If there’s one thing that consistently irks me as a beer lover, it’s when brewers overdo their recipes with a lot of ornamentation and fluff that they can get from regular brewing ingredients. If there are two things that consistently irk me as a brewer (if you’re not picturing Steve Martin at Christmas on Saturday Night Live right now, you’re dead to me), it’s the overloaded recipe thing plus beers that are so over-eager to be recognized that they produce a wildly out-of-balance beer that can border on undrinkable. They’re the brewing equivalent of a laugh track.
So it often is, sadly, with Belgian witbier. This is a fantastic beer style, especially for the summer-to-fall transition, but you need to resist the impulse to overload it with spices and fruit! Pick good ingredients, don’t lose sight of the role of malt, and you’ll make something you can drink by the liter instead of making wheat-based perfume.
Witbier is one of those classic beer styles (dating to the eighteenth century, at least) native to the farming regions of eastern France and Belgium. It is, as its name indicates, a wheat-heavy ale (roughly 50 percent of the grist is unmalted wheat), sometimes sweet-ish in flavor, and usually features a significant citrus-and-spice character. You find significant variation in the style, much as we do with saison, but at its core this is a low-ABV pale ale with a noticeable fruity and grainy flavor profile. It isn’t “hoppy,” per se, but there’s no question that it can benefit from a creative approach to hops (as you’ll see in just a moment). And while spices are often used, I am going to strongly encourage you to limit both the number and amount you add to this beer. And by that I mean, “add none.” Having said that, if you’re a huge fan of spice beers, then by all means, swing for the fences here on the peels and petals and spices, so long as you’re balancing them sufficiently with other flavors!
Grist here is pretty simple, but with one small twist. Start with equal parts Pilsner malt and unmalted wheat (flaked wheat), about five pounds (2.3 kg) of each. I’ve actually tasted examples that go 50/50 on the wheat, malted and unmalted, but they lack the starches and proteins that you’ll get from raw wheat, which makes it hard to nail the particularly unique creamy/dry mouthfeel we’re looking for.
To that base, you’re going to make two small additions: half a pound (227 g) of flaked oats and half a pound (227 g) of acidulated malt. Your base grains here will give you all the grain, cracker, and wheat flavor you could hope for. The two specialty grains will both smooth out the mouthfeel (thanks, oats) and add a hint of tart, lactic zip to the beer, which will actually end up increasing the perception of citrus. Pick up a bag of rice hulls too, for filtering purposes.
For spices, we’re going to add…nothing. You can if you want. We’ll be over here, with the hops.
The best thing about the hopping for this recipe is how perfectly the hop is suited to the task, which means we use one hop in two additions. Get yourself 2 ounces (57 g) of Pacific Jade, a New Zealand hop variety that features…wait for it…lemon, orange, pepper, and herbs. It even has a healthy double-digit alpha-acid percentage. You’ll add 20–25 IBUs of it in a 10-minute addition, and whatever’s left at flame-out. Done. No spice grinder, no dried peels, no flower petals, and a bright, fruity, spicy flavor and aroma.
Finally, just to give your esters and phenols a little boost, ferment with Wyeast 3944 (Belgian Witbier). It will echo a lot of our existing flavors and backstop any areas where our hops or grist have left a hole to be plugged.
You might want to add those rice hulls to the mash, since high levels of wheat can lead to stuck lauters and sparges. I’ve only ever gone through this once, but that one time was enough to convince me that it’s worth the extra dollar or two! Half a pound (227 g) of rice hulls should be fine. A more complicated question is whether you need to do a protein rest (a mash step at about 120°F/49°C) because of the high percentage of unmalted wheat in the grist. The short answer is, “no.”
The slightly longer answer is that I’ve tasted examples of both from the same brewer and detected almost no difference. In fact, the non-protein-rested version had a softer palate and tasted better, at least to me. The one caveat is that the brewer in question did a longer rest at 152°F/67°C (90 minutes vs. 60), which research suggests is almost as effective. Since then, I’ve done it both ways (though never as a split/back-to-back batch) and can’t tell a lick of difference between them. If you’re set up for step mashing, then it certainly can’t hurt, but don’t feel like you need to: a single-infusion mash still works perfectly well here.
Last, ferment this beer nice and warm, 67°F (19°C), for the first few days and then ramp up to 72°F/22°C (perfect for late-summer brewing) to encourage noticeable fermentation character without yielding anything too hot, while also encouraging a complete, drying attenuation.
If you brew this beer and don’t feel like it had enough of the spice or fruit character you want, you can always add it the next time. I do, though, encourage you to try this simpler version first, if only to establish a baseline. I think you’ll find that it really hits the mark and that you can save those spices (and their potential liabilities) for another beer.
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