On April 9, sad news began to spread throughout the craft beer world that Pierre Celis had passed away. Celis single-handedly saved the Belgian white beer (witbier) style from extinction back in the 1960s. He created Hoegaarden (named for his hometown), reviving a style of beer native to the area but which hadn’t been brewed in the decade prior to Celis opening his first brewery in Belgium. Then in the early 1990s he launched Celis brewery in Austin, TX., leaving an indelible mark on the American craft beer revolution. Not surprisingly, the flagship of his Austin brewery was a Belgian-style white ale named Celis White. In memory of Celis, I think it’s a good time to take a look at the state of Belgian white ales in Alabama.
To begin with, let’s note that it’s a style of beer usually brewed with around 50 percent wheat (i.e., a “wheat beer”) and features added spices. Just about all Belgian style beers have a spicy flavor resulting from the type of yeast they are fermented with, but witbiers feature actual spices like coriander and bitter orange peel. They are very light and refreshing.
Blue Moon is the most widely available Belgian white in Alabama and across the country. It’s funny that people turn to Blue Moon in an attempt to trade up from domestic lagers without realizing that Blue Moon is made by Coors. I fully support anyone drinking a particular beer because they like the flavor, including Bud, Miller and Coors products—and clearly folks like the taste of Blue Moon. I generally have no beef with the large brewing companies. But I don’t like it when the big guys try to sell beer by hiding the fact that they make it. Coors owns Blue Moon, Miller owns Leinenkugel, Anheuser-Busch makes the Stone Mill products. Let’s just all be honest about what we’re drinking and make those choices based on flavor rather than on trying to avoid the products of one company or class of companies.
And just as Coors has Blue Moon, Anheuser- Busch has Shock Top. In each case the company making the beer calls it a Belgian-style white ale, but I would like to register a dissenting opinion. Having tasted both beers, my educated opinion is that both are fermented with something other than a Belgian ale yeast. I would guess they are fermented with a neutral American ale yeast, but I can’t say for certain. I don’t think they employ Belgian ale yeast because that type of yeast imparts a very distinct spicy and fruity phenolic character that craft beer fans are familiar with in beers like Duvel, Chimay, and most of the portfolio of American greats like Ommegang and Allagash. The yeast strains are key for those beers, and for Belgian style whites. So the use of American ale yeasts makes Blue Moon and Shock Top “American wheat ales” in my opinion. There’s nothing wrong with that style but again, I don’t like breweries or beers pretending to be something they are not.
I think the most authentic Belgian white you can find in Alabama is probably Unibroue Blanche de Chambly. It’s tough to beat those guys in Québec when it comes to Belgian style beers. I say Blanche de Chambly is probably the most authentic because of its tartness. Many Belgian style beers historically had some degree of tartness from bacteria and/or Brettanomyces, and many traditional Belgian brewers continue to make beer intentionally using those wild microorganisms. I suspect that Celis’s Hoegaarden Original White was tart when he first brewed it back in the 1960s, and I further suspect the tartness was eliminated when Interbrew bought his brewery in the late 1980s—to give the beer a broader appeal.
That said, you simply must try Hoegaarden to understand the witbier style. Whether or not it remains true to the way Celis originally brewed it, it is the benchmark of the style today, and many brewers base their own versions on what you’ll find in a bottle of Hoegaarden in your local supermarket right now.
Surprisingly, the first Southeastern brewer to sell a Belgian-style white ale year-round (to my knowledge) is Hunstville’s Yellowhammer Brewing, with the aptly named Yellowhammer White Ale. We do not yet see much Yellowhammer White Ale in Birmingham, since at least 99 percent of their distribution is in Huntsville. The guys at Good People have never brewed a witbier. Neither has Terrapin. Nor Lazy Magnolia, nor Yazoo. Sweetwater did once upon a time (as a seasonal), but they haven’t in a couple years. This is actually pretty shocking to me, since our hot climate is perfectly suited to witbier refreshment.
Other Belgian-style white ales to look for in stores around Birmingham include Avery White Rascal (one of my personal faves), Ommegang Witte, Samuel Adams White Ale, Point Belgian White, St. Bernardus Witbier and Flying Dog Woody Creek White. The selection is actually pretty thin compared to the selection of IPAs and pale ales which, again, surprises me. Try them all and if you like them, let our Southeastern brewers know you’d like to see more local examples.
“Hopped Up” is a weekly brew review by Danner Kline, founder of Free the Hops and co-organizer of the annual Magic City Brewfest. Send your feedback to email@example.com