By Philip Runco.
Freshly Tapped spotlights one recently released beer, whether it be a flagship, one-off, seasonal, or modified recipe.
Today, our beer is Handsome Beer‘s White Ale, a 6% witbier brewed with jasmine, coriander, and Azacca hops.
As temperatures soar and the humidity drips off your skin, it’s high time for witbier.
Light, citrusy, zesty, bubbly, quenching: Few alcoholic beverages seem better suited for a summer evening on the patio than the cloudy white ale. And pretty much everyone enjoys a pint of it.
“One thing I like about witbiers is that they have such a wide swath of approval,” says Graham MacDonald, co-founder of Handsome Beer Company, a “gypsy brewery” that calls DC home. “You can have a really good IPA – and I love IPAs – but not everyone likes them. It’s the same thing with sours: I really like sours but there are more people who think they’re gross. Most all beer drinkers will appreciate a witbier. People who are sort of iffy on beer tend to like them, and beer connoisseurs can respect a really well-produced one, too.”
The appeal of a witbier can’t be dismissed as seasonal, either. Believe it or not, the highest selling domestic ale in the United States is Coors’ Blue Moon Belgian White. And many craft breweries consider the style a gateway beer to convert those “iffy” wine-drinkers to the malt side.
Some of those consumers don’t cross over to the other side, though. They pop open a beach chair and stay right in that threshold.
“There are people at every restaurant who come in and want to drink that beer,” says Jace Gonnerman, beer director for Meridian Pint, Smoke & Barrel, and Brookland Pint. “More than any other single beer on our list, if we run out of witbier, there’s going to be a chunk of customers who are very upset.”
A popular witbier can be very good business for a brewery. Look no further than Alexandria’s Port City Brewing, whose award-winning Optimal Wit accounts for roughly 35% of its output.
“If you can make a good witbier and hit the nail on the head in terms of style, you’re gonna sell beer,” says Gonnerman, who carries Optimal Wit near permanently at all three of his restaurants.
But the popularity of witbier has been a mixed blessing for craft brewing. Since the style was revived in the mid-1960s by Pierre Celis – whose Oud Hoegaard Bier ditched wild fermentation and lactic acidity for the more cleanly produced witbier we know today – it’s become somewhat staid.
“Nothing stops innovation as fast as commercial success,” Jeff Alworth writes in The Beer Bible. “So, it’s not surprising that white ales continue to be made using only slight variations on the wheat-and-oats, coriander-and-orange-peel template.”
“I’m not seeing a ton of riffs on the witbier the way that people are taking liberties with other styles,” observes Gonnerman, who doesn’t necessarily malign such stasis. “I think the people who drink witbier aren’t looking to have the boundaries of it pushed the way some people are with IPAs. I don’t think the person who drinks witbier is looking to have witbier become something other than what it is, which is traditional and refreshing. That’s the appeal of it.”
But what if a witbier could walk that line? What if a local brewery could push those boundaries while retaining witbier’s elixir qualities? What if someone could make witbier – to borrow MacDonald’s favorite descriptor – interesting?
This is what Handsome Beer set out to accomplish with its White Ale.
Matt Humbard is no stranger to witbier.
While Handsome Beer may be a lick under one-year old, its head brewer has been experimenting with the style for almost a decade.
“For a brewer like me, a white ale is a sort of base beer,” explains the former homebrewer, who also happens to hold a PhD in microbiology and cell science. “It’s a very simple recipe that uses a lot of ingredients that I’m familiar with, like wheat and a Belgian-style saison yeast. When I was brewing it for my personal consumption, I would use it as a platform to try a bunch of different things. I knew the recipe was solid and produced a good beer by itself, so if I wanted to try a new hop or a new spice or even a new yeast – like Brett or Lacto bacteria – I would make this beer and put it in there. It was sort of my laboratory.”
It’s not a huge surprise, then, that when he and MacDonald sat down to discuss the possibility of producing a few summer beers with botanical ingredients earlier this year, Humbard’s mind drifted towards a white ale. He knew his way around the style and how it would handle a flowery ingredient.
