Ahhh… Spring! The birds are chirping, the flowers are blooming and the days are getting longer. It’s a time when the earth wakes up from its wintertime slumber and life begins anew. As with many of the other seasons, brewers are now heralding the arrival of Spring with Spring seasonals. While Sierra Nevada rings in the spring with its aptly titled Early Spring Beer, or ESB, many brewers also make witbiers. Inspired by a hallway conversation with a co-worker last week, I will be reviewing a number of witbiers for this week’s Beer in Review.
The witbier style has seen a sudden resurgence in popularity. A 400 year old beer style, witbiers were extinct for a number of years before Pierre Celis revived the style in the 1950s. According to the BJCP, the witbier style is
A refreshing, elegant, tasty, moderate-strength wheat-based ale.
While accurately summing up the style in general, we can further expand on what to expect. A witbier is a spiced, Belgian wheat ale. Here’s what the BJCP has to say about the style’s flavor:
Pleasant sweetness (often with a honey and/or vanilla character) and a zesty, orange-citrusy fruitiness. Refreshingly crisp with a dry, often tart, finish. Can have a low wheat flavor. Optionally has a very light lactic-tasting sourness. Herbal-spicy flavors, which may include coriander and other spices, are common should be subtle and balanced, not overpowering. A spicy-earthy hop flavor is low to none, and if noticeable, never gets in the way of the spices. Hop bitterness is low to medium-low (as with a Hefeweizen), and doesn’t interfere with refreshing flavors of fruit and spice, nor does it persist into the finish. Bitterness from orange pith should not be present. Vegetal, celery-like, ham-like, or soapy flavors are inappropriate. No diacetyl.
With that in mind, let’s go ahead and start the reviews.
Hoegaarden, Brasserie Hoegaarden, 4.9% ABV
Hoegaarden pours out a clear, pale straw color with a white head. The aroma is comprised of a slightly sweet wheat malt component, fresh citrus notes, a low yeasty pepperiness with corriander undertones and a very, very slight tartness. No discernable hop aroma. Hoegaarden has a medium-low spicy/peppery aspect in the flavor that is supported by a low, wheat malt sweetness. There is a low level of spice/herb quality that is from the corriander that persists into the finish. Very, very low hop flavor. Hoegaarden is medium-low bodied and effervescent in it’s carbonation.
Pronounced “who-garden”, this beer is considered the original Witbier. An extinct style, milkman turned brewer Pierre Celis revived the style in his hay loft. As the popularity of the beer increased, Pierre increased his production to match. Eventually Pierre sold his brewery in 1997 to InBev. He opened up Celis Brewery in Austin, Texas that was managed by his daughter Christine.
Hoegaarden, for a time, was considered the quintessential witbier and set the standard for others to follow. As it stands against the BJCP standard, the Hoegaarden lacks some of the subtlties of honey/vanilla in the malt while the spices are toned down some. The beer is surprisingly clear as the style is noted for its cloudy appearance. If you believe what is being said, the recipe has been changed slightly from it’s original. I’d love to have tasted what the original was like. I am still a fan of this beer but not as much as before.
Wittekerke, Brouwerij Bavik, 5.0% ABV
Wittekerke is named after a fictitious, Flemish town. “Witte” is synonomous with “white” while “kerke” means “church”. Brouwerij Bavik used to brew its own witbier, named Bavik Wit, but has since decided to change that beer’s name to Wittekerke, to correspond with a Belgian sit-com of the same name. The 6-pack I picked up from BevMo was the last one on the shelves and had a light coating of dust. I am not holding my breath regarding the quality of this beer but I hope I will be pleasantly surprised.
Wittekerke has an interesting and complex aroma. The wheat malt exhibits a sweetness that is reminiscent of honey and biscuits while the yeasty spice character is minimized, as is the spiced/herbal notes and citrus character. Wittekerke pours out a cloudy, dull gold in color with a white head and chunks of yeast in suspension. This beer was definitely sitting around for a while as there’s still a fair amount of yeast still on the bottom of the bottle, even after agitation. As the beer warms up a bit, the citrus comes through more along with a subtle corriander note. Wittekerke’s flavor is mostly sweet, wheat malt with touches of honey. The citrus aspect of the flavor is low while the corriander is subdued. Hop flavor and bitterness is very low. This beer is low/medium-low in body with high carbonation and has a slight acidity in the finish that leaves my teeth squeaky clean.
While I am generally disappointed by the beer named after a sit-com, it does improve slightly as it warms up. Some of the flavors and characteristics I lamented was missing, citrus and corriander, begin to arrive at the dance just at the right time. Even then, they are not in enough proportions to balance. I will give this beer a second chance though as the 6-pack I did get was pretty old. Hopefully a fresher beer will exhibit better characteristics.
Blanche de Chambly, Unibroue, 5.0% ABV
Blanche de Chambly literally translates to “Chambly White” and is brewed by Unibroue out of Quebec Canada. This particular beer was first brewed in 1992 and is brewed with “spices and natural aromatics are added, along with a light hopping”. This beer is pretty decorated as well winning several golds and one silver.
Blanche de Chambly (Blanche) pours out a slightly hazy gold color with a lasting, moussey white. Blanche has a fairly clean aroma. A medium-low spicy yeasty aroma is dominant and supported by low levels of sweet malt aroma, citrus character and corriander spice notes. Luckily for me, Blanche’s flavor is more than what the aroma leads me to believe. For the style, Blanche is fairly balanced with nearly equal proportions of yeast-derived spicy goodness, sweet wheat malt character and citrus character supported by a herbal/corriander quality. After agitating the dregs of the bottle further and adding it to the beer, Blanche suddenly has the cloudy look indicative of the style. This beer is medium-low in body with high carbonation.
