Belgian white (wit) beer has a unique cloudy-white appearance with very little bitterness, some spiciness, and a slightly sour/tart finish. There is a very light sweetness with soft, creamy feel that is not cloying or heavy. None of the flavours or aromas stand out, making for a light refreshing beer with a moderate alcohol level usually hovering around the 5% ABV mark. Wit beers are usually quite cloudy from starch haze, with a very light straw to light golden colour. It's a refreshing beer for hot summer days.
Arguably the most popular commercial version of this beer is Hoegaarden, named after the village near Tienen in Flanders, which was the modern birthplace of Belgian white (wit) beer. Records of brewing in the village date back to 1445, when the local monks were enthusiastic brewers, but the tradition died out in the 1950s as consumer tastes moved towards different styles.
Ten years later, Pierre Celis, a milkman who had grown up next to the brewery and sometimes helped with brewing, decided to try to revive the style. He started a new brewery, called de Sluis, in his hay loft. He used the traditional ingredients of water, yeast, wheat, hops, coriander, and dried bitter (Curaçao) orange peel. In the 1980s, with demand for the product continuing to grow, Celis bought a former lemonade factory, to expand his brewing operations.
Things changed after a fire in 1985. As is traditional in Belgium, several brewers offered their help to keep the business going and Interbrew (now InBev) lent money for the purchase of other buildings to rebuild the brewery. Over time, Celis felt very strongly that the company used the loan to pressure him to change the recipe to make the beer more "mass market". So Celis decided to sell them the brewery and moved to the United States where he set up the Celis Brewery in Austin, Texas, to continue making witbier to what he described as the 'original' Hoegaarden recipe. It was later acquired by Miller Brewing who eventually closed the brewery and sold the equipment and brand names.
Most Belgian Wit recipes will call for crushed coriander along with the zest of fresh (or dried) oranges. I find that much of the spicy flavour behind a Belgain Wit already comes from the yeast.
Some recipes will also call for chamomile flowers as a reportedly "secret" ingredient that Celis used in the original Hoegaarden recipe. He debunked this in later interviews indicating that coriander and bitter orange peel was all that he ever used.
Want to start a never-ending debate amongst brewers? Ask them if a Belgian Wit (or any other beer for that matter) should be served with a slice of lemon or orange. (There's no right or wrong answer)
Slabtown Wit on draught at Café Anvers! Stop by for a wit!