LATELY, THERE’S been a bizarre struggle over tap handles in Philadelphia. Instead of going at each other’s throats with more spigots that pour clear, yellow lager, the Big 3 have been battling it out with a cache of surrogate brands that are the flavor/style/philosophical opposites of their flagships – namely, witbier.
Budweiser? Forget about it. Anheuser-Busch has hooked up with InBev and now its sales reps are pushing Hoegaarden. The guy in the Miller uniform is rolling in a keg of orange-flavored Leinenkugel’s Sunset Wheat and the Coors truck has a fancy new paint job with a logo for Blue Moon.
It’s white beer, folks. Opaque, hazy stuff with yeast thingies still floating around in the glass. The impurity of it all must have Adolphus Busch rolling over in his crypt. Need I remind you that just a dozen years ago, Milwaukee tried to sell us something called Miller Clear?
The irony is all the more remarkable because witbier (or blanche, in French) had been virtually wiped out by those famously crisp, clean European-style lagers. Witbier goes back 500 years, to a period when beer was made with wheat and typically balanced not by hops, but by a blend of herbs and spices known as gruit. Brewers in the Flemish town of Leuven perfected the style, using spices and oranges that had been imported from the Dutch colony of Curaçao. Modern brewing methods, the now-universal use of hops and a fascination with golden lager conspired to force the white ale into near extinction.
Enter one of the heroes of the modern craft beer renaissance, a milkman named Pierre Celis.
His story should be required reading for any beer fan, but here’s the quick version: In 1965, longing for the ancient, mostly forgotten wheat beer style of his Belgian hometown of Hoegaarden, Celis started brewing a version in a washtub in his barn. He developed a recipe for what would become Hoegaarden Original White Ale, opened his own brewery, watched it burn down, rebuilt it, sold out to a bigger brewery, moved to Texas, developed the recipe for Celis White, sold out to a bigger brewery, moved back to Belgium and started yet another brewery.
His witbier was delicious, refreshing and unique – and within 30 years it would become the benchmark for 1,000 others.
“I wasn’t trying to imitate any particular beer,” said Rob Tod, who made Allagash White his brewery’s flagship in the mid-1990s, “but I loved the flavor and refreshment of Hoegaarden and Celis White.”
Take one sip of witbier and your mouth is swimming in currents of spice and fruit, wheat and oats. In Samuel Adams White, you might detect hints of vanilla; in Flying Dog Woody Creek White, it’s pepper and cloves; in Canada’s Blanche de Chambly, well, I can’t put a finger on all the spices.
“It evolves,” Tod said of the style. “After a couple of sips, you should be asking yourself: What is that flavor? What is that spice? What is that yeast?”
While the answers may be as murky as the white beer itself, admiration of the style is unmistakable.
It’s why brewers and beer fans raised a cloudy glass of witbier last month in a toast to Celis, as word that he had passed away at the age of 86 spread around the world. He was a little man (maybe no more than 5-foot-2), but even the Big 3 bowed to his achievement.
Here are six more recommended witbiers:
- Avery White Rascal (Colorado).
- Hitachino Nest White Ale (Japan).
- Lost Coast Great White (California).
- Middle Ages Swallow Wit (New York).
- Ommegang Witte (New York)
- Victory Whirlwind Witbier (Downingtown).