Tag Archives: Witbier

#100 – St. Bernardus Wit

#100 - St. Bernardus Wit

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 5.5 %

Beer experts tend to say that if you want to try a beer that tastes like Hoegaarden (#81) used to then there is no better exponent than the St. Bernardus Wit. This comes as no surprise as the beer was actually developed in co-operation with Pierre Celis, who of course was the mastermind behind the success of Hoegaarden. The main difference is that the St. Bernardus gets the traditional Belgian secondary fermentation in the bottle which just adds to the steely quality.

The term wheat beer is something of a misnomer, as these beers are not made 100% from wheat – in fact probably only about 30-40% of the mash. The rest is more likely to contain forms of pilsener malt. It is this 30-40% though which gives the wheat beers their hazy milky glow, which in turn has tended to coin the appellation ‘white beer’. Hops are generally used less frequently as they tend to impair flavour, and brewers such as Celis have traditionally been more subtle with spices such as coriander, or fruit – most commonly the peel of an orange.

It is surprising that white beers are not more common in Belgium as wheat tends to be in greater abundance than barley and is therefore cheaper to produce. Wheat beers tend though to be somewhat lower in strength than dubbels, tripels and typical Belgian ales, which may go some way to explain why these beers are more popular in Germany or the USA. Others argue that wheat tends to clog up the brewers equipment and is therefore more painful to brew due to the rigours of keeping the kit clean and free from infection.

Either way I’m not really a wheat beer man, or I wasn’t until I tried the St. Bernardus Wit. It was altogether more robust, with extra colour and fizz, and it was both crisp and sharp with a flavour that actually challenged your taste-buds. I could actually taste the hints of orange peel and coriander which is saying something. I think this is best suited to a warm summers day in Flanders, but all in all a pretty impressive way to bring up the hundredth beer!

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Filed under 8, Belgian White (Witbier), Brewers, St. Bernardus

#81 – Hoegaarden

#81 - Hoegaarden

Size: 250 ml

ABV: 4.9 %

Everybody has heard of Hoegaarden – certainly since Interbrew exported it around the world. In terms of white/wheat beers there are probably none more famous. The beer gets it name from the town in which it is brewed, and although it is brewed to a traditional recipe that dates back to 1445, this actual beer has only existed since 1966.

The original wheat beer recipe was largely engineered by the monks of Hoegaarden in the middle ages, where they had access to spices such as coriander and curacao due to the Dutch trading influence. So successful was the result, that at one point there were over 30 independent small farmhouse breweries in the tiny town – although by 1957 there were none left! The rise in popularity of mass-produced lager and the asset-stripping that occurred during both world wars had taken its toll on this cottage industry.

In 1966 however, a local milkman with a fond nostalgia for the older white beers decided to reinvent the style. He set up de Kluis (the Cloister) brewery with a few close friends and the rest is history as they say. We have already met this milkman Pierre Celis (#20, #21), and doubtless we will again.

His white beer was a remarkable success over the next twenty or so years, with production growing from 350 hectolitres in 1966 to 75,000 in 1985. Sadly the Hoegaarden plant was completely destroyed by a terrible fire in this year, and Celis was forced to take extra investment from Interbrew, who inevitably were able to influence a take-over of the brewery in 1987. The amount of hectolitres produced would rise to 855,000 over the next ten years, but by then the standard of the beer had fallen sharply. The fact was that by now Hoegaarden was a worldwide commodity, and most people drinking it on a warm summers afternoon had no concept of what this beer once was. The final knife in the back came in 2005, when AB/InBev, who by now had taken over Interbrew, decided to move all production to Jupille, near Liege. Suddenly Hoegaarden was merely a brand, and the village just a memory. Such an outcry followed for the next couple of years that in 2007 brewing returned to Hoegaarden, but sadly the quality has never returned.

I had clearly tried Hoegaarden on and off over the years, but this was the first wheat beer to pass my lips on the Belgian Beer Odyssey. I had brought back a 250 ml bottle from a jaunt to Belgium, and thus was not drinking it from its traditional hexagonal glass*, however it really didn’t taste as I remembered it to be on those warm summer afternoons. Traditional Hoegaarden was famous for being unfiltered, but this was almost translucent, and much too gassy. It looked anaemic and to be fair, if there is still coriander and curacao in this, then it has long since been tastable on my palate. I am not going to bad-mouth the name, because the Hoegaarden Grand Cru is still a mighty fine beer, but this one remains a lesson to us all that we should stand up for the little men amongst the craft breweries of Belgium.

* Did you know? – that the traditional hexagonal glass was supposedly designed to be prised out of ruined drinkers hands at the end of a long night by a spanner.

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Filed under 5, Belgian White (Witbier), Hoegaarden (InBev)