IT WAS A little over a decade ago that I was belly-up to a Savannah bar, preparing to order my then-usual: a whisky and ginger ale. While waiting for the bartender's attention to turn, I saw him pour an extra-tall glass of cloudy, golden elixir with a meringue-like, fluffy white head. With a flourish, he plopped a huge orange wedge on the rim.
Beer isn’t traditionally an attention-getting drink. While bottle and can art may be impressive, the form factor of a Shaker pint glass doesn’t usually make heads swivel. Compared to the lavish garnishes of Bloody Marys or olive-spiked martinis, beer just looks boring.
That beer was a Blue Moon Belgian Wit, a MillerCoors brand that would quickly grab a strong foothold in the world of beer, blurring the lines between small, independent craft breweries and the entrenched industry titans. The tide was changing, and thanks to the creative spirit of independent players like Sierra Nevada, Abita and Dogfish Head, the idea of the American beer identity was shifting from bland lagers to innovative culinary twists on old-world styles.
To keep up with the times, “big beer” was pretending to be a small-batch brand. And it worked marvelously.
In 2013, Businessweek reported that Blue Moon’s sales were the equivalent of 15% of the entire craft beer category, clocking in at 2 million barrels. That popularity has caused many legitimate craft breweries to be on the offensive, attacking Blue Moon as being “crafty” instead of craft. In actuality, they should be thanking MillerCoors for expanding the palette of traditional beer drinkers and (thanks to that showy orange wedge) bringing a more flavorful beer to the attention of non-beer drinkers. After all, it worked on me.
Like a lemming, I ordered a Blue Moon Belgian Wit that night and my craft beer journey began in earnest. It didn’t take long to find out that there was a whole new world of beer available to me and while Blue Moon was an easy gateway to the style, that there were far more exciting witbiers on the market.
Referred interchangeably as witbier, white ale, bière blanche, or witte, the roots of the style go back to the Belgium tradition of brewing with a majority of wheat instead of barley. It’s spiced in a manner dating back to the pre-hop era, using coriander and orange peel as a base.
Of course, hops are included in the modern recipes but the bitter bite is very much subdued and masked. Fermentation with a hearty yeast strain makes for a more balanced, slightly creamy consistency in witbiers. That yeast is often visible in particle suspension, creating a white cloudiness and giving the style its name.
Witbiers are particularly well-suited to Savannah’s summer climate. They are uncomplicated thirst quenchers that typically have a lower alcohol by volume (ABV) ratio, making them sessionable. The presence of citrus gives a tart accent that provides the beer a more complex profile and adds to the enjoyment.
For those not impressed with an over-abundance of bitter hops or the malty depths of roasty stouts, witbiers are a mild but expressive choice for beer enthusiasts. To advance past the mainstream flavors of leading wits Blue Moon, Hoegaarden or Shock Top, try one of these true-craft alternatives.
Perhaps the quintessential witbier from a craft brewery, Allagash White can be found regularly on tap at Savannah’s Green Truck Pub and is one of its biggest sellers. It’s mild, easy to drink and refreshing, bringing the best of the genre to play in every sip. The citrus and spice are slight but meld nicely with clove and banana notes.
Samuel Adams Imperial White
If you want your witbier on the boozier side, Sam Adams has you covered. Its Imperial White is HUGE at 10.3% ABV, a monster of near-liquor smoothness combined with the light malt base and esters that you expect from a white. While not especially balanced, for those with a sweet tooth, this is a sure thing and can be found in four packs at specialty stores like Habersham Beverage.
Burnt Hickory White Flag
One of the current darlings of the craft beer world, Kennesaw’s Burnt Hickory has brought its quirky personality into its white that has apricot and grains of paradise alongside the traditional elements in White Flag. Like all of Burnt Hickory’s beers, it is exceptional, delicious and worth seeking out. At the time of this writing, the Your Pie in Sandfly has a rare keg on tap.