Brewing Belgian Beers (#7): White beers

Suggested guidelines: 1.044-1.055, 4.5-5.5% ABV, 15-22 IBU, 2-4 SRM. Golden yellow, cloudy when chilled. Coriander flavor and mild acidity essential. Wheat and bitter orange peel flavors desirable. Mild hop flavor and aroma ok. Low to medium bitterness. Low to medium body, medium or higher carbonation. No diacetyl. Low to medium esters.
White beers feature a hazy yellow color, a rich white head, and a flavor that highlights coriander blended with wheat and malted barley. Aromas tend to be relatively neutral or even a bit orangey due to the coriander. Mild hop aromas are ok, but should have the floral character of Goldings rather than the bite of varieties like Saaz. Body should be medium or a bit lighter, and the carbonation should be reasonably agressive. Hop bitterness should be low, but a mild acidity is essential and contributes to the beer's quenching powers. There should be no alchohol flavor, but esters are ok at low levels. These beers should always be very drinkable, and personally I prefer mine with lots of coriander.

Brewing Method

Extract brewers are going to have a hard time getting the traditional yellow color and won't be able to add oats (which require mashing). However, if you use 50 percent wheat and 50 percent barley extracts and follow the guidelines below you should still have a very distinctive and satisfying beer.

All grain brewers have an interesting adventure ahead of them. White beers are usually made of 50 percent malted barley and 50 percent raw, unmalted wheat, although a small percentage of oats (5-10%) can be used to add some silkiness. Expect to get the same yield from all three grains, and therefore draw up your grain bill based on weight.

Unmalted wheat is available in health food stores and food coops, and often called wheat berries. There is debate whether soft white or hard red varieties are preferable, but both seem to work. One thing is indisputable: the stuff is a nightmare to grind by hand, rather like running little rubber bullets through your Corona. Find someone with a flour mill or a mechanized grinder to help you out. The fineness of the grind doesn't seem to be critical, and I grind my wheat rather fine. Rolled oats work fine if you want to use oats at all.

Museums use wheat starch as a glue, and once you mash in you'll see why. Start with a loose mash using two quarts of water per pound, and plan on using an extended protein rest (45 mins-1 hour) at anything between 117 and 126 degrees farenheit. This is how the Belgians do it, and you'll be amazed at how the proteolytic enzymes work a mess of wallpaper paste into a light, workable mash. Never has the miracle of mashing been better demonstrated.

The white beer protein rest offers a tradeoff. If you run the rest longer (1 hour) you'll get an easily spargeable mash, but the final beer may be clearer and less colorful than you want beer; rests of 45 minutes or less give wonderful color, but can be sticky to lauter. Personally I use 45 minutes and watch the lauter tun carefully. If you're willing to sacrifice some authenticity, you can substitute several pounds of malted wheat for a portion of the unmalted variety.

Following the protein rests, raise the mash to your favorite saccrification temperature via heat or hot-water infusion. After saccrification mash out at 170 and sparge as usual and bring the runoff to a boil.

Belgians tend to use "classic" hop varieties such as Hallertau, Saaz, and East Kent or Styrian Goldings, but since your hop levels will be low anyway there's plenty of room for flexibility. For your first white beer you may want to try Styrian or East Kent Goldings, or maybe some nice Hallertau plugs. I use an ounce of the latter for a 1-hour boil, and throw in another half ounce to boil for fifteen minutes, aiming for a total of 16-18 IBU.

You'll also need bitter orange peels and ground coriander. Bitter orange isn't very bitter and doesn't give much orange flavor: what it does give is a pleasant herbal flavor, not unlike that of chamomile tea. (Try boiling a peel and chilling the liquid overnight to get an idea of the taste.) Use bitter orange at a rate of about 0.5 grams per liter of finished beer (about 1/3 ounce for a 5 gallon batch), and boil the peels for about 20 minutes.

Find whole coriander seeds in an ethnic market and grind them finely. (Powdered coriander also works.) Start with 1-1.5 grams per liter, or about 1 ounce per 5 gallons. Boil it for five minutes, or add to the pot after you've turned off the heat. Then you're ready to chill and ferment.

Almost any yeast seems to work, ranging from neutral American ale yeasts to German wheat beer strains to the more adventurous Belgians cultures. Creativity counts for a lot, so if you have an interesting idea, give it a try. Keep in mind that the yeast should complement the other flavors, not dominate them. White beer fermentations don't require any unusual attention, although some of the commercial white beer yeasts get a bit sluggish when fermentation temperatures drop below 65 degrees.

Mild acidity is a classic feature of a good white beer. The brave can attempt a lactic fermentation, but there's an easy shortcut: add a very small quantity of 88% lactic acid to your beer at bottling time. Amounts between 5 and 15 milliliters per 5 gallons work well. Be aware that the acid will need some time to blend with teh other flavors. This usually takes 1-2 months.

Commercial examples

Celis White (4.7% ABV, 50% raw wheat, 50% malted barley), Riva Blanche (5% ABV, sold as Dentergems in Belgium), Blanche de Bruges, Blanche des Neiges


Rick Garvin's Cherry Blossom Wit (all grain for 5 gallons)

Rick says: "The cherry tree was blooming when I made this and the wind kept blowing cherry petals into the boiler."

4.0 lbs   Pilsner malt (50%)
3.6 lbs   Unmalted wheat (45%)
0.4 lbs   Rolled oats (5%)

0.89 oz   Styrian goldings (6.2%) boiled for 60 minutes
0.36 oz   Saaz (3.2%) boiled for 5 minutes
14.5 grams Bitter orange peel boiled for 20 minutes (0.75
35 grams ground coriander boiled for 5 minutes (1.8 grams/liter)
Ferment using Wyeast White (#3944)

Dough in at 117F. 20-minute rests at 117F and 122F. 60 minute rest at 146F. Mash out to 160F. Boil 30 minutes before adding the first hop addition. Hint: do not puree the bitter orange in a blender with water. It will sink to the bottom of the boiler and scorch.

[Phil's notes: A superb recipe, particulary for people like me who LOVE coriander. If you want something a bit more sedate you might want to cut the coriander by 1/3]

Todd Enders' Witbier (all grain for 5 gallons)

4.0 lbs Belgian pils malt
4.0 lbs raw soft red winter wheat
0.5 lbs rolled oats

0.75 oz coriander, freshly ground
Zest from two table oranges and two lemons
1.0 oz 3.1% AA Saaz
3/4 corn sugar for priming

Hoegaarden strain yeast

Mash in:            12 qt. at 124F
Protein rest:       15 mins. each at 124, 128, and 132
Saccrification:     30 minutes at 161F
Mash out:           10 minutes at 170F

Sparge with 5.5 gallons at 168-170 (may be pH adjusted to 5.5)

Boil: 90 minutes
Hops: 1 addition, 30 minutes from the end of the boil
Coriander: 1 addition, 15 minutes from end of the boil
Peels: 1 addition, 10 minutes from end of boil

OG: 1.046
Lactic acid can be added at bottling if desired. Use 10-20 ml of 88% lactic acid, or to taste.

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