At Lunatic Central we have been home brewing for 6 months. We started off making mostly darker American Ales. The dark malt, clean fermenting yeast, and high hop rates were able to mask (mostly) our lack of temperature control. But now we have temperature control, the world is our oyster. We decided to dedicate the summer over to brewing Belgian style ales. Ironic since Belgian ales are known for their yeasty character. In fact many of them favor higher fermentation temperatures; in some cases eliminating the need for temperature control altogether. Such is life.
Most people are familiar with American and even some English ales. Varieties of stout, porter, IPA, brown ale, red ale, pale ale, and amber ale can be made in either English or American Style. On either side of ‘the pond’ there are subtle differences between grains, yeast, and hops. I think most people can say they know there’s something different about Belgian ales, maybe they just don’t know what it is. This summer I will try to grasp the differences as best I can.
The principal difference is the yeast. Belgian yeasts have evolved to lend interesting characters to the beer. The flavors and aromas of Belgian yeasts are referred to as esters. Most commonly they are fruity or spicy notes such as banana or clove. Sometimes they can be citrusy, acidic, or sour, and in rare cases a hint of bubblegum can be found.
The second difference is the malts. American and English ales typically use malts that provide straightforward flavors like caramel, coffee, toffee, chocolate, and occasionally bread or toast. Belgian ales favor malts with more complex and challenging flavors like plum, raisin, or burnt sugar. Their aroma is sometimes described as leather or tobacco. Belgian ales also use small amounts of wheat malt. Wheat has more protein than barley, which makes for a foamier head but a cloudier beer.
These malts provide a rich background for the fruity/spicy notes from the yeast. The combination is complex, sometimes sweet, and often intriguing. Many people believe that Belgian ales are much closer to wine than what (say, Americans) normally think of as beer.
The first Belgian we brewed was a Bier de Garde. It is not actually a Belgian beer, but a style from Northern France which relies heavily on Belgian methods and ingredients. The Bier de Garde is a strong beer, 8% ABV, usually light in color and body. It’s high alcohol content allows it to be aged for extended periods, much like a wine.
The second Belgian ale we brewed was a witbier, or White Ale. The style was common in Belgium in the middle ages, but fell out of favor in the 20th century. In 1965 a brewer in the town of Hoegaarden revived the style, and fortunately was able to source an appropriate yeast (which is unique). Modern examples (available locally) include Hoegaarden, New Belgium Mothership Wit, Allagash White, Ommegang Witte, Avery White Rascal, Unibroue Blanche de Chambly, and The Bruery Orchard White Ale.
Witbier is brewed with half malted barley and half malted wheat. Traditionally it was not brewed with hops, but a concoction called gruit. Gruit is a mixture of spices and herbs intended to provide bitterness and preservative properties to the beer; the role now almost exclusively filled by hops. Gruit takes different forms, depending on the region and particular recipe, but has included horehound, heather, juniper berries, ginger, caraway, anise, cinnamon, nutmeg, and mugwort. I don’t even know what half of those are.
Modern witbiers typically utilize a combination of gruit and hops. My recipe called for a mild dosing of hops, and additions of coriander, bitter orange peel, and chamomile. I left the chamomile out. The grain bill is all pale, delicately kilned malts. The yeast is a unique strain, which smells a bit like deli ham in its raw form. Yeasts all exhibit various degrees of flocculation; or the tendency to clump together at the end of fermentation. Witbier yeast is extremely low floccing.
The resulting beer is a cloudy pale brew with a creamy head. The residual yeast in solution and light malt character leaves the beer looking almost white. In fact the name ‘wit’ refers to its white color, not it’s wheat content. The aroma is fruity and spicy. The key with the coriander is to use just enough to leave a subtle trace, not a ‘Hey this smells like coriander!” The flavor is slightly sweet, slightly sour, and has just the faintest trace of something…you don’t know what. At 4.5% ABV, and with that slight sourness, it is highly quaffable; perfect for a hot summer day.