Tuesday 17 July 2012

Brewing a Witbier

Summer is a real double-edged sword for homebrewing for most people. It's a great opportunity to start pumping out your favorite summer beer styles (of which there are many available), but at the same time, it's really the most-difficult season to brew. Standing in your kitchen/garage with a rolling boil going when temperatures are reaching high 20s/low 30s C and humidity is 99.9%, is painful. And controlling fermentation temperatures without a temperature-controlled freezer or fridge can be next to impossible for a lot of us.

Throw in a new baby in the household, and you've got why I haven't brewed in about 10 weeks. Luckily, I had a lot of inventory gather up in the months before my daughter was born, so I wasn't in any desperate need for beer. But I've really missed homebrewing (and blogging about it), so I finally found the time to brew one of my favorite summertime beers: a Witbier, or Belgian wheat beer. Like another great summer brew, German Hefeweizen, it's smooth, creamy, light-colored, and refreshing, with plenty of spice and fruit apparent. Unlike a Hefeweizen, coriander is the main spice flavor/aroma, as opposed to clove. And orange makes up the fruity component, in contrast to the banana flavors in Hefeweizens. The classic example is, of course, Hoegaarden, but some other excellent examples are Allagash White, St. Bernardus Witbier, and Unibroue's Blanche de Chambly.

I brewed a Witbier a couple of years ago (one of my first all-grain beers), and followed the recipe provided by Jamil in Brewing Classic Styles. I was quite disappointed with the result. I had some major thermometer problems during the mash (that I unfortunately did not figure out until quite a ways into it), resulting in an over-extended protein mash and therefore a very small head on the beer. This was secondary, however, to the over-phenolic taste of the beer... I was never sure if this was due to chlorine in the water, or infection. Either way, the beer was drinkable at best.

For this Witbier session, I made sure my thermometer was working (ok, I always do this now), and I ran the brew water through a carbon-filter, as I've done for my last 4-5 batches. I also went with a slightly-different recipe, an almost 50-50 blend of Pilsner malt and flaked wheat, along with a touch of acid malt to bring the pH down a bit, and some flaked oats to help boost the creaminess of the beer. With all of that flaked wheat and oats, I made sure to add about 1/2 lb of rice hulls, to prevent a stuck sparge from occurring.

For this mash, I wrestled with whether to do a protein rest or not. A protein rest (in the 120-130 F range) is often recommended when a high amount (>25% as recommended by John Palmer) of unmalted grain is used (e.g. flaked wheat, oats, rye, etc.), as it helps break up proteins that can cause chill haze, and can improve head retention. The recipe I've used here is >50% unmalted grains, but I've been told by some homebrewers with years of experience that a single saccharification rest would suffice. However, I decided to go with a short protein rest, if anything just for the practice of doing a multi-step mash. Note that a too-long protein rest can actually break the proteins down TOO much, and can lead to a thin, watery beer.

Hop additions were minor, as classic Witbiers aren't supposed to have much in the way of hop bitterness or flavor/aroma. Unlike Hefeweizen, Witbier's spice and fruit complexities don't come entirely from the yeast. They actually involve a spice/fruit ADDITION... in this case, a half ounce each of coarsely-ground coriander seed and dried sweet orange peel. Most recipes call for bitter orange peel, but I still had some sweet on hand from a past brew, so I went with that. You can also use freshly zested orange/clementine/tangerine peel, and it's probably actually better to do so if it's available. The spice and fruit peel don't have to be boiled for long... just the last 3-5 minutes (in a fine-mesh bag), so that the aroma compounds aren't boiled off.

There are two main yeast carried by Wyeast used for brewing Witbier: 3463 Forbidden Fruit, and 3944 Belgian Witbier. It's difficult to tell the difference between the two, at least based on the descriptions on the Wyeast website, so I went with the 3463 since it is carried at my LHBS. With my first Witbier, I actually used the Wyeast 3864 Canadian/Belgian Ale, which is supposed to be the Unibroue strain, since I've always enjoyed their Blanche de Chambly. When I pitched the yeast starter, I put the fermenter in my laundry sink, filled with water and some ice, to keep temperatures hopefully in the high 60s F. While I DO have a temperature-controlled freezer, I currently have a Doppelbock still lagering in there, along with a lot of bottled beer, so it wasn't available to use for fermenting the Witbier.

Recipe targets: (5.5 gallons, 75% efficiency): OG 1.048, FG 1.012, IBU 17, SRM 3, ABV 4.8%

Grains & Other:
2.05kg Bohemian Pilsner
2 kg Flaked wheat
273 g Flaked oats
136 g Acid malt
227 g Rice hulls

Hallertau - 28 g (3.4% AA) @ 60 min
Saaz - 14 g (5.5% AA) @ 15 min

1/2 tsp yeast nutrient @ 15 min

Yeast: Wyeast 3463 Forbidden Fruit (PD June 6th, with a 1.25 L starter)

Brad helps out with the hop additions

Water: Fredericton city water, carbon-filtered

- Brewed July 7th, 2012, with Brad. 15-minute protein rest with 11.3 L water, hit target of 122 F. After 15 minutes, added another 7.8 L of water at ~210 F for 45-minute rest, hitting mash temp of about 154.5 F. No mash-out... sparged with 4.75 gallons of water at 168 F for final volume of 7.4 gallons in brew kettle. 90-minute boil. Chilled to 72 F with immersion chiller and pump with ice water; had to put the fermenter in the laundry sink with ice water to drop the temp some more. OG came in low at 1.044 (I always have a big drop in efficiency when using flaked wheat). When temp dropped to 68 F, pitched the yeast starter and aerated by shaking for several minutes. Set fermenter back in laundry sink with ice water.

8/7/12 - In the AM, the airlock was already bubbling very fast, and there was a bit of beer in it... even though the krausen was no longer at the top of the fermenter. Obviously there was an overly-fast start to fermentation, even though the temp was still reading only 68 F. Added a few more ice packs to bring the temp down some more; soon after it was 66 F. Drained water out of sink, and by evening temp was up to 72 F.

9/7/12 - Bubbling already slowed quite a bit, temp still at 72 F.

24/7/12 - FG 1.013. Bottled with 157 g table sugar, aiming for 3 vol C02 for 5 gallons with a max temp of 74 F reached.

Tasting notes here...


  1. You & I must live in parallel universes, I just kegged my witbier this past week! lol
    Mine got up into the mid 70's, but still turned out fine.
    Hope it's a winner!

  2. Yeah, I saw the post on your blog a bit ago. Sounds like it turned out great!