Witbier is one of my favourite beer styles to brew and drink. My current interpretation has moved away from a straight Hoegaarden clone to a more herbal, peppery, luscious and fuller bodied beer. It is a beer I am constantly rebrewing and the recipe is in constant flux, so this version is by no means definitive. Lets go through some of the key factors.
Lots of homebrewers use malted wheat which is much easier to handle, but is not really appropriate for a true version of the style. Using malted wheat will give the beer an orangey hue and slightly maltier flavour – something like Blue Moon rather than the likes of Hoegaarden or St Bernardus. Instead, flaked wheat should be used. This is pre-gelatinised, and the starches are easily available for use in the mash.
If we’re using flaked wheat, complex mashes aren’t really necessary, but a protein rest will improve lauterability especially if oats are used. A brief rest at 55C for 10 minutes before infusing boiling water to bring the mash up to 69C is what I recommend. If the protein rest is held for much longer, a very dry, thin bodied beer can result. I like my witbier to have a milkshake-like, luscious mouthfeel, so I mash fairly hot too.
There is something appealing about using oats in beer, and truely authentic versions of wit include it. I hover between using oats and not using oats. I’ve settled on about 4% of the grist, and i’ve used up to 10%. You can really taste the oats at the 10% level, and they contribute significantly to mouthfeel. Hoegaarden do not use oats. So if you’re going for a straight clone, omit them. They shouldn’t be toasted or even precooked. Quaker oats work straight out of the packet into the mash. The high amount of gummy beta-glucans cause the mash to basically set into a gelatinous mess, so some filtering aid like oat husks should be used. Oat husks should be washed as they make the beer taste quite ‘oaty’.
White Labs WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale and Wyeast Belgian Witbier 3944 are both rumoured to be straight from Hoegaarden, and my experience with WLP400 produces very authentic tasting results. The yeast is not particularly easy to handle; it will tend to attenuate half way before stalling, and requires rousing twice daily until terminal gravity. I ferment at 20C with this yeast, much higher tends to emphasis the clove-like, medicinal phenolic character which is not really to my taste. I have yet to try the Wyeast version, which is next on my hitlist. A good dry option is SafBrew T-58, which is much less hassle than the liquid option, however not quite as flavourful.
This is where you can get creative and really put your own stamp on the beer. But don’t go crazy. The classic additions are Cuacao orange zest (Belgium was a part of the Netherlands when many spice islands, including the orange-growing territory of Curucao, were colanised), and coriander. Randy Mosher in his book ‘Radical Brewing’ suggests using fresh citrus peel, and I think this is a great idea. I’ve been using Seville orange zest, and some lemon zest. Coriander seeds can be bought very cheaply from asian grocers, do not under any circumstances pay through the teeth for tiny jars of insipid powder from the Supermarket! The spice should be crushed before adding it in the final minute of the boil. About half a gram per litre is a good starting point. Rumours abound of a secret ‘third spice’ used in Hoegaarden. Michael Jackson suggests cumin, others suggest chamomile. I tend to stick to just the two.
Use what you like, just keep the IBUs low (under 20), restrict late hopping (I use only a small amount of Styrian Goldings for flavour), and stay away from assertive citrussy varieties. Noble or English hops are best.
Here’s my favourite recipe for the beer. It goes great with Indian and Thai food. A good Thai curry and a witbier is perfect. Another favourite use of the beer is to cook mussels, along with some cream, parsley and pancetta.