Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 42

What is a Witbier? 

Witbier, literally translated from Flemish to “white beer,” is named for its signature hazy, or white, appearance resulting from the suspended yeast and wheat proteins in the beer. Although no one knows the precise origin of the witbier style, it is thought to have originated in a monastic brewery near Leuven, Belgium, in the 14th century.

Modern versions of witbier are lightly hopped, with a balanced blend of spices and an orange-citrusy fruitiness. Coriander seed and dried curaçao orange peels are often used, where subtle hints of fruit like plum, apple or banana come from the addition of yeast. This is a lively, effervescent brew, with a tangy flavour and a refreshingly crisp, clean finish. 

History of Witbier 

One of the few historic styles of beer that is spiced, witbier is likely derived from gruit, or a beer made up of various herbs and spices used for bittering and flavouring. For much of its early history, witbier was also brewed as a sour beer. As brewing techniques evolved, sourness was reduced, then gradually eliminated, and hops were also added in small measure.

Witbier became well-known in Leuven and Hoegaarden as early as the 16th and 17th century – a specialty of local monasteries and farming communities. Local ingredients such as wheat, barley, high quality water and coriander were all integral elements of witbier. Oranges were also included, as they were readily available in Europe, despite not being locally produced.

As with many other historical beer styles, the rising popularity of lagers in the years following World War II had a particularly negative impact on witbier, forcing closure on many breweries in Leuven and Hoegaarden. 

Hoegaarden and Modern Witbier 

It’s hard to believe that witbier, a popular beer style today, had essentially disappeared in the post-WWII era. Its survival is widely attributed to the tenacity of one Hoegaarden resident named Pierre Celis, who worked at Louis Tomsin’s brewery for a few years before it closed down in 1955. In the decade following Tomsin’s brewhouse closure, witbier all but ceased to exist.

In an effort to recreate his favourite beer, Celis began experimenting with his own homebrew recipes. A year later, in 1966, Celis made his first commercial batch of witbier and opened Brouwerji de Kluis, Flemish for “the cloister” – a nod to his flagship brew’s monastic history. As interest in his beer continued to grow, Celis expanded his brewing operations, transferring his production to an abandoned soft drink factory.

Unfortunately, in 1985, a fire destroyed part of his brewery, delivering a devastating financial blow, as the space wasn’t sufficiently insured. Celis was left with little option than to partner with the country’s largest brewer, Interbrew, now known as AB Inbev, which still brews the beer under the original name Hoegaarden. As the sole brewer of witbier, Celis was kept on as head brewer, but left his job in 1988 after being pressured to amend the recipe for mass appeal with cheaper ingredients. In 1991, Celis founded Celis Brewery in Austin, Texas, making the now iconic witbier, Celis White.

Celis’ revival of witbiers coupled with a growing thirst for craft beer, particularly inspired breweries in Belgium and the US to try the style. Witbier is now quite well-known for being a refreshing brew and a perfect thirst quencher on steamy summer days.

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and a server at C’est What)