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Europe's stylish summer whites

Hoegaarden is "white," spiced and fermented from wheat -- in the medieval fashion, says Michael Jackson

Just as more adventurous drinkers are acquiring a taste for summery wheat beers from Germany, along comes something even more refreshing from Belgium: a wheat beer spiced with Curacao orange peels and coriander. This beer is also purported to include a third, undisclosed, herb or spice. Cumin seeds, perhaps, or grains of paradise?

It is the original classic of its style: Hoegaarden beer, from the small town of the same name in the wheat-growing Brabant farmlands to the east of Brussels and Leuven.

The use of wheat as a fermentable grain, in addition to the usual barley malt, imparts a quenching tartness, reminiscent of apples or plums. The seasoning with orange and coriander, as well as the usual hops, adds acidity and a faintly astringent dryness.

Beers made with wheat are usually fermented with ale yeasts, rather than lager cultures. This accentuates their fruitiness, sometimes with citric or strawberryish notes. Hoegaarden is a very fruity-tasting beer.

Like many of the older types of beer, it has its secondary fermentation in the bottle and is therefore hazy with yeast. While some such beers identify their style on the label with a reference to wheat (Weizen in German; Tarwe in Flemish; Froment in French), others allude to their cloudy, pale, rather yellowy-"white" colour (Weisse, Wit, Blanche).


The town of Hoegaarden is just inside the Flemish-speaking region, but the beer is served in Belgium in a chunky, bevelled tumbler that makes it look like a French pastis.


In Belgium, Hoegaarden may be offered as a Witbier or a Bière Blanche, depending upon where it is being served. The town of Hoegaarden is just inside the Flemish-speaking region, but the beer is served in Belgium in a chunky, bevelled tumbler that makes it look like a French pastis. It is usually presented slightly chilled.

Wheat beers were produced all over Europe in the days before barley became so dominant in brewing. In Germany and Belgium, wheat beers never entirely vanished and are now enjoying a huge resurgence of youthful popularity. The use of fruits, spices and herbs as a seasoning began to recede as hops gained the upper hand in the middle of this millennium. In Germany only hops are permitted, though the bar-keeper or drinker may add fruit, raspberry syrup or essence of woodruff to some styles of beer.

In Belgium, fruits, spices and herbs have refused to fade. Juniper and bog myrtle are other examples and they are also used in some specialty brews in Scandinavia. The use of ginger and liquorice has been known in Britain, and the latter may be set for a revival. In the Highlands the other day, I sampled a new porter based on a Scottish wild liquorice brew of medieval times. The porter, from the Borve House brewery of Ruthven, Aberdeenshire, was not obviously liquorice-ish but was full of dark, smoky flavours. In the United States, at a tiny brewery in the Pike Place food market, Seattle, I enjoyed a beer seasoned with oregano. Belgium has a variety of spiced styles and several versions of wheat beers. The particular combination associated with the town of Hoegaarden vanished for a time, but was revived.

As in many brewing towns, the art of beer-making was developed by monks in medieval times. Hoegaarden's monks produced both beer and wine. Later, the town became a centre of farmhouse brewing, supplying more than 30 breweries making the regional style, but the last of them closed in the mid-Fifties. A few years later, several locals were chatting when one observed, sadly, that he missed the old "white" beer.


A milkman by trade, he decided he would prefer to deal in another "white" beverage.


In the gathering was Pieter Celis, who had lived next door to the old brewery. He had often helped out there, got to know something of the production process and been fascinated by it. A milkman by trade, he decided he would prefer to deal in another "white" beverage. With some financial help from his father, a cattle dealer, he bought equipment from a defunct brewery, fitted it into some farm buildings, hired a veteran brewer to help him and started making Hoegaarden white beer.

Like many of the new generation revivalist brewers, Celis made wonderful beers. He is a tiny man and delighted in describing himself as "only a small brewer" as his reputation grew. In deference to the monastic beginnings of beer-making in Hoegaarden, he called his brewery The Cloister (in Flemish, De Kluis). One buttressed wall of the brewery building dates from the 1500s, another from the 1750s, and more of the structure from the 1830s. Inside is a bar and restaurant called The Kouterhof, specialising in dishes prepared and served with Hoegaarden white beer and other speciality brews. Less than an hour from Brussels, Hoegaarden is a pretty little town, with a famous rococo church, and the Kouterhof (telephone: 016 767433) makes a delightful spot for a meal and a drink.

White beer revivalist, Pieter Celis (second from right), gets an early taste of brewing.

Regrettably, the success of his brewery was such that Celis outgrew his financial resources and was obliged to sell out to the Stella Artois group, Interbrew. Although I still greatly enjoy the Hoegaarden white beer, I do think it has lost some of its complexity since the takeover. Interbrew's depth of commitment to speciality beers is in some doubt.

Meanwhile, the ever-enterprising Celis has moved to the United States, where he produces a similar beer, Celis White, in Austin, Texas.

In Belgium, Hoegaarden white beer has inspired countless imitators. Among them, my favourite is made in Bruges. This soft, fruity product, called Brugs Tarwebier, is available in some speciality beer-shops.


Forbidden Fruit has hints of chocolate and vanilla.


So are stronger specialities from Hoegaarden. While the white beer has a conventional alcohol content of around 4.8 per cent, a Grand Cru version has 8.7 and darker brother brew called Forbidden Fruit (in Flemish, Verboden Vrucht; in French, Le Fruit Defendu) has 9.0. Grand Cru, a barley-malt brew with similar spicings, has a suggestion of orange muscat. Forbidden Fruit has hints of chocolate and vanilla. Both are wonderful dessert beers, and Forbidden Fruit is excellent with a book at bedtime.

Forbidden Fruit's label is modelled on Ruben's painting Adam and Eve. When the brewery tried to export to the US, the beer was banned because the couple are nude. "This is not pornography," protested the brewery, "it is a great work of art from our country."

"Yes," replied the American Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, "but Adam should be handing her an apple -- not a beer."


Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: JUNE 6, 1992
In: The Independent

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