Kahle’s Corner: White Ales

Dec. 27, 2018


Written by Breakthru Master Cicerone® Dave Kahle


Lately I’ve been emphasizing seasonality with beer and cider styles. The funny thing about seasonality is that flavors we gravitate towards in the fall and winter can seem rich or heavy in the summer, but lighter and brighter flavors associated with warmer weather are welcome all year.


So, while we tend to drink a stout more often when it’s cold out, a refreshing Witbier (White Ale) seems like a good choice no matter what is happening with the weather. Let’s face it, I know I’d be eating stone fruit and berries all winter if I could, but I rarely crave a hearty stew in July. The same thought applies to beer.


The Witbier style is a great chameleon in that it can be fruity and light on the palate yet show spice notes that don’t seem out of place by a warm fireplace. Witbier is a Belgian style and consequently has low bitterness and higher carbonation. It is brewed with unmalted wheat and often some oats giving the beer a soft mouthfeel and its characteristic haze. This pale haze is what gives the style its name, White Ale.


Curacao orange peel and coriander are a standard spice addition, while some brewers include other spices like ginger, grains of paradise, cinnamon or chamomile among others. Curacao, the island in the Southern Caribbean, is a colony of the Netherlands which was part of Belgium at one point. Consequently, it makes sense that Curacao orange peel was available to Belgian brewers, just as it was available for gin production. Coriander adds notes of citrus, pepper, or a floral perfumy character.


The flavors from these spice additions meld well with the peppery phenolics of classic Belgian ale yeast. The yeast may also contribute fruity esters but shouldn’t veer towards banana notes like a Weissbier.


Traditionally, Witbier had a distinct tartness in the finish. While modern examples of the style generally have little to no acidity, they still finish fairly dry.


Not all beer styles have an interesting history, but Witbier had its moments. Witbier has been brewed since at least the mid 1400s. It has become associated with the town of Hoegaarden in Belgium, about an hour east of Brussels. This was a farming area growing wheat and oats which would logically be utilized in beer. The town had 30 breweries at one point in the 1800s, with a population of fewer than 7,000 people.


With the popularity of pale lagers in the 1900s, the Witbier style fell out of favor. Finally, in 1957, Brouwerij Tomsin, the last Witbier brewery in the town of Hoegaarden, closed its doors, ending production of this iconic beer style.


About 10 years later, Pierre Celis, a resident milkman, who had worked at Tomsin as a young man, founded Brouwerij De Kluis to revive the abandoned style. He thought older people would remember the Witbier style and would be the primary customers, but it actually became popular with the younger people of Hoegaarden. Celis quickly couldn’t keep up with demand. He made some poor business decisions and along with a fire at the brewery, became stretched thin. He ended up selling his brewery to what became InBev and moved to Austin, Texas to make Witbier at his new Celis Brewery.


Pierre Celis, the milkman that saved a beer style, retired back in Hoegaarden and passed away in 2011 at the age of 86. Witbier is now one of the most popular beer styles in the world.

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