Designing the Perfect American-Style Witbier

It was a tough sell to corporate higher-ups back in 1995 when Villa first pitched the idea of creating an American beer brand around the Belgian witbier style. Red ales and red lagers were the current rage, and in the days before the term “craft” became a thing, microbreweries tended to focus more on English beer styles and red/amber ales and lagers. But Villa had fallen in love with witbier while pursuing his PhD in Belgium, and through sheer force of will convinced the execs to fund his foray into this (then-strange) style.

“Back then in 1995, [American beer drinkers] were just not familiar with the richness of styles in Belgium,” says Villa. “I thought we could use Blue Moon to introduce people to Belgian-style beers, and we started with Belgian White.”
But a historically accurate wit was not what he had in mind. Sure, tradition matters, but tradition is only tradition because it appealed to the palates of local drinkers. For the beer to be palatable to American drinkers, it had to be less bitter and more familiar.

“I wanted to make sure that people liked it from the start, and a true Belgian wit was a bit more bitter than people were used to. But I wanted something that had what I called ‘first sip likeability,’” says Villa. “A true-to-style Belgian wit can be 16–18 IBUs, and while that’s in balance, it would have been a bit much for the typical palate in the 1990s.”

That bitterness in the traditional approach is underscored by ingredient choice, too, as Curaçao orange peel and the traditional coriander amplified it. To soften the approach and create more familiar and endearing flavors for American drinkers, he searched out a different coriander. “I wanted a fruity one and found one out of California that when freshly ground smells almost like opening a box of Fruit Loops cereal,” says Villa. “The coriander that most of the Belgians use is the type with a more vegetal, celery-like smell.”

That fruitiness was underscored by his use of Valencia orange peel, as it offers less bitterness and more of a classic orange citrus nose than Curaçao orange.
“Wheat-wise, Belgians would typically use 30–40 percent wheat and the rest barley malt. I read when I was doing my dissertation that historically Belgians used oats, but they stopped using them because they were difficult to brew with. All the beta glucans gummed up things, so they said ‘forget it’ and stuck with wheat and barley malt, but oats give it a creaminess.”

His recipe spec’d 10 percent oats in the mash bill, and rather than using raw wheat, he opted for malted wheat instead. The result is a beer that’s hard to brew at the commercial scale of Blue Moon, but Villa took a very analytical approach to making sure that the wheat protein produced a stable haze—a necessity for a beer that had to taste great in a variety of challenging storage environments.

“Haze is one of those things we struggled with for a while,” says Villa. “It’s difficult to make a brilliantly clear beer, and it’s difficult to make a hazy beer that stays hazy. What you find out is that the bigger the particles, the more they settle out. That’s why the haze can’t be yeast, because yeast settles out. You’ve got to rely on the really small molecules—a mixture of carbohydrate and protein. We figured out how to brew, and I can’t say exactly how, but we figured out how to do it so those particles stay in suspension for a long time. It’s brewing-derived. There’s nothing exogenous added to Blue Moon. Over the years, I’ve analyzed competitive products, and there are beers out there that use pectin because pectin stays in suspension. There are other beers that use oil emulsions, and you can look under a microscope and see millions of little oil beadlets. So there are different ways to look at it, but Blue Moon has always been natural.”

Balancing the protein and carbohydrate levels in the beer and mashing in a way to produce the smallest possible protein particles are the keys to Blue Moon’s haze.

“If you create a beer with the right amount of protein and right amount of carbohydrate, it will stay in suspension for a long, long time. You’ve got to step mash. You can’t do a single infusion. Decoction is out of the question. And that, combined with fermenting for the right amount of time and aging—once you find the conditions that work, you can re-create it and produce a beer that stays hazy for a long, long time.”

Today, 23 years after the advent of the now-iconic brand, Villa hasn’t lost any of his passion for the Belgian witbier style and sees more opportunity for growth in the style in the future.

“The Belgian White style to me is hard to pin down, and the advent of Blue Moon widened everything,” says Villa. “Now you can use oats, you can use all kinds of ingredients and call it a Belgian-style white, and it is. If you go to Belgium and ask each brewer whether theirs is the traditional one, they’re all going to tell you that theirs is. And when you look at it, all of them are the true style because it’s a style that no one was ever meant to claim and own.”

There is really only one rule for Villa, and that’s to be honest and authentic in your brewing. “I’ve never taken shortcuts because that’s not the way you brew. If you’re going to brew, brew it the right way. Brew it to be proud of it.”

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