“No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member–
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds,
–“November”, Thomas Hood
It seems obvious to me in retrospect that what Thomas Hood needed was a beer or two.
I rather like November, in truth. Certainly here in Central Texas it’s cooler, — the sky never gets as quite as blue as it does on a clear November day, the wind never as crisp. Of course, it’s also a time of cooler temperatures. When November rolls around, it means heartier food — and what best to go with it than heartier beer? This month I want to tell you about one of my favorite styles of beer: the witbier or biere blanche.
What makes a witbier a witbier? While there is some room for variation in the definition, a witbier traditionally is a top-fermented (for more info on that, check out this month’s Beer Vocab Builder) barley/wheat beer. In medieval times, witbier was fermented with a mixture of spices and herbs known as gruit rather than with hops; gruit often included mildly narcotic herbs such as sweet gale, mugwort, and yarrow, as well as juniper, ginger, caraway, and other aromatic spices. (The narcotic ingredients explained why Belgian brewers were always smiling.) French law in the 14th Century (Belgium being under French control at that point) prohibited hops in gruit.
That certainly changed. Modern witbier is still fermented with gruit, but the ingredients have changed; gruit is now a mixture of hops, bitter orange, coriander, orange, and other aromatics. Witbiers have also benefitted from the microbrewery revolution of the last twenty years; brewers have experimented with unhopped styles with ingredients ranging from bergamot to heather.
I admit it; I like witbiers. I like the fact that they’re cloudy, rich with suspended yeast and grain protein; I like the hints of spice and citrus; I like the fact that they have a long, smooth finish that stays with you. I like having the lees of yeast trickle out of the bottle and into my glass. I also think — despite the traditional witbier season being summer — that they go great with the food and weather this time of year. (We shall not make any jokes about summer in Belgium being the equivalent of November in Texas.) Witbiers also have an Austin connection; Pierre Celis, who singlehandedly resurrected the witbier style in the 1960s, began that resurrection at Austin’s late, lamented Celis Brewery.
For an authentic Belgian take on the witbier, one need look no further than Hoegaarden, which serves as the classic of its style for the United States Brewer’s Association. Hoegaarden has a secondary fermentation in the bottle, which means that it is served with some yeast residue; this not only adds to the traditional flavor of the beer, but is carefully served atop the foamy head of a traditional Hoegaarden. If you want to try the witbier original, check out your local Twin Liquors, where we offer six-packs for $8.99.
I get asked, often, what my favorite beer is. I can’t answer that question, folks; it’s like asking me what my favorite CD is. Depending on the mood, you might get answers ranging from Alan Parsons to Johnny Cash. But if I had to do a Top Five Desert Island Beers, I would guarantee that Unibroue’s Blanche de Chambly would be on the list. A Belgian-style witbier made in Canada, Blanche is also fermented on the lees, leaving that tasty yeast in the bottle. Amazingly complex and rich, I want to pour this at Thanksgiving dinner; the spice makes me think of sweet potatoes and pecan pie. Uncap a bottle and get out the Pinot Noir glasses. My Twin sells single bottles of this masterpiece at $2.29.
Finally, in the “Variations on A Theme” department, I heartily recommend Samuel Adams’ Blackberry Witbier for a different take on the Belgian standard. Rich with the flavor of Oregon blackberries, but not cloying or heavy, this is a dynamite drinker — but here’s a twist for you; what about braising a pork butt in some? Not to steal someone else’s phrase, but that’s good eats.
Until next month, keep your head up, your lace delicate, your malt toasty, and your hops snappy.
NOVEMBER BEER VOCAB BUILDER:
Top-Fermented: “Ale fermentation. At warmer temperatures, yeast stays on top of the beer as it ferments.” — From Randy Mosher’s “Tasting Beer”.
Duke’s Take: The original beer fermentation, as opposed to bottom fermentation, which was developed much later in history. Top fermentation ferments faster than bottom fermentation, which results in sweeter, fruitier flavors in the resulting product.