As I write this, yet another winter storm is delivering sleet, snow, freezing rain, and cold from New Mexico to New England. But you must believe me when I say this: Spring is just around the corner.
Perhaps not this week, perhaps not even this month, but spring will come. And when that first mild, patio-worthy day finally arrives, you’re going to want to have a refreshing homebrew that fits the forecast. It’s time to plan for that day.
One of my very favorite styles for spring is classic Belgian witbier, a key ingredient of which is orange peel. But I avoided brewing wits for a long time for one simple reason: I could never figure out which orange peel to buy.
The nomenclature surrounding this simple culinary goodie is remarkably complex, but we can cut through all the classification clutter. Here’s all you need to know to spend less time Googling and more time brewing.
Bitter Oranges (Citrus aurantium)
Bitter oranges represent a broad class of fruits whose aromatics delivery citrusy, herbal overtones. Sometimes called Seville oranges, the flesh of bitter oranges is rarely edible, but the peel carries aromatics and flavor compounds that can range from subtly citrusy and floral to—oddly—meaty. The orange peel used in Belgian witbier is traditionally of the bitter variety, and it’s almost always paired with coriander.
The Curaçao orange (Citrus aurantium var. currassuviencis) is a type of bitter orange that grows on the Caribbean island of Curaçao. Descendants of Seville oranges planted by Spanish explorers in the 1500s, Curaçao oranges bowed to the evolutionary pressures of island life and today are known as laraha fruit. The flesh of the laraha is completely inedible, but the peel contains wonderful aromatics.
Bitter oranges, including Curaçao, form the basis for authentic Curaçao liqueur, triple sec, and Grand Marnier, but for reasons I don’t quite understand, bitter orange peel is more generically citrusy than overtly orangey when used in beer. For intense orange flavor, we must turn to sweet oranges.
Sweet Oranges (Citrus sinensis)
Sweet oranges are the ones you know and love from the supermarket, the kind whose juice drips down your chin. The peel of the sweet orange delivers a more positively identifiable orange character to beer than does that of the bitter orange. A popular member of the sweet orange family, the Valencia (Citrus sinensis var._ Valencia_) is the signature variety found in Blue Moon Belgian White. If you enjoy this kind of flavor, then sweet orange peel is the way to go.
Sweet orange peel is popular in holiday beers and pairs well with other holiday spices such as cloves and cinnamon. You can purchase the product dried, or you can always zest oranges from the supermarket. Just pick one you like, and make sure to use only the colorful outer layer and avoid the white pith underneath, which is bitter in a not-so-good kind of way.
So there you go. Use bitter orange peel for a pleasant citrusy character and sweet orange peel for intense orange flavor. Regardless which you choose, start small and adjust your recipe to taste. Add 0.5–1.0 ounce (14–28 grams) of dried orange peel 5 to 15 minutes before the end of the boil, or steep in hot water for 10 minutes and add to secondary.
And here’s a Belgian witbier recipe to get you started.