How to: Brew a Witbier at home!

By Matt Priaulx

The Night Before

Get your brew kettle, another large pot, and one final smaller pot. Fill the BREW KETTLE and larger pot with 2 gallons of water each. Fill the smaller pot with one gallon of water. Boil all the water for 3-5 minutes and leave the two large pots on the stove top with lids placed in such a way that they’re slightly ajar. This allows chlorine to evaporate. Cling/saran wrap or aluminum foil with holes poked will also work. Move the smaller pot with one gallon (lid situation the same) to the fridge.

Brew Day

Good morning! Start by heating both pots of water. We’re aiming for the BREW KETTLE to be at around 160 °F (71.1 °C). The other pot can be heated to and held near boiling, but do not boil it yet. Also, if you are using WYEAST smack packs for yeast, pull those out of the fridge and follow the instructions on the bag to activate them now. If you are using White Labs liquid yeast, pull the vials out of the fridge. If you are using dry yeast, keep it in the fridge until close to pitch time.

First up: grain!

Place the oats and acid malt loosely in a grain bag, tie it shut and place it into the BREW KETTLE. The oats will swell, so avoid packing them too tightly. We’re aiming to hit around 154 °F (68 °C) for the steeping kettle, so adjust the heating source accordingly. NOTE: do not leave bag unattended while heat source is on. It may scorch at the bottom of the kettle, or the drawstrings that *may* be hanging over the side of the kettle could ignite if they contact the heating source. 

Steep the grain bag in the 2 gallons of water in the BREW KETTLE for about 45 minutes. Do your best to monitor the temperature, adjusting the heat source as necessary. TIP: once you achieve a good temp, place the bag fully into the kettle and cover the kettle with the lid. This will help retain some heat and minimize how often you need to make temperature adjustments; you still need to check it now and then!

After 45 minutes, lift the grain bag out of the steeping liquid and allow it to drip for 5 or so minutes. We’re going to do a quick, makeshift fly sparge now, where we rinse the grains to wash off stubborn sugars clinging to the grain. This isn’t as critical for this brew since a majority of our sugars are coming from extract, but this will give us a little bit more, and provides some insight (on a home brew scale) into how professional brewers operate. PROCESS: get a third medium-large pot/bowl/pitcher, place in the sink, and turn on your tap to as hot as it’ll go with a low/medium flow rate. Hold the grain bag above the vessel and use the sprayer arm/hose to hit the bag all over with water, making sure to keep the water contact always at the top of the bag. This allows the water to flow through the grains and the runnings to collect into the pot/bowl. If you do not have a sprayer attachment, holding the bag under the faucet (but above the vessel) will work with a bit of maneuvering. Gather between a quarter to half a gallon, then squeeze the bag to extract the last bits of water. Do not squeeze so hard that the bag tears or solid material is pushed through the fabric. (Note: squeezing is not commonly done with steeped grains and is often not advised because it can extract harsher components of the grain hulls. That said, we only have a minuscule amount of hulls from the acid malt in this batch, and the bulk of the grain are flaked oats with no hulls.) Once all this is done, dump the collected liquid into the BREW KETTLE.

Turn up the heat on the kettle as hot as it’ll go and add both cans of liquid malt extract, making sure to stir constantly and running the stirring spoon along the bottom the kettle to minimize the chances of the sweet syrup scorching.

Make sure the extract is fully dissolved and carefully pick up the other pot of near boiling water and add it to the boil kettle. Use potholders/oven mitts to aid and reduce the chance of spilling. This should increase the kettle temperature a bit, getting us closer to boiling faster. Add enough water to the kettle to make a pre-boil volume that is a couple inches below the rim of the kettle. 

Once the wort is boiling, start the timer! We’re boiling for one hour.

Hops and special ingredients

After 15 minutes (45 minutes left) add the bittering hops (½ oz Magnum). If you have not pre-crushed your measured coriander or zested your oranges (if using fresh) do that now. At 5 minutes until the end of boil, add your 5 grams lightly crushed coriander and ¾ – 1 oz orange peel.

