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AUG/SEP 2006 | COLUMNS | BEAUMONT

This Is The Season Of The Wit
By Stephen Beaumont

Last night was a warm one, the kind of early summer evening that a Torontonian dreams about in February when the wind kicks up and the snow flies and slush, rather than blood, pumps through your veins. On this night, in contrast, the air was still and sultry, save for an exceedingly gentle but near-constant breeze. Even in the heart of downtown, everything and everyone seemed to have shifted into low gear.

It was a night to be outside, so my dear Maggie and I repaired to the top of our 14-floor condo building and were happy to score a couple of lounge chairs, sometimes rare commodities on the rooftop garden terrace. We brought with us a cooler, of course, stocked with ice and good Smeets Jenever for her and a couple of bottles of Belgian-style wheat beer for me.

Given that I have often and repeatedly lauded wheats through the years as the ideal “breakfast beers,” perfect for a fresh palate and ideal accompaniments to such typical brunch fare as egg dishes and cured salmon, it may come as a surprise that I’d select these same brews for a hot summer’s eve. But wheat beers, especially Belgian-style wheats, are not just one-trick ponies. In fact, given the broad scope of stylistic interpretations — more about that later — these light ales, also known as witbiers or simply wits, have a positively expansive range of summertime possibilities.

One key to the style’s warm-weather versatility, I think, is the coriander seed; along with the dried orange peel usually added to the boil, it gives the beer its distinctive flavour. In addition to being the world’s most popular cooking spice, used extensively in cuisines from Mexico to China, coriander is probably, after hops, the world’s most popular brewing spice. It was used as long ago as the time of Tutankhamun. And nothing becomes that popular without good reason.

Wits have a positively expansive range of summertime possibilities.

Although sometimes difficult to isolate in flavour, especially to those unfamiliar with its mildly lemony, black peppery taste, coriander has the ability to sharpen the taste of beer in the same manner as do hops, but without the latter’s inherent bitterness. This is why the spice remains so popular in Belgium, where a general reticence to use significant amounts of hops in brewing challenges brewers wishing to produce a thirst-quenching ale. Hence the traditional use of coriander in the mildly hopped Belgian wheat.

A co-conspirator in witbier’s refreshing character is unmalted wheat, which normally accounts for about 35–40% of the beer’s total grain content, the other 60–65% being malted barley. (This is in contrast to German-style wheats, or weizens, or weissbiers, which may contain up to 80% malted rather than unmalted wheat — a difference that contributes to the generally fuller, although still refreshing, body of the Bavarian style.) The use of unmalted grain confers upon the wit a lightness that has nothing to do with alcohol content or lack of flavour, but instead relates more to the ale’s fresh, crisp and faintly tangy taste and softly perfumey aromatics.

The first Belgian wheat I ever tasted was a Hoegaarden from back when Pierre Celis was still in charge of what was then known as the De Kluis brewery. It was a taste experience I still cite as an epiphany for me, despite what I feel InBev has done to mute the flavour of that once-great beer in the decades since. Even now, sitting here at my computer typing these words, I can vividly recall the remarkable floral notes and tongue-tingling peppery edge the Celis-era Hoegaarden boasted. (And if you can discern those attributes in today’s Hoegaarden, then mister, you’re a better man than I.)

Last night’s beers were different, of course, but of no less interest, given the way they expressed two distinct approaches to the style. On one hand, representing the fruity side of the style ledger, was Legacy Brewing’s Midnight Wit, a new addition to that Pennsylvania brewery’s portfolio (an increasingly notorious portfolio, I might add, that includes the 7% alcohol Hedonism, cases of which were censored in some stores because of the apparently overly risqué artwork on the label and packaging). (See June/July 2006 CBN, page 44.) While I found some spice notes in the aroma of this gentle ale, it was perfumey orange that dominated not only the nose, but also the taste, with the olfactory sweetness of fresh orange blossom yielding in the body to notes more of citrus peel backed by gingery spice.

Coming from a different view was the Dominus Vobiscum Blanche from the Microbrasserie Charlevoix of Quebec, which veritably explodes with spice in the nose, and not just coriander, but also clove, black pepper and, I think, grains of paradise. (Whether the brewer uses any of these spices in the creation of the beer I do not know; I’m just itemizing the aromatics I was able to deduce during my rooftop tasting.) In the body, it’s a case of what you smell is what you get, with more big spicy notes backed by orange peel notes and honey-ish malt.

In between these two styles are beers like Unibroue’s Blanche de Chambly, also from Quebec, a sandy-brown, light and mildly coriander-ish brew that I think defines the balanced middle ground of fruit and spice for Belgian-style wheats, at least among widely available brands. Others I would have happily carried to the roof last night include Allagash’s citrusy White, van Eecke’s perfumey Watou’s Witbier from West Flanders in Belgium, and the delicate Ommegang Witte from Cooperstown, N.Y.

As for my epiphany beer, Hoegaarden, well, in the unlikely event that a bottle made it into my home today, its uncapping would have to wait for someone unhampered by the memory of what that beer used to be.

CBN Associate Editor Stephen Beaumont brings his passionate and unapologetic opinions to the Internet each and every month at WorldofBeer.com. His most recent book is The Great Canadian Beer Guide, Second Edition (McArthur & Company, 2001).

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