The July cavalcade of beers continues with the release of Deschutes' latest annual celebration, 20th Anniversary Wit. It also marks a continuing trend for Deschutes--into the wild, wonderful world of Belgian ales. Last year they made a strong golden for their anniversary, and they have a Leifmans-style kriek in the works for later this year. This isn't a small deal; Deschutes is the consummate English-ales brewery, offering world class versions of porter, pale ale, brown, stout, and IPA. But the foray into Belgians has been mixed bag. The inaugural effort wasn't a winner, so I came to the Wit with hope and worry.
As with many extant world styles, understanding Belgian wit ("white") beer means learning some history. An ancient style, it dates back to the 1500s and to a region east of Brussels known for oats and wheat. Oats are less common in the modern iteration, but wheat--50% or more of the grist--characterizes the style and contributes the milky whiteness of the name. But what really distinguishes the style is the use of coriander and peels from the oranges of the distant Caribbean Island of Curacao. This seems just bizarre until you learn that at the time Hoegaarden was a part of Holland, so the use of spices brought back by boats from the Dutch West Indies Company wasn't so strange after all.
Witbiers are the most commonly-brewed of the Belgian styles, and because there's great latitude to the style--variation in the grist, use of different spices--it's an opportunity for breweries to go for originality. It's a pretty easy style to brew, yet excellence is elusive. When it's made well, it's a huge crowd pleaser--I've encountered very few people who don't like a good wit. So does Deschutes meet the challenge?
The appearance is classic wit--straw-pale, but milky, a nice bead and a snowy head. Hoegaarden villagers wouldn't blink if this were plopped down in front of them. Fortunately, this isn't a clone--Deschutes has taken the opportunity to make the style their own. The aroma is faint with coriander and a fresh, baked-bread wheatiness. Many wits slam you with orange, but Deschutes goes for balance. The classic flavors of a wit are here, coriander (which is the source of the orange flavor, not the Curacao orange peel, which contributes the astringency) and some other herbal notes that don't resolve into obvious spices (the brewery identifies grains of paradise, but I can't). I believe there's some phenols here, not usual, but appropriate in this beer. It accentuates the wheat, which plays a larger role here than in some wits. A nice interpretation that offers gentle sweetness and an overall softness on the palate. It ends crisply, but not over-dry, which is a danger in the style.
I give the beer very high marks both for originality and overall presentation. It's not unfamiliar as a wit, but it's a fresh interpretation. It's on the subtle side, but I think it will be broadly pleasing. For many Oregonians, it may be an introduction to the style. They will be fortunate to start here.
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