History of Witbiers

By Mark Bowers

Witbier Style

Originated in Belgium, Witbier means simply “white bier” in Flemish (the Dutch language spoken in the Flanders area of Belgium). It is also known by its French name biere blanche. Witbier is an unfiltered pale cloudy ale made with a high proportion of wheat and ofttimes oats. It is traditionally spiced with coriander and orange peel, but may also contain other spices or herbs at lower concentrations. Witbier has a lively amount of carbonation and is typically lower in alcohol (4.5-5.0% ABV) with a bit of a tang and a crisp, clean finish. Hopping bitterness is low, typically coming in at 15-20 IBUs using traditional noble hops.

A glass of “Vlaamsche Bandiet” Belgian witbier. Image Source.

In his book The Brewmaster’s Table Garrett Oliver provides the following profile for Witbier: “On the palate, restrained bitterness gives way to a very light-bodied center combining the sweetness of the orange with a fine, drying acidity and the smooth grainy flavors of the wheat. The beer finishes with a slightly tart edge, clean and clipped. The beer is almost ludicrously refreshing and fairly light in alcohol. . . Ah, the lemon again. It’s back, this time carrying some credentials.”

Witbier Origins

The first person to brew a wheat-based beer is obfuscated by inconsistent accounts. In all likelihood the woman credited with the creation of wheat beer (as female brewsters were responsible for the majority of beer brewing prior to the commercialization of beer) probably didn’t even exist! That’s because the beer category we refer to today as wheat probably slowly evolved over time before becoming a number of different sub-styles we know today. It likely branched off from the general category of beers as recently as a few hundred years ago. Wheat was a likely added ingredient to many beers–brewers added anything fermentable when the need arose. Since the process of baking using wheat arose at about the same time and place as making beer using barley, the grains were likely used interchangeably. By the 10th century, thousands of years after beer first appeared, beer in at least some areas of Europe was divided into two color categories: brown beers and white beers. Whereas brown signified beers brewed predominantly with kilned malt, white beers were brewed using a significant amount of malt that was air dried. Eventually brown beers were made with kilned malted barley and white beers were made with a high proportion of wheat, kilned or not, malted or not. As a result, “white” and “wheat” beer styles have become synonymous. 

 Egyptian wooden model of women beer brewing in ancient Egypt. E. Michael Smith Chiefio (2007)

Wheat beers evolved into a number of different sub-styles usually associated with a particular geographical region. Today there are a handful of wheat beers that have survived until present time. These styles are widely brewed and distributed, including hefeweizen (Bavaria, Germany), Berliner weisse (Berlin, Germany), gose (Leipzig, Germany), lambic (Pajottenland, Belgium) and witbier (Leuven, Belgium). There are a few other traditional wheat beers that occasionally are brewed such as the lightly smoked Gratzer/Grodziski [Poland] and the lightly smoked and tart Lichtenhainer [Lichtenhain, Germany], to name a couple.

All of these beers originated in Europe, and though they are generally referred to as wheat beers, they share one or more traits beyond the commonality of wheat. All of these beers are ales, meaning they are brewed with a top-fermenting yeast. Gose and witbier are both brewed with coriander, which lends further credence to the theory that wheat beers evolved not in complete isolation from one another, but as a practice held in common and shared among ancient brewing centers. It is interesting to note that there is a swath across Europe from Belgium in the west through northern Germany and into Poland in the east where wheat beers once flourished and were massively popular.

Witbier is historically associated with the area of Leuven, which is part of the Flemish Brabant province of Belgium located just east of Brussels. Although no one is certain, it is likely that the witbier style originated in a monastery brewery near Leuven in the 14th century. Monasteries tended to produce their own specialties and witbier became known around Leuven. Most of the ingredients of witbiers were local to the city: wheat, barley, high-quality water and even the coriander that has come to characterize the style. The only ingredient not endemic to Leuven was orange peel. Although oranges originated in southeast asia, by the middle ages they were being grown along the mediterranean. Certainly by the 14th century oranges were available via trade throughout most of Europe.

As there were dozens of breweries in each of the larger towns in the Leuven area, there were likely a number of different versions of witbiers too. Besides the addition of orange peel and coriander, it’s likely that other herbs, spices and flavorings were added as well to many of the witbiers, including chamomile, grains of paradise, ginger, cumin, cardamom, anise, black pepper, elderflower and ginger. 

