The Greatest Wits That Almost Weren’t

Belgian-style ‘Wit’, or White, Wheat-Based Beers Revive a Delicious Ancient Tradition That Nearly Disappeared

wheat_beerThis summer, let’s let clouds grow scarce in the sky and gather in our beers.

Wheat has been a key ingredient of beers since antiquity, and part of its beauty is its adaptability. The grain works well for a variety of beer styles across the European style spectrum, from hefeweizen to tart Belgian Lambics. Wit, or “white” beers from Belgium form one of the strongest traditions. Hazy and unfiltered, witbier is brewed with unmalted wheat (and sometimes oats) and tends to be soft on the palate and mildly spiced, generally with coriander, orange peel, and sometimes other spices. They’re bright, lemony and refreshing, ideal on a hot day. And no matter what a self-appointed purist tells you, don’t be afraid to add a slice of citrus: refreshment is the soul of wit. Read on for more about the phoenix-like resurrection of witbier, and three of our favorite new examples.

The amazing thing about the summery beauty of witbier is that, like the drive-in movies, it almost died out completely. According to the Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Brooklyn Brewery’s Garrett Oliver, witbier was once slated for the floor drain of history. Due to market conglomeration and the steady march of bland international lager styles through global beer aisles during the 20th century, the last traditional witbier brewery in Belgium, Brouwerij Tomsin, in the town of Hoegaarden, closed in 1957. Call this a bitter fate: the style was a local favorite developed centuries ago by monks in Flemish Brabant, east of Brussels, ideal with moules frites and other traditional Benelux dishes. Pierre Celis (b. 1925), a former milkman, started brewing the style again, naming it after the town of Hoegaarden. Tragically, a fire completely destroyed his brewery in 1985. Interbrew, now Anheuser-Busch InBev, funded Celis’s revival and bought the brand whole cloth in 1990, propelling it to global recognition. Celis remains a hero to many craft beer lovers around the world.

These days Hoegaarden is a household brand (try it if you haven’t), but some of the most delicious examples are coming out of America’s small craft breweries. Allagash White, a luscious traditional rendition from Portland, Maine (5%ABV), is spiced with Curaçao orange peel and widely considered among the best American craft versions. And Maui Brewing Co. might be over 7,000 miles away from the moeder land, but its latest creation, La Perouse Belgian White (sold in cool cans) feels like a chip off the old block (and has the brewing medals to prove it). Brewed with mandarin oranges, this quenching libation is named for a surf and dive spot near Wailea and tastes like summer in a glass. Like those early batches of Hoegaarden, it’s scarce: only 200 brewers’ barrels exist (about 6,000 gallons). Find it in Hawaii (great excuse to go, eh?) and the ten states where MBC distributes.

What are your favorite summer beer styles? Tell us below!

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