Cool down

Once the boil is complete, turn off the heat and go to your kitchen sink (or get your cooler), and fill it with about 5 – 6 inches of COLD WATER. Move the kettle to the sink/cooler, and carefully place it into the vat of cold water- use potholders if necessary. After the kettle is placed, carefully add ice to the sink water until the level is about an inch lower than the top of the sink basin, or the kettle… whichever you come closest to first. I find that moving the faucet to one side of the sink before moving the kettle is helpful and minimizes accidentally hitting or spilling anything. 

Add about ¼ gallon of the cold water you chilled overnight. (It’s still in the fridge; pull it out now and keep it out.) Gently stir the wort to mix everything. Continue to stir wort occasionally to help circulate the cooling liquid. Stir in the same direction throughout. Use a clean/disinfected cooking/candy thermometer probe to get the liquid temp soon after the liquid is fully “mixed”. The goal? Cool down to about 170 F (76.6 C) and add your aromatic hops (1 oz Tettnang). If it is colder than 170, don’t worry, things will be fine. If the temp is substantially higher than 170, add a bit more of the cold water and stir again before adding hops. Continue stirring the liquid. The ice will melt and the water will warm up, so you may have to lift the kettle out of the basin, drain the water, and refill in the same way highlighted in step 9 once or twice. We want to cool down the liquid to between 70 – 72 F (20 C – 22.2 C)

Transfer the wort to the FERMENTER and top up with more chilled water to 5 gallons (or a little more if you’re able). We’re shooting for 68 – 70 F (20C – 21.1 C). STIR THE BUCKET WITH VIGOR! We want to thoroughly mix this solution and oxygenate the wort a bit.

Take a gravity sample: Using a clean/disinfected turkey baster, pull out enough of a sample to fill the hydrometer vial about ¾ the way full. You can also use the stirring spoon to fill the vial. Once the vial is filled to the appropriate level, go to the sink and insert the hydrometer. Hold it steady, and wait for it to stabilize. Record the number at the level of the wort. It should read around 1.051, but a little higher or lower is fine. WRITE THIS NUMBER DOWN; it is your starting gravity! Note: most hydrometers are calibrated to be accurate at 60 F, so if your sample is hotter than that, your reading will be lower than true value. If it is cooler, your reading is higher than true value.

Fermentation station ahead!

Time to pitch yeast! Wash and/or sanitize your hands. If you’re using WYEAST or White Labs, spray some isopropyl alcohol on the packs/vials, carefully open them, and pour them into the fermenter! If using dry yeast, pour 100 ml of water into a clean measuring cup. Extra chilled/room temp water is OK, as is tap water. We do not want hot water for this. We are rehydrating yeast for about 10-15 minutes to wake it up without “shocking” it. After about 10-15 minutes, give the slurry a nice stir and pour it into the fermenter.

Seal fermenter (double check that!), affix the airlock and label, and set in a location that is room temp, out of the way, and not direct sunlight (the darker and room temp, the better). If using a 3-piece airlock, uncap it and remove the bubbler piece. Fill the airlock with (preferably) sanitizer water up to the fill line. Place the cylindrical bubbler back into the airlock and cap it. Place the assembled airlock in the gasketed hole in the lid (or bung if using a glass carboy). Grab a post-it note or some duct/painters tape and stick some on the top of the lid or side of the bucket. Use a sharpie to write the BREW DATE and STARTING GRAVITY.

You should start to see airlock activity in about 48 or so hours. RESIST THE URGE TO OPEN THE LID. From this stage forward we want to minimize exposure to oxygen, though some exposure is inevitable, and we should get a couple more readings because our end goal is around 1.012. After 5 days, draw out another sample with a sanitized turkey baster and re-seal the fermenter. If you’re at 1.015 or lower, leave it be for the remainder of fermentation. If higher, take another sample a couple days later to see how fermentation is progressing. If the number has not changed, it may be a good idea to buy one more yeast pack and add it in to help fermentation (The beer will be a bit sweeter than normal if not fully fermented.)

Well done! Grab a beer, give yourself a pat on the back, and relax for a bit before cleaning up your mess. Congrats on brewing a Belgian Wit! This beer will ferment/condition for a few weeks before it’s ready for packaging.

Matt Priaulx is a Pilot and Prototype Brewer 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.