Belgium is home to a long brewing tradition, some of the world’s best beers and several unique styles — from sour lambics and dry saisons, to malty Flanders brown ales and heavy Trappists. A number of American brewers have taken to crafting their own versions of many traditional Belgian styles, one of the most popular being witbier, or white beer.
Witbier is a style dating from the Middle Ages, but it had virtually died out in Belgium before being revived in the 1960s. Brewed with unmalted wheat and usually flavored with fruit (traditionally orange peel) and spices, such as coriander, it is unfiltered, giving the beer a very cloudy — or white — appearance from the yeast floating in it. Witbier is often highly carbonated. Despite the cloudy look, witbiers are not heavy, and have a moderate ABV, usually around 5 percent.
The best known, and best selling, white ale in the United States is Blue Moon’s Belgian White. Found almost everywhere. Even if you’ve never tried a Blue Moon, you’ve probably seen someone drinking it at your favorite watering hole, served as hazy beer with an orange slice garnishing the top of the glass, which has become a sort of trademark with Blue Moon, a practice that borrows from the accessorizing of witbier in Belgium with a lemon. A subsidiary of Coors Brewing Co., Blue Moon’s flagship ale was first developed in the microbrewery at Denver’s Coors’ Field. Its light, citrusy flavor (it has much more orange taste to it than most white ales), was a hit at the Rockies’ baseball games and the brand took off.
While Blue Moon produces the most ubiquitous white beer in the U.S., many small craft brewers, and some large beer makers as well, have developed their own take on the Belgian standard. Shock Top, an Anheuser-Busch brand, puts out a version of a Belgian white ale that has more spice flavor and less orange taste than does Blue Moon’s style, but otherwise is pretty similar. It is available in bottles throughout our area.
Harpoon Brewing, one of the oldest and largest independent craft breweries in the U.S., puts out an excellent white ale. Located in Boston and Vermont, only Harpoon’s flagship IPA is widely available in the Mobile area, but I have found its UFO White in the single-bottle section at a couple of grocery stores. It is light, with just hints of orange, not an overpowering fruit taste like the Blue Moon. Birmingham’s Avondale Brewing Co. also puts out a witbier, Mill City White, which is also defiantly worth a try if you can find it.
Finally, the last witbier I sampled was one I have recently seen all over our area — in bars and stores, on tap and in bottles — but had never even heard of until a couple of months ago. Einstök’s white ale is brewed in Akureyri, Iceland (Iceland!), 60 miles south of the Arctic Circle. Never having tried an Icelandic brew before, I was intrigued, and found it very different from the other white ales I tried — lighter in color, not as cloudy, almost like a pilsner, but with some nice hints of fruit and spices. It was excellent.
So, as the weather heats up, consider trying a light witbier this summer. Skál!