Not only did the brewers experiment with the flavorings over time, but the grains and the brewing processes varied greatly. Other fermentables added to the brew included anything and everything that was easily available such as spelt, rye, buckwheat, corn, rice and even potato flour over time. Brewing processes ranged from using different mash temperatures and timing to both short and long boil times, and even some no-boil brews too. 

Since witbiers are one of the few traditional beers that are spiced, it’s possible that this beer evolved directly from a gruit or a beer that did not use hops but various herbs and spices to bitter and flavor beer. However the beer came about, it eventually ended up containing small amounts of hops. The original hops used were almost certainly locally grown but eventually ended up coming from the well known hop growing areas of Europe such as Bavaria and Bohemia. Up until just recently, only noble hops were used for witbiers.

The other notable characteristic of witbiers for most of its history is that they were mainly a sour beer. That is they were fermented with a mixture of yeast and bacteria such as lactobacillus which produced lactic acid making the beer sour, similar to a gose or Berliner weisse. Much later versions reduced and then eliminated the sour qualities.

The Rise and Fall of Witbier

During the 16th and 17th centuries, witbier flourished in its home region as both the popularity of the beer increased and the population of the area swelled. The two largest towns producing witbier were the aforementioned Louven and nearby Hoegaarden. However, even breweries from further afield jumped on the bandwagon and brewed versions of witbier. By the middle of the 19th century, Hoegaarden had as many as 38 breweries. Although similar, the witbiers of Leuven and Hoegaarden were not the same. Yvan de Baets, a Belgian beer historian, has done extensive research on three types of witbiers going back as early as the 14th century: Leuven Wit, Peeterman and Hoegaarden. Leuven was lighter (nearly white) as compared to Peeterman, which could be considered closer to an amber. Hoegaarden was considered to be more rustic.

Although the 1800s brought about major changes in brewing technology and introduced the world to lager brewing, witbiers remained popular in their home region until about the time of World War I. Belgium as a whole was the main continental holdout to succumbing to the lager juggernaut that swept through the rest of Europe. By the 1930s Hoegaarden had only four breweries and none after 1957 when the Tomsin Brewery closed.

Witbier’s Rebirth

Pierre Celis, in addition to delivering milk for his family’s dairy farm, had worked part time at his neighbor’s Louis Tomsin’s brewery for a few years before the brewery shuttered its doors. However, he refused to let his fondness for witbier die. As a result he started homebrewing in 1965 and a year later made his first commercial batch of Hoegaarden witbier. Celis opened Brouwerij Celis to sell his beer and later renamed the brewery De Kluis, meaning the cloister, evoking monastic language and reminiscence. Although the beer was not immediately a roaring success it did eventually become a hit among beer lovers so that in 1980 he moved his brewery to larger new buildings. Unfortunately, in 1985 after a fire destroyed part of the brewery he was forced to sell his company to what is now AB Inbev, which still brews the beer with the original name Hoegaarden.

Hoegaarden Witbier served in its iconic glass. Image source

Celis’ revival of witbiers coupled with the emergence of the craft beer industry led other breweries in Belgium and the US particularly to take up the style. Celis himself started another brewery in Austin, Texas making an eponymously named witbier–Celis White. Soon a number of witbiers were becoming well known and quite popular, including Allagash White from Portland, Maine, which was released in 1995 and soon became their number-one best seller. In 1995, Coors’ brewing company subsidiary Blue Moon released Belgian White Belgian-Style Wheat Ale, which quickly became the best-selling wheat beer in the US. A few other witbiers with wide distribution include Avery’s White Rascal, New Belgium Fat Tire Belgian White, Belgium’s St. Bernardus Wit and Canada’s Unibroue’s Blanche de Chambly.

Pierre Celis. Source: Trentjohnson atEnglish Wikipedia

How close are these revival witbiers to those traditionally brewed witbiers that were brewed before the last brewery, Tomsin, closed down? As mentioned above, most historians describe witbiers as being tart from lactobacillus. Effectively all of the widely available witbiers today are modeled after Celis’ version and use only cultured saccharomyces yeast–meaning no lactic acid souring bacteria is added. Yvan De Baets describes drinking a witbier of the Peeterman style as having “a lot of body, smoothness, ripe yellow fruits, and warm biscuitlike flavors, underlined by a refreshing, clean, lactic sourness. An excellent beer indeed.” At the end of the day, and for better or worse, our revived contemporary witbier style is overwhelmingly based on what Pierre Celis decided to brew back in 1966.

Mark Bowers is the Brewmaster at Aeronaut. The views and opinions expressed on this web site are solely those of the original author, and they do not necessarily represent those of Aeronaut Brewing Co.