The Soul of Wit

witboilIn anticipation of summer my compatriots and I decided to brew a Belgian Wit  beer. With their light body and refreshing spicy flavors, witbier are perfect afternoon patio beers.

We brewed last Saturday, doing a mini-mash with extract. This means that we “mashed” about half the grains, steeping them in hot water to break down the complex carbohydrates and sugars into something that yeast can eat. The rest of the fermentable sugars came from dry malt extract. This is a nice middle step between all extract and all grain brewing that is low mess and doable without any specialized equipment. All you need is your big brew pot, a sieve of some sort, and a spoon. It gives the brewer more control over the recipe and produces a better, more complex end product.

The wit style is a wheat based beer and is well known for having added spices, especially coriander and dried curacao orange peel. I went with the suggestion of using fresh orange zest instead of the dried to produce a fresher, brighter flavor. I also added a bit of chamomile to broaden the spice complexity. We used oats to add some haze to the beer and give it a smoother mouth feel, but the thick oats gave us some trouble during the mashing step. Ideally when you mash you make a sort of tea with your grains, and let them steep in it for about an hour. Different temperatures change the character of the finished “wort” that goes on to become your beer. But for this recipe we only needed to keep things at 155 degrees Fahrenheit for one hour. Pretty simple, but the oats gummed up the water, and trapped the heat. So parts of tWitSpiceshe mash were too cold, and parts were too hot! It made for a more stressful brew day than I am used to. Next time I use oats, I am using more water keep the heat circulating better.

Despite our troubles, all seemed to be fine in the end. The beer is currently in the fermenter bubbling away and smelling great. It should be ready to bottle this weekend, and I will be sure to post an update when I open the first bottle! Looking at the story of the man who brought the wit style back from the dead, Mr. Pierre Celis, our troubles were minor indeed.

Like many European styles, the wit beer dates back hundreds of years and was very popular in Belgium and France. However the post war market was hostile to the hazy, old fashioned style. Crisp, clear lager beers were dominating. The last witbier brewery shut down in 1955. This extinction lasted until 1965, when milkman Pierre Celis decided to bring back those delicious beers that everybody in the Hoegaarden area remembered so fondly.

The move was a success, and his Hoegaarden Beer grew in popularity. He had to shift production several times to keep up with demand, and soon the name of the city was synonymous with the name of it’s most famous export. Then in 1985 the brewery burned down, and Mr. Celis found himself underinsured. The nearby brewery Stella Artois bought some of the company to give Celis the money to rebuild.  Shortly thereafter Stella was part of a series of mergers that produced Interbrew, a massive conglomerate. Celis felt that Interbrew were using their stake in his company to pressure him to make changes to the recipe to make Hoegaarden more competitive in the mass market. So he sold the rest of the company to Interbrew, and in 1992 he opened a brewery in Texas making his original recipe.

The Celis Brewery was later acquired by Miller Brewing, which shortly thereafter shut the Texas plant and sold the equipment and name to The Michigan Brewing Company in 2002. They continued to make the Celis brand Wit, with the support and assistance of the family, until the company declared bankruptcy in 2012. The brand and recipe was purchased by another Texas   business group, and then sold AGAIN to the South Carolina based importer Total Beverage. That is were Pierre Celis’s legacy rests today. They relaunched the brand last year, and it is currently distributed mostly in the US South East. The original Hoegaarden brand stayed with Interbrew, which became AB InBev after a further series of international mergers and acquisitions.

While Mr. Celis had a twisty path to follow, his overall legacy lies in the hundreds of breweries making witbier today. The style is well and truly back from the dead.

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