Beer styles, like fashion trends, come and go.
As tastes change, a style's popularity may fade. And as fewer examples are brewed, some — like German gose, Poland's grodziskie and Kentucky common — eventually disappear entirely.
Add Belgian witbier to that list, too. This yeasty, pale-yellow wheat beer was once the jewel of Belgium around the cities of Leuven and Hoegaarden. In the mid-19th century, Hoegaarden had nearly 40 witbier breweries. By 1957, there were none.
But witbier — along with other extinct styles — was given a new lease on life by the next generation of brewers. Pierre Celis had worked at Hoegaarden's last witbier brewery shortly before it closed. Missing the style, he began brewing it at home in 1965 and made his first commercial batch of Hoegaarden witbier a year later. Its popularity has inspired many Belgian and American craft and mega breweries to take up the style.
Witbier is one of the ultimate summer beers. It is ultralight and super-refreshing without sacrificing complexity. Witbier is built on a foundation of bready/crackery wheat, but the real stars are yeast and spice. Fermentation-derived notes of pepper and clove drive many examples, accompanied by banana-like fruit. Coriander, typically part of the recipe, subtly accentuates the yeasty spice. It's all topped off by delicate hints of bitter or sweet orange peel.
Hoegaarden is an obvious and ubiquitous benchmark for the style. Pale and slightly cloudy, Hoegaarden appears almost white in color. A light touch of coriander and Curaçao orange peel provide a gentle floral fruitiness that complements the citrus and spice notes from the Belgian yeast strains. Effervescent, with a long-lasting, mousse-like head, this is a perfect beer for summer.
Another witbier known to almost everyone is Blue Moon, one of the first examples widely available in this country. Clove and coriander are clear and sharp, contrasted by soft, yeasty banana. Orange is strong, but not overwhelming. It all rests on a bed of grainy wheat. This is definitely an Americanized version. It has all the goodness of a witbier, but amped up and lacking the delicate subtlety of more authentic examples. Nonetheless, it's still a tasty quaff.
Shock Top, another mass-produced example, takes things even further. All the elements are present — wheat, orange, coriander, yeast spice and fruit. But it's all overdone. The result is an overly sweet and somewhat plodding witbier that betrays the essence of the style.
Wittekerke is one of my favorite Belgian-brewed witbiers. It captures the refined subtlety that marks the best examples of the style. Bready sweet malt is just barely balanced by very light hop bitterness. Floral and citrus flavors from coriander and orange peel are subtle but apparent, a pleasing complement to the yeast's clove. Hints of lemon zest give a refreshing zip.
St. Bernardus Wit is another delicately delicious witbier from Belgium. This one is light, bright and fruity. Bitter orange comes in clear, joined by a touch of lemony tartness. The coriander is also clearly expressed, bringing fruity and spicy notes that meld well with the clove-forward fermentation profile. Slightly sweet, crackery wheat keeps it all in check.
There are excellent witbiers brewed in North America, too. White Rascal from Avery Brewing Co. in Boulder, Colo., is one of my favorites. Bitter orange and yeasty pepper and clove dominate the profile, supported by understated coriander spice. Banana and wheat provide an elegant underpinning. All the elements are finely articulated — clearly apparent individually but integrating seamlessly into a single whole.
Blanche de Chambly from Unibroue in Chambly, Quebec, is another great example. This one is fruit-driven, with orange, lemon and banana taking the lead. A bit of tart acidity makes the fruit flavors pop. Clove and coriander give a balancing, spicy contrast. Bready wheat holds it all together.
Witbiers lend themselves to the addition of fruit. Both Avery and Unibroue offer fruit-infused versions now available in the Twin Cities:
Éphémère is an apple-flavored version of Unibroue's Blanche de Chambly. The addition of green apple brings an extra layer of complexity to an already complex and fruity beer. The apple seems at once prominent and subtle as it mingles seductively with the banana and spice of fermentation. Notes of anise and coriander add to the intrigue. The finish is long and all about apple. I have recently seen this beer available only as part of the Unibroue Sommelier Selection six-pack. But if you like Belgian ales, all of the Unibroue beers are worth checking out.
With Liliko'I Kepolo, Avery juices up White Rascal with passion fruit, which takes the lead in both flavor and aroma, blending with the clove and coriander to create an impression akin to spiced poached pears. The fermented fruit adds some acidity, preventing the beer from becoming too sweet. Wheat, fruit, yeast and spice come together in an interesting mélange that moves from one thing to the next as you sip. In the end, the passion fruit is a bit overwhelming. I would like less fruit and more beer. But I still enjoyed it — a lot.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at email@example.com.