Blanche is a decent example of the witbier style. I was intially disappointed with the aroma but as the beer warms up, it gets a little more complex in character exhibiting those yeast-derived characters I found initially missing. I think swirling the dregs around and adding it to my sample helped out a bit.
Allagash White, Allagash, 5.2% ABV
Allagash Brewery got their start in 1995 in Portland, Maine. Owner/brewer Rob Tod is quietly making some exceptional Belgian-style beers over on the East Coast. Rob is one of the “brett pack” along with Vinnie Cilurzo (Russian River), Tomme Arthur (Port Brewing/Lost Abbey), Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head) and Adam Avery (Avery). They acquired that nickname through their use of and experiementation with brettanomyces and other micrio biota. Allagash White is Allagash Brewery’s interpretation of the witbier style. Let’s see how their offering stands up.
White initially pours out a slightly hazy dark straw/gold color with a big, meringue-like, white head. I swirled the bottle of White to agitate the yeast that had settled at the bottom and poured that into the glass. The color then turned into a cloudy dull gold in color. White has a great aroma that is comprised of yeast-derived spiciness, citrus esters, a slight spiced/herbal quality. Underneath it all is a sweet, wheat malt aroma that has hints of biscuit and honey. The flavor of White is a mixture of sweet, wheat malt balanced with a slight peppery Belgian phenolic quality and held together by slight citrus and spice flavors. White is also the first beer where I’ve noticed some hop bitterness of a low/medium-low level. Allagash White is low/medium-low in body with high, effervescent carbonation.
I’m enjoying Allagash White. It’s a great blend of all the witbier hallmarks of flavor and aroma but has a good level of Belgian yeasty phenolic character. The proprietary spice mix is noticeable but not overbearing while the hop bitterness is enough to balance the sweetness from the wheat malt.
Blue Moon, Blue Moon Brewery (aka Coors), 5.4% ABV
Contrary to the label, Blue Moon is not brewed by Blue Moon Brewing Company but by Molson Coors Brewing Company. Originally developed by brewmaster Keith Villa at the Sandlot Brewery located on-site at Coors Field. I appreciate that Coors is allowing the Sandlot Brewery to experiment and develop the beers they want to brew. It shows that event though they’re big, they still have some apprecation for craft ales.
Blue Moon pours out a hazy, dull gold color with a short lasting white head. Blue Moon has an interesting aroma. There’s a more noticeable orange/citrus aroma, a slight sulfury yeast note, some other fruit esters that reminds me of melons, and a low level what character. The flavor of Blue Moon is primarily wheat (like Wheaties) in nature, with slight orange-citrus flavors. Blue Moon is medium-low/medium in body with high carbonation.
Out of all the beers I’ve tried so far, Blue Moon is the most commercially available. It’s not a bad tasting witbier but I think that it is the most different from the rest I’ve tried so far. It really emphasizes the wheat aspects of the style as well as the orange peel. Now that I think about it, it tastes kinda like wort only not as sweet. Maybe that’s why I don’t like it, it seems unfinished.
20 Anniversary Wit, Deschutes, 5.5% ABV
This beer wasn’t supposed to be on the list for tonight. I happened to be cataloging the beers I have and I ran across this one. Truth be told, I don’t even remember where I picked it up but it’s a welcome addition to tonight’s flight of witbiers.
According to the labels, this beer is celebrates 20 years of brewing for Deschutes. To honor the event, they brewed this witbier with Curacao orange peel, coriander and grains of paradise. Released under their Bond Street label, this beer was developed and tested in the original Deschutes Brewery and Public House in Bend, Oregon.
Anniversary pours out a remarkably clear light gold/dark straw color with a short lasting white head. Agitating the yeast at the bottom of the bottle and adding that beer into my already poured glass clouds up the beer very slightly. It’s kinda weird for me to write this but the initial aroma I get off of Anniversary is ash tray. There’s a slight citrus character to the aroma and I’m also picking up some of the sweet, wheat malt character of the beer. The initial flavor of the beer is that of a medium-low, peppery phenolic character followed by a slight citrus note with the various spices showing up towards the end and lasting into the finish. Hop bitterness is low as is with the flavor. This beer is medium-low in body with high carbonation and a slight tartness in the finish.
As I let the beer warm up some, the wheat malt makes a more robust appearance while the citrus notes and Belgian peppery phenolics sort of tone down some. Anniversary is the most spicy/herbal of all the witbiers I’ve had tonight. It’s not necessarily a good or bad thing, it just is. As I pour in the last of the dregs, Anniversary suddenly has the cloudy look typical for the witbier style while the yeast-derived flavors become more prominent again.
This was an interesting round of Beers in Review. At the most I planned to review only about 3 beers tonight but I ended up finding the Deschutes 20th Anniversay Ale in the garage along with the the Hoegaarden. It was interesting to see how each brewery treated the same style. Overall, most of the witbiers I tried tonight exhibited the same characteristics common for the style, the difference lie in the balance between each of the key components for the style. Here’s how I rate the beers:
- Allagash White
- Blanche de Chambly
- Deschutes 20th Anniversay Wit
- Blue Moon
I felt Allagash White had the best balance between all the key characteristics of the style while Blue Moon had the worst balance, even excluding some aspects. I wish I had a fresh bottle of Wittekerke but I got what I got.
All-in-all, this was an interesting exercise in exploring the witbier style. This is the first time I’ve reviewed beers from a single style versus beers from a particular company. Shoot me an email or leave a comment and let me know what you think is more interesting.