in IPAs, funk in farmhouse saisons and bacterial byproducts in sour beers, the more simple styles often go ignored. For me, Witbier is a beautiful style that personifies freshness. I still remember trying what would become my favourite Witbier — Charlevoix Dominus Vobiscum Blanche — for the first time. I racked my brain trying to figure out how it was that a beer could smell like “fresh spring air”. Honestly I’m still not 100% certain I know the blend of spices and citrus they use, but after this brew I think I’m getting closer.
Commercial Examples of Belgian Witbier
- Hoegaarden Wit
- Allagash White
- Unibroue Blanche de Chambly
- Microbrasserie Charlevoix – Dominus Vobiscum
At it’s core Belgian Witbier is an ale that contains a high portion of wheat and is fermented using non-flocculant Belgian yeast strains which naturally impart a lightly spiced flavour and aroma. These two stylistically important ingredients play a major role in causing the beer to have a hazy appearance. This haze, in combination with the pale colour, are the factors which led the style to be known as “white beer”. To go with the yeast flavors, spice and citrus additions are fairly common. Hops are restrained with a heavy charge of low alpha acid noble-type hops early in the boil generally being enough. The goal in brewing a Witbier is to have all of these elements blend together in the correct ratios without one character completely overpowering the rest.
“Belgian Witbier: A refreshing, elegant, tasty, moderate strength wheat-based ale”
~BJCP Style Guidelines 2015
Spice additions can include any number of options, the most common of which is coriander. Additional spices to consider include “grains of paradise”, chamomile and other flowers, ginger, and star anise. The options are essentially endless but again, this is all about balance. As Jean-François Gravel (Dieu du Ciel) tells Stan Hieronymus in the book “Brewing with Wheat”, we are not looking for “coriander soup”. Generally speaking, if a taster goes from “I detect hints of chamomile” to “it tastes like chamomile tea”, you’re doing it wrong.
There are varying opinions on the malt varieties to be used in Belgian Witbier. While historically defined as containing a 50/50 blend of pale malted barley and unmalted wheat, modern variations exist. Many varieties use higher portions of malted wheat in place of unmalted. The flavor differences are arguably minor, with the malted wheat having a bit more sweetness while the unmalted is often described as being more “soft” and “delicate”. A major advantage of malted wheat is that it is much easier to work with if you’re limited to a single infusion mash as it is more highly modified. Another common addition is flaked oats, which often make up 5-10% of the recipe.
As for my opinions on brewing the style, there are a few elements that I have changed over the years that, to me, have made a remarkable difference. Primarily:
- Ditch the dried bitter orange peel. Substitute for a larger amount of fresh citrus peel. You can go all orange or use a blend such as grapefruit, tangerine, lemon etc. I went with 2 parts orange, 1 part lemon, 1 part grapefruit for mine. Plus you get to eat the fruit after. No scurvy for you.
- Use unmalted wheat. I used crushed/cracked, torrified wheat, though flaked wheat will also work. To me it has a preferable taste over malted wheat.
- Buy “football” shaped coriander, not the round stuff. This sounds obscure, I know, but it tastes different, and more importantly, authentic. Check any shop with a section dedicated to Indian cooking. The fresher the better.
- Acidify your mash either through the use of acid malt or by adding acid to your strike water. However, don’t do this blindly. I would only suggest this for people who understand their brewing water and how to adjust it methodically. You’re not looking to make Sour Puss.
- More spice is not necessarily better. As mentioned, you want your malt, spices, and hops to be in the correct balance. Often times we forget that just because a flavor is to be present (i.e. clove) doesn’t mean it needs to be dominant (i.e. ham). The trademark of a good witbier is when the drinker thinks they have the spices figured out but they are still left guessing.
- Use proper Belgian yeast, ideally one designed for Belgian Witbier. I’d like to think this goes without saying but I don’t want to risk it.
About the recipe
Most of the decisions that were made regarding the recipe were based on the information above so I won’t regurgitate it here. However, here are a few quick notes:
- La Quebecois malt is a slightly darker-than-average pale malt at 2.9L. It is available from the Canada Malting Group, and I chose it as I wanted to see if it would help impart some of the characteristics shared by some of my favourite beers from Quebec brewers. I really enjoyed the earthy, grainy taste I got off the raw barley though it’s hard to tell how much impact it hand on the final product. If you do not have access to it feel free to try a different pale malt, or Pilsner malt. My beer was on the high end of the allowable colour range so going with a more lightly coloured malt will put in back into the normal range.
- I used Wyeast #3864 which is rumoured to be the Unibroue yeast strain. It is usually only available seasonally. There are lots of alternatives including White Labs WLP400 and WLP410, as well as Wyeast 3942 and 3944.
- I did a step mash because I can. I wrote what was to be a quick summary on protein rests and why a step mash is something to strongly consider for the style. However, this already lengthy article quickly doubled in length. I’ll post that as an aside later and link to it from here. Go straight to a single 152-154F infusion if you prefer.
To learn more about all sorts of wheat beers check out Stan Hieronymus’ book “Brewing With Wheat: The ‘Wit’ and ‘Weizen’ of World Wheat Beer Styles” available at Amazon USA and Amazon Canada through our referral links.
|Batch Size||Boil Time||IBU||SRM||Est. OG||Est. FG||ABV|
|5.5 gal||60 min||12.2 IBUs||3.8 SRM||1.048||1.009||5.1 %|
|Quebecoise Pale Malt||4.25 lbs||44.44|
|Wheat, Torrified||4.25 lbs||44.44|
|Oats, Flaked (Briess)||9 oz||5.88|
|Wheat - White Malt (Briess)||8 oz||5.23|
|Saaz||23 g||60 min||First Wort||Pellet||3.6|
|Whirlfloc Tablet||1.00 Items||10 min||Boil||Fining|
|Yeast Nutrient||0.50 tsp||10 min||Boil||Other|
|Coriander Seed||12.00 g||5 min||Boil||Spice|
|Fresh Citrus Peel||1.75 oz||5 min||Boil||Spice|
|Chamomile Flowers (Dried)||1.25 g||5 min||Boil||Spice|
|Belgian Canadian/Belgian (WLP3864)||White Labs||80%||65°F - 80°F|
|Protein Rest||122°F||30 min|
|Mash Out||168°F||10 min|
|Download this recipe's BeerXML file|
***I pitched my yeast at 20C (68F) where I left it until fermentation began to slow down. At that point I slowly raised the temperature to around 22C (~71.5F) for about three more days to help it finish up. I did not secondary or cold crash the beer. All in all it spent about two weeks fermenting before being kegged.***