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Keep Your Wit Close

… and your Hoegaarden closer

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On a hot Florida day, there may be nothing better than a cold, crisp, satisfying Belgian-style Witbier. Commonly called Wit or White, the popular brew style has a history of highs and lows, ups and downs. Indeed, in the 1950s, the 400-year-old style was all but extinct. Had it not been for Pierre Celis in Hoegaarden, Belgium, this refreshing summer beer style may have been known only from the pages of beer history books.

The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP), the most widely accepted authority on beer styles, describes Witbier as having a “pleasant sweetness (often with a honey and/or vanilla character) and a zesty, orange-citrusy fruitiness. Refreshingly crisp with a dry, often tart, finish.” It’s further characterized as having a pale straw, yet cloudy, appearance with a frothy, fluffy head. And, though some disagree, the BJCP’s guidelines call for up to 50 percent unmalted wheat to be used in brewing the beer.

Once the dominant beer style in the areas east of Brussels in Belgium, wit was known as biere blanche in the southern, French-speaking part of the country and wit in the northern, Flemish regions. Louvain, a city about 20 miles east of Brussels, was a powerhouse for the style in the 18th and 19th centuries. As the drinkers’ darling, more than 6,400 barrels were produced and shipped to Brussels and the rest of Europe annually. The beer was so popular in Brussels, it was sold by the cask in an open-air market, appropriately called La Place de Louvain.

As the 19th century wore on, the lager revolution began to overtake the traditional regional beer style in popularity. Witbier began to fade along with many other distinctive styles that had once flourished across Belgium and Europe. By the end of World War II, the style was all but a memory in Louvain and the small village of Hoegaarden, where the beer had been an economic staple for years. Peter Jackson, the noted beer expert and historian, reported the style became extinct in the mid-1950s.

Ten years on, former milkman Celis took up brewing witbier, in part because he’d worked part-time in his neighbor Louis Tomsin’s brewery, creating that elixir of the gods–witbier–and because he wanted to revive the forgotten style. In 1965, Celis began producing Hoegaarden Wit, first from a washtub in his father’s barn and later with equipment he purchased from an abandoned brewery in Heusden-Zolder. In 1966, he opened Brouwerij Celis and in 1980, he opened Brouwerij de Kluis to expand production. In the late 1980s, bad luck struck when the brewery burned down. The building wasn’t insured, so Celis was forced to sell his brewery and its recipe to InterBrew, now known as A-B InBev.

With the deeper pockets of InterBrew, the Hoegaarden brand grew and the witbier style was once again elevated to its proper level of admiration. Today, there are several Belgian wit brews available, including New Belgium’s Snapshot, Allagash White and Florida Cracker Belgian-style White Ale.

As a thirst-quencher, wit is a no-brainer. Pop a few in a cooler of ice, put it by a deck chair or—even better—a beach chair, and prop up your feet. Other than a cool sea breeze, there’s nothing better to beat the Florida heat and humidity. Your only worry? Be sure the tide won’t reach your chair.

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