Belgian wheat beers are awaiting their renaissance, but as Joe Stange discovers, they’re not dead yet

Whatever happened to witbier, anyway? Oh, don’t get me wrong, your typical blanche is still there if you need it. It’s in most Belgian cafes, served in that thick tumbler, useful on a warm terrace, glowing pale yellow when lit by the sun. It’s on supermarket shelves, reliably spiced by a couple of corporate behemoths and imitated by those successful family enterprises that brew the classics. It’s even there when you travel abroad, on bodega shelves in Brazil or upmarket bars in China.

But in Belgium, it’s not as cool as it used to be.

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It didn’t help when InBev tried to move Hoegaarden production to Jupille in 2005, reminding everyone who owned it – a canny global corporation known for cutting costs, rather than for making distinctive beers. Sales in Belgium had been slipping before that though, since 2000. “Witbier went from a fashion phenomenon to a seasonal phenomenon,” says Philippe Vanderbeke, co-owner of the SBS drinks market in Brussels. “A few in the cold season, and a lot in the warm season.” Despite this – and despite the increase in other options – many establishments still treat white beer as an obligation, he says. “All the cafes, bars, pubs, have a witbier on the menu, because it’s part of our culture.”

But before we read its eulogy, let’s briefly revisit the story of our modern witbier. Drinkers in Belgium and abroad are increasingly attracted to the new, the local, the natural and the authentic; consider not just the rise of craft but also the revivals of lambic and saison, and the popularity of organic beers. It may well be that the secret to the future of Belgian white beer lies in the usual place: its past.

No story about Belgian white beer is complete without mentioning the person who snatched it from oblivion: Pierre Celis, who in the 1960s was a milkman in Hoegaarden.

Two centuries ago, Hoegaarden wasn’t the only town known for its white beers; Leuven’s were at least as famous. But Hoegaarden does have the distinction of being where witbier eventually went extinct… and then where it made its comeback.

Brouwerij Tomsin closed in 1957 when its last brewer died. Pierre, a neighbour, had worked there briefly as a youngster. Later he decided to bring the beer back, and in 1966 he brewed his first batch at the newly christened Brouwerij Celis.

That beer evolved into the Hoegaarden we know today, spawning countless imitators and kickstarting Belgium’s own artisanal revival. (The founders of Achouffe, among others, have cited Celis as an inspiration.) For reasons best known to Pierre, who died in 2011, he spiced the beer with orange peel and coriander. It’s not clear whether the old Hoegaardse Bier had such ingredients – it may have – but virtually every witbier has had it since.

But there are other differences between the modern classic and its predecessors.The old white beers evolved from variable, complicated, rustic farmhouse methods to gradually less rustic, efficient, modern ones. It’s tricky to generalise: these were different beers, made in different ways, in different towns.

Typically these old-style beers, like Blanche de Louvain, Peeterman and Hoegaerde, were cloudy, thicker in body and lower in alcohol than modern witbier. They may or may not have been spiced. And they would have been acidic to some degree – anywhere from tangy to sour – as a result of lactic bacteria. That was not an accident; it was an essential part of their character. Brewers would send it to trade soon after fermentation, to be drunk quickly, before it got too sour.

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Stan Hieronymous has done some of the most authoritative writing on these old styles in his book Brewing with Wheat, published in 2010. Anyone who wants to dig deeper should begin there.

Stan devotes a section to Belgian white beers, old and new, drawing expertise from primary sources as well as Yvan De Baets, the history-obsessed brewer from Brasserie de la Senne. About spices, Yvansays the old brewing books make little mention of them. Coriander was likely, “but not necessarily always”, and the amounts were probably much smaller than in today’s “caricatures”.

The old Hoegaarden beer, in particular, would have been a relatively acidic product of mixed fermentation. In its recipe and its fermentation, it closely resembles lambic– a product whose home region, after all, is practically next door in Brussels and Pajottenland.

Hieronymous notes three traits that set the older Hoegaarden beers apart: the cereals, including unmalted wheat and wind-dried malt; the use of a bacteria-laden wooden coolship for spontaneous fermentation; and the acidity that comes from natural, lactic fermentation.

Would some adventurous brewer try it today? Twenty years ago it would have sounded crazy. Today, in the age of craft variety, it sounds more like common sense bordering on inevitability.

Mixed fermentation, while still outside the mainstream, has become more fashionable. Lambics and tart, oak-aged Flemish ales are enjoying a renaissance, while other brewers are beginning to play. We see ales blended with lambic and brewers who experiment with bacteria and half-wild yeast: lactobacillus, brettanomycesand so on. They’re not all great – a few are – but they do keep things interesting and help to satisfy our thirst for variety.

Variety is something that’s been lacking in witbier, which has been more or less frozen in time since the 1960s. Imitation might be the sincerest form of flattery, but it won’t necessarily keep today’s drinkers happy. We demand quality, but we like choices. As a mine for ideas, the old methods have plenty of jewels left to offer today’s brewers.

Toward edgier wheat beers

I’m not aware of any Belgian white beers sold today that are made using the old methods – not exactly. Brewing science has moved on. Yet ideas can come from anywhere. Here and there are a few beers that, even if they don’t take their inspiration directly from the old methods, have some similar traits.

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One example comes from the same region. In Tildonk, northwest of Leuven, Hof ten Dormaal brews its Saison with raw wheat and spelt from the Janssens family’s own farm. They also grow their own barley, which goes to Dingemans for malting before returning to the brewery.

Brewer Jef Janssens does an overnight sour mash, using the lactic bacteria on the raw grains to develop acidity. Boiling the wort the next morning stops the souring while preserving that lactic tang. He said his aim was to make “a true saison, a beer made on the farm for people working in the fields”.

Hof ten Dormaal is known these days for its big barrel-aged beers, but the Saison’s strength is reasonable at 5.5%. Jef’s father, André, told me he liked the beer but joked that he wasn’t crazy about the name. “I’m Flemish but ‘saison’ is French,” he said, shrugging. “It hurts me.”

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In Brussels, Cantillon made an unusual white beer in 2010, naming that year’s special Zwanze release the Blanche de Quenast – a good-natured dig at Quenast-based brewer Lefebvre, whose Blanche de Bruxelles is not made in its namesake city.Brewer Jan Van Roy worked withYvan De Baets to develop a recipe with 35% wheat and 5% oats. Fermentation came via the microorganisms already present in the lambic brewery. The result was earthy and moderately tart; bottles are hard to find these days.

Across town at the Senne brewery, Yvanand co-founder Bernard Leboucq also experimented in 2012 with a wheat beer that got a partial lactic fermentation – the Wadesda #2. They haven’t tried it again, but Yvansays he has more plans for mixed-fermentation beers in the future.

Another one worth mentioning is Boulevard Two Jokers Double-Wit, made in the Kansas City brewery now owned by DuvelMoortgat. Mild acidity from lactic fermentation helps to balance sweetness from the beer’s hefty malt bill (it checks in at 8% strength).Notably, Boulevard brewmaster Stephen Pauwels is Belgian-born, and one of his mentors was the late Jan Van Gysegem– former technical director for Pierre Celis.