For a country about the size of the state of Maryland, Belgium produces some of the most storied and respected beers in the world – from hundreds of breweries for hundreds of years. We sat down with Sam Wynne, Cicerone and Assistant Beer Director at The Flying Saucer, to discuss the Belgian witbeer and what it is these Belgians do that set it so far apart from any other wheat beer in the world.
Thanks for taking the time to chat with us, Sam. Could we start with a basic description of what Belgian witbier is?
For sure. As far as the beer itself, Belgium wheat beer, which is commonly referred to as Belgian White or witbier – wit meaning white and referring to that cloudiness and yeastiness – has a defining characteristic that I would say, outside of using a little bit more of a floral Belgian-style yeast, has a slightly herbal, zesty difference to it that really couldn’t be made from standard brewing; it’s inclusive of orange peel and coriander.
When you say standard brewing, you mean brewing with barley instead of wheat, correct?
Right, though wheat beers typically are a blend of barley and wheat, I would say usually around the fifty-fifty, sixty-forty range. But when you start talking about how Belgian wheat beers are made, and what sets them apart, you really have to talk about Germany at the same time.
In 1516, The Reinheitsgebot – which is often called the German Purity Law, but is actually the Bavarian Purity Law – passed, and it basically stated that German brewers were not allowed to use anything but malted grains, hops, and water in their beers. It very strictly limited what ingredients the brewers could use; in fact, it wasn’t even until the late 1800′s, when Pasteur and Hansen were doing their research, that the inclusion of yeast – which is obviously very necessary – was allowed. Before then, ‘God is good’ was actually common terminology for what was thought of yeast and its use, because it was just mythical; they didn’t understand why it happened.
Anyway, because of the Reinheitsgebot in Bavaria, the Belgians have always been able to embrace the use of non-standard ingredients. Herbs and spices and things like that are very much a part of the brewing process. For instance, a lot of Belgian style beers use candy sugar; they actually typically tend to lean towards the sugar coming from beets. Plus, the durability of Belgian yeast typically means you’re going to be getting a good product by the time it gets over here.
How does a yeast become durable?
Well, one of the biggest sins of beer treatment isn’t just heat in general, but more than that, it’s the changing temperatures – taking a beer and having it being at fermentation temperature, and then you chill it and heat it in transit and then you chill it again. All that changing of temperatures really does have the worst effect on the beer.
So with shipping, a lot of times the beers that come and go from Europe will be shipped warm. A lot of times it can take six weeks to get from a brewery to a distributor and during that time, those beers can be held at temperatures that are much higher than what’s ideal. Some beers like Saisons and some Belgian witbiers, though, will be fermented on purpose at higher temperatures. For the sake of discussion, let’s say standard ale fermentation is just under 70 degrees, just to keep it simple. Saisons and witbiers can be fermented upwards of the 80s sometimes, and because those yeasts are able to ferment gracefully in those temperatures, they tend to not be shocked and abused too much during that shipping process.
So with Summer upon us, is a Belgian wit something that might be appealing in stifling heat?
Yeah, with summertime – and Spring, too – it’s the way to go. Anytime I think about water and the sun is the same time that I’m going to be thinking about reaching for a beer like a Blanche de Bruxelles or an Avery White Rascal, which is an American interpretation of the Belgium wheat.
When we spoke with Keith a few months ago, he introduced us to the word sessionable – is this something people could enjoy a couple-few of without it hitting them too hard?
Definitely. I think anything that’s plus or minus a half point from five percent ABV (alcohol by volume) is something that is defined as sessionable for me. But I also kind of take a different twist on the definition of sessionable, and for me, what defines a session beer is more its flavor profile than the alcohol percentage, because what can really get me down is palate fatigue, and real big, over-the-top flavors will make my palate break down. I just have to drink water while my mouth catches up to me. So while sessionability has this requirement for ABV, I really think that strength in the flavor is just an important aspect of what makes a beer sessionable.
So you’re saying we could probably have another one of these?
Yeah, definitely. If I didn’t have to go back to work after lunch.