Wednesday, March 18, 2009

fourth brew (Belgian witbier), part 1

Belgian witbier (white beer) is a spicy, tart wheat beer hazy with suspended proteins from unmalted wheat. It is flavored with coriander seed and sweet orange rind. It's a good summer beer and in a fit of optimism, considering the extremely crappy spasticity of our weather lately, I figured I'd brew some now in anticipation of future warmth. Right!

I've tasted only a few but have generally enjoyed witbiers. In bottles I like the New Belgium Mothership Wit quite a bit. I've had the very different Hoegaarden witbier on draft and find it pretty tasty, too. I've been less impressed with Blue Moon but have had it only a couple of times, both draft and bottled. I would like to track down Celis White, which is made by the creator of Hoegaarden wit.

There is an interesting witbier presentation at and an article wtih some history at As a style, witbier almost disappeared until Pierre Celis resurrected it in 1966.

I selected the recipe available at The Cellar, and online at I already had coriander seed. They had no Belgian pilsner malt so I had to choose between a Belgian pale and a German pilsner. I went with the pale, thinking I'd be geopolitically correct, but in hindsight it probably would have made more sense to use the pilsner. The Hallertau hops were in both pellet and leaf form. I went with leaves mainly because I haven't used them before. The only other choice was between the Munton's dry ale yeast and the Wyeast Belgian Wit liquid brainer there. Complete ingredients:
  • 4 pounds dry wheat malt extract
  • 1 pound extra light dry malt extract
  • 1 pound unmalted wheat
  • 1/2 pound flaked oats
  • 1/2 pound Belgian pilsner malt (subbed Belgian pale 6L)
  • 2 ounces Hallertaur hops (these were at 3.6% AA)
  • 1/2 ounce sweet orange peel
  • 1/2 ounce ground coriander seed
  • Wyeast Labs 3944 Belgian Wit liquid yeast
I put all grains into their own bags. This is wheat on the left and malted barley on the right.

They went into 2.5 gallons of water as it heated to about 195 degrees in 30 minutes or so. The water became slightly cloudy wort within a few minutes.

It came off the heat and steeped for another 10 minutes. I rinsed the bags into the kettle with a quart of hot water.

The gravity of the wort at this point was about 0.995 at 150 degrees F. Using the correction formula that should be adjusted by 0.0187, giving 1.014 as the post-steeping gravity.

The spent oats was pretty much a glob of porridge. The spent wheat tasted pretty much like wheat.

All the dry malt was stirred in while off the heat. This produced ample foam, but by using the same technique one uses for adding polenta to boiling water I avoided clumping. Kettle went back on the heat and the foam eventually dissipated without any real danger of a boilover.

About 45 minutes later the kettle was at vigorous boil so I added the hops in a hop bag. The leaf hops smell fantastic when their vacuum-sealed bag is opened!

The bag really wanted to float, so I agitated it periodically throughout the hour-long boil, making sure that both sides were down and that there was some water exchange within the bag.

I see from Palmer that there are two types of German Hallertau hop (Hersbrucker and Mittelfr├╝h), and also that domestic Crystal hops are known as CJF-Hallertau. The bag didn't offer further identification so I don't know what they are, specifically. This Cellar page says they are grown in Washington, though.

After an hour the kettle came off the heat and I threw in the bag containing the orange peel and the coriander to steep, covered, for 20 minutes. The coriander seed is the large, oblong, Indian type. I've read that the smaller, round type is less desirable, but that's what they appeared to have at the brew shop. I ground the seed in the usual spice grinder, which was clean but had a distinct cumin scent. I don't think that will be a problem. I actually read somewhere that cumin is the "secret" spice in Hoegaarden.

The recipe calls for sweet orange peel, but from what I've read it's bitter (Curacao) orange that is more commonly used. This bag wasn't labeled as sweet or bitter so I don't really know what it is.

The hop and spice bags were then rinsed with 2.5 gallons of cold water into the fermenter. At this point I began thinking about this recipe's approach to wort cooling and did not like it. The wort, at the current temperature (still at about 180 degrees F in this case), is supposed to be poured into the fermenter, and then left to cool to 80 so the yeast can be pitched. I was suspicious of how long this might leave the wort at an undesirably warm temperature, so I instead placed the kettle in the sink with water and cold packs for a little bit, dropping it quickly to under 100 degrees. Adding this to the 50 degree water (distilled) gave me a temperature of about 78. I did some quick online searching for this calculation but didn't find one. I'll need to dig up an old physics text.

I poured back and forth several times to aerate. At this point I noticed that the seal on the spigot wasn't seated properly. Grrr. Had to empty the fermenter into the kettle and a couple of the gallon water jugs in order to fix that. This is a good thing to double-check in the future.

Pitched the yeast at about 77 degrees and plumbed a blowoff hose. The Cellar didn't have a large one, so I'm using a segment of 5/16 siphon hose. I doubt this will be necessary, considering the gravity of only 1.052.

The flavor of the wort is only faintly hoppy, as would be expected. An orange note is detectable but not assertive. The sweetness at this point pretty much dominates.

As for color, it seems awfully dark. It doesn't look like it's the result of the specialty grains (the pale instead of Pilsner, in particular) based on the color of the wort after steeping. Hmm.

After nine hours, nothing from the blowoff tube yet.

Update: After 17 hours, still nothing. I'm surprised. The wort is at 70 degrees now. I realize that I didn't shake the fermenter after pitching the yeast, so it may not have been well-distributed, but I'm sure it was well-aerated.

Also, I took a closer look at the online version of the recipe and saw that it has some differences from the printed sheet at The Cellar. It actually calls for 4 ounces total of boiling hops, and specifies a total of 17.5 AAU. That would produce a pretty different beer, I suspect, than the 7.2 AAU I used. That's annoying.

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