Belgian wheat ale drawing a crowd

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IT’S NOT exactly the hot beer of summer ’03, but Hoegaarden Witbier is popping up on tap handles everywhere.

OK, it’s still outnumbered by Coors Light, 10 to 1. But in a world where factory-made thirst-quenchers dominate the scene, the appearance of a cloudy, Belgian-made wheat ale is a certified oddity. I’m seeing it in places where the most exotic label in the past might’ve been Heineken.

But here’s what’s really weird:

Casual beer drinkers – not just malt-obsessed geeks and freaks – are downing the stuff, left and right.

Normally, you couldn’t pry the Lite from their cold, stiff fingers. For these decidedly unadventurous guzzlers, the idea of drinking a Flemish ale is as foreign as eating a cheesesteak on a hot dog bun.

Yet suddenly, they’re gulping down glasses of dishwater-colored suds everywhere from Bishop’s Collar to Brasserie Perrier . . . and coming back for more.

Labatt USA, which distributes Hoegaarden, says Philadelphia and New York account for about half of the brand’s sales in America. “First of all, you have a more educated beer drinker in Philadelphia,” says Labatt exec Anthony Giardina, explaining its growing popularity. “Plus, there’s a huge Belgian awareness connected to the brand.”

Finally, there’s the beer itself.

“It has a flavor that is definitely a beer, but it doesn’t have the same overall taste of a lager,”

Giardina said.

This is heartening news, if only because it means meat-and-potatoes beer drinkers are finally discovering there’s more to summertime beer than Corona with a lime.

So, what is this stuff?

As I said, Hoegaarden Wit is made with wheat (mixed with equal parts of barley). That accounts for much of the cloudiness; wheat just doesn’t clean up like barley.

Further, it’s unfiltered. The sediment, a byproduct of yeast fermentation, is removed from other beers because most consumers think it’s undrinkable gunk.

Hoegaarden’s yeast esters produce subtle clove or banana aromas. But the more obvious flavors come from orange peel and coriander (and, some suspect, a secret third ingredient).

Though it’s trendy today, white beer certainly isn’t new. The style had been made in the Flemish town of Leuven for about half a millennium till it nearly disappeared in the 1950s.

In the mid-’60s, though, a milkman named Pierre Celis brought it back from the dead.

Abandoning the skim for a more potent white beverage, Celis established Browerij de Kluis (the Cloister Brewery) in honor of the town’s monastic breweries. There, he reformulated the traditional wit, producing a version that was immediately hailed by beer writer Michael Jackson and others as a welcome rebirth of one of Belgium’s traditional styles.

Through the ’70s and into the ’80s, the beer’s full, thirst-quenching flavor attracted fans across the region. In 1985, though, a fire destroyed the brewery and changed the beer.

Celis turned to Interbrew, the Belgian megabrewery, for support. The brewery was rebuilt, and the beer spread to America. But two years later, Celis turned over the facility to the big boys.

Celis would eventually cross the Atlantic and settle in Austin, Texas, where he produced his American version of Hoegaarden, Celis White. Over the next few years, it wasn’t hard to start an argument over which one of Pierre’s beers was better.

Then Celis sold out to Miller Brewing, and his American beer suffered a sad, painful death. (It’s now brewed in small batches by Michigan Brewing Co., but it hasn’t made its way this far east.)

Hoegaarden, meanwhile, continued to grow under Interbrew.

Critics have complained, rightly I think, that Hoegaarden isn’t the same without Celis. If anything, it’s almost gratuitously smooth. If Guinness Stout made a hot-weather beer, this would be it.

Still others complain that Hoegaarden’s best beers – a tripel called Grand Cru and a brown ale called De Verboden Vrucht (Forbidden Fruit) – aren’t exported to America.

But those are minor gripes. When the faucets are pouring nothing but palate-numbing blah-gers, a white ale served in that distinctive Hoegaarden tumbler is a minor miracle.

One last thing, beer fans: Next time you’re ordering a glass, say it HOO-garden.

 Beer radar

The Belgians have a glass for practically every beer, and Hoegaarden is no exception. Monk’s Cafe (16th and Spruce streets, Center City) will give them away Tuesday night . . . Dozens of American breweries make their own version of Belgian wit. Try the double-strength version (6.2 percent alcohol) at McKenzie Brew House (Route 202, Chadds Ford) . . .

Heavyweight Brewing of Ocean County, N.J., is launching a One Time, One Place series of beers. They’re so-called “one-offs” – beers made one time only in very small batches and released in kegs only. First OTOP: Regal Pale Ale, an English ale brewed with oysters. Look for it locally at the Abbaye (3rd Street and Fairmount Avenue, Northern Liberties) . . . Funny Cide Light, brewed in honor of the Kentucky Derby winner by Olde Saratoga Brewing Co. in Saratoga Springs, is not, I’m told, horse piss . . .

New on local shelves: Meteor Mortimer, a Frenchie made with peat-smoked whisky malt; Unibroue Ephemere, apple-flavored beer from Canada; and Entire Butt (aka Compleat Ass), an English porter . . . If your kid is interested in Penn State, this is a good weekend for a college visit. The State College Microbrewers Expo will feature 150 craftbrews from around the world. Tix: $32. Info: 814-353-8426 . . .

It’s Fizzy Yellow Beer T-shirt Amnesty Month, courtesy of Stone Brewing. Send your factory-made beer T-shirt (plus an $11 amnesty application fee) to Stone, and you’ll get an authentic Arrogant Bastard Ale “Fizzy Yellow Beer is for Wussies” T-shirt, pint glass and assorted stickers and coasters. Details at: www.stonebrew.com/amnesty . . . Speaking of which, “Guys Night Out” is the latest promo from Boulder, Colo. Peel back the label on Coors Original for a chance for a trip to Vegas.

 Joints

Enjoy a brew and a film at Lucy’s Hat Shop’s (247 Market St., Old City) CineBar film series. This weekend’s flick: “Saturday Night Fever” . . . There are only six taps at L’Etage (6th and Bainbridge streets, South Street district), but, man, there’s not a loser in the bunch: Yuengling Lager, Hoegaarden, Victory Golden Monkey, Corsendonk Brown, Kwak and Chimay . . .

Firewaters, the beer bar at the Tropicana Casino in Atlantic City (50 taps, 100 bottles), is pounding the bung on its first Firkin today. A fresh keg of real ale (no CO-2) will be tapped every week . . .

 Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Victory Prima Pils.

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