Insert something witty here

Let’s start today at the BJCP Style Guidelines. Scroll through the list of styles. What do you see? Sure, it’s a manual, a valuable tool for any brewer. But for the beer lover, it’s also one part journal and one part little black book, with mental check marks next to the styles you’ve tasted and/or brewed … while unfamiliar styles call to you siren-like, the anticipation of conquests you haven’t yet made. Just like flipping through the pages of an old journal, you’re bound to have some regrets, some “what was I thinking?” moments (style 1A. Lite American Lager, anyone?). But also like a journal, the later entries leave you feeling a lot less embarrassed than the earlier ones, and certainly by the time you get to the English Pale Ales (starting with 8A. Standard/Ordinary Bitter) you’re starting to be proud of what you’ve accomplished.

Then halfway through, you see it: that entry that makes you question your judgment all over again, sitting drab and dull like a cat turd in the gold mine of your zymurgical adventures.  The reminder of the giant noob you once were. And you ask yourself again, “What in the world was I thinking?”

I speak, of course, of 16A. Witbier.

Whether you call them wits, wittes, Belgian whites, or even bières blanches, chances are that you or someone you know has laughed derisively at this light, easy-drinking style in the recent past. And I’m not sure why that is. Maybe because so many commercial examples are so-called “crafty” offerings from industrial lager producers padding out their product portfolios with under-attenuated, over-flavored wits to provide a clawhold onto the elusive craft beer market and a talon in the door of the non-beer-drinker. Or maybe because witbiers are something we see as behind us, the non-threatening gateway beers we drank before graduating to today’s Imperial Everythings, and IPAs with IBUs approaching the GDP of Luxembourg. Witbiers are familiar, and after all we’ve been through … boring.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. With a little creativity, witbiers are a useful addition to the recipe book. They’re very forgiving of temperature fluctuations during fermentation (i.e., great for beginners), and are especially handy when you need a batch of beer to go from grain to glass in a couple of weeks (i.e., great for anyone strapped for time).

The traditional wit recipe is roughly equal parts continental Pilsner malt and unmalted/flaked wheat, with oats on top of that at around 5-10% of the grain bill. A multi-step mash is usually performed with a beta-glucan rest at 110°F (or a protein rest at 120°F) and a saccharification rest around 154°F. The multi-step mash breaks down proteins that make the flaked grains gummy, avoiding the frustration of a stuck mash (replacing it, in my opinion, with the frustration of missing multiple step temperatures in my converted cooler mash tun … but more on that in a moment). In the boil, a small early addition of noble hops for bittering is typical, with coriander and orange peel (often Curaçao bitter orange, also known as laraha) added near the end.

My variation was developed in response to the need for an easy brewday and my desire for a bit more flavor than is offered by most commercial witbiers. First, the grain:

  • 4.25 lbs Belgian Pilsner malt
  • 4.25 lbs white wheat malt
  • 1 lb flaked oats
  • 0.25 lbs (4 oz) Munich malt

The substitution of malted white wheat for flaked wheat eliminates the need to do a multi-step mash, but just to be safe – since I still had about 10% flaked oats – I included 8 oz of rice hulls to keep the lauter flowing freely and did a single infusion mash at 151°F. The Munich was included to bring a little color and a touch of malty flavor.

I boiled for 100 minutes – longer than my usual 90, but just by accident. I added 0.55 oz of 8.2% AA American Santiam hops at the 60-minute mark. Santiam is a hop I hadn’t used before, but being related to German Tettnanger and Hallertauer Mittelfrüh (and thus more noble than American “Tettnang” hops which are actually descended from Fuggles) it seemed a worthy candidate. I got floral and peppery notes from it.

But the end of the boil was where things really got interesting. With 1 minute left in the boil, I added:

  • 0.2 oz dried bitter orange peel (left over from a previous batch)
  • 1 oz fresh blood orange zest (about 4 oranges’ worth)
  • 12 g crushed coriander
  • 3 g crushed grains of paradise

The original gravity was 1.053, technically a point past the upper end of the style, but I’m not complaining. I pitched a starter of White Labs WLP400 Belgian Wit Ale Yeast, an obvious choice for the style – but underpitched slightly by using a 900 mL starter. This should lead the yeast to produce more clove phenols to counterpoint the fresh zest and peppery spices. I started the fermentation at 68°F, but gradually heated the chamber up to 72°F by the third day, which should also accentuate the phenols. If it seems like I’m hedging my bets on phenol production, I am. This is my third wit, and the other two didn’t have nearly the fermentation flavor I was looking for.

I keg it two weeks from brewday, and I’ll be serving it just in time for the beginning of March and my ultimate reason for brewing this: a month of Game of Thrones viewings to prepare for the new season starting in April. It’s the reason I named this brew Wit Walker White Ale, and I think it’ll be a perfect beer to have on tap for Game of Thrones catch-up. It’s light enough to go with a variety of snacks. It’s sessiony enough to keep drinking through hours of viewings without getting drowsy or losing the plot in a beery stupor. And yes, it’s accessible enough to share with all my friends, even those who aren’t on the hardcore brew bandwagon yet. And by loading it up with flavors I like, I can guarantee myself something I can still be proud to drink along with everyone else … something so familiar, but completely new.

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About Shawn M

Writer, podcaster, blogger, and homebrewer in Austin, Texas.

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