A witbier also fit line nicely in the portfolio of Handsome Beer, which launched last September with a tropical saison, an abbey pale ale, and a Belgian-leaning brown ale. Another beer it will soon be releasing: Kind Regards, a pink-hued saison brewed with hibiscus and Mosaic hops. You may see a theme emerging.
“Matt and I are both huge fans of lighter Belgian styles,” says MacDonald. “They’re also a touch underrepresented locally, so doing a witbier made a lot of sense for us. We asked, ‘What can we make something really amazing of? What do you not see too many of out there?’”
But before Humbard embarked on commercially producing a witbier for the first time, he decided he needed to taste everyone else’s.
“I basically went out and bought every witbier in market, and I just sat down and drank them,” the brewer remembers. “I thought they were all good to passable, but they all seemed to be copies of each other.”
“I do like things like Allagash White; it’s good,” he adds. “Port City’s white is good, too. I bring those kind of beers to parties all the time.”
MacDonald cites Stillwater’s Cellar Door – a witbier brewed with white sage and Citra hops – as an example of a novel twist on the style, but says brewers tend to play it safe when engineering the cloudy brew.
“A lot of breweries are planning for witbier to be a flagship so they’re very recalcitrant to use a hop or another ingredient that’s a little more difficult to come by,” the veteran of 2Amy’s and Right Proper observes. “A lot of them use Saaz, which makes a fine beer, but it’s hard to make those interesting, particularly when they’re doing it on a massive scale.”
For Humbard, the homogeneity often spawns from the root of creative process.
“People say, ‘I want a beer that has a bunch of orange peel and pepper in it, so I’m going to make witbier,’” the brewer shares. “When I sit down and think about how I’m going to make beer, I don’t necessarily start with a style. I start by thinking, ‘How do I take this ingredient and make a beer out of it?’ And then I end up making things that are like witbiers or saisons or brown ales.”
If Handsome Beer’s White Ale isn’t exactly a witbier, perhaps it’s time to explore what the beer affirmatively is.
Before Humbard could brew his witbier, he had to make tea.
Handsome Beer’s White Ale had originated with the idea of working with a botanical ingredient: the jasmine flower.
“Jasmine has a light, earthy characteristic,” MacDonald says. “It adds a nice floral layer to a beer.”
To capture that aroma and flavor, Humbard brewed 40 gallons of concentrated tea, which he added to beer as it was coming off the boil kettle. “You don’t want to raise the temperature too high on the flower,” the head brewer explains. “On a production scale, it would have been too high.”
Ultimately, the presence of jasmine in White Ale is subtle. “We used a very light touch with it,” McDonalds says. “If someone can pick out jasmine without knowing we used it, they have a golden palate.”
According to the Northern Virginia native, this was very much by design. “When people use botanicals in beer, it can be a slap in the face,” he continues. “Folks usually go too heavy handed with them. It’s so easy to get excited about the extra thing you’re doing and go nuts with it.”
To compliment the jasmine characteristic, Humbard hopped the beer exclusively with Azacca. Named after the Haitian god of agriculture, the Pacific Northwest varietal produces aromas and flavor that fall somewhere between floral and earthy.
“Azacca is a really wonderful hop, especially paired with something herbal,” Humbard observes. “It’s not necessary the most aggressive hop, but I think in lighter beers with a floral component that it really adds to the feel and the aroma.”
MacDonald says Handsome Beer used “just enough” Azacca during the brew and dry-hopping. “It’s not intended to be a hoppy witbier,” he says. “It’s more about introducing a nice, clean flavor to the beer, coupled with the jasmine, which play off each other. It’s not like we’re trying to reinvent the style.”
Along those lines, there are a few relatively standard components of the witbier. It’s built on a grain bill of 2-row barely, malted wheat, and flaked wheat. There’s coriander in the mix as well, lending the beer its citrusy character. Breaking from recent tradition, however, there is neither orange peel nor black pepper (or something that might impart pepperiness, like Grains of Paradise).
“I don’t like black pepper in beer,” Humbard admits. “It’s a flavor that I’m really sensitive to.”
The brewer says the absence of that spicy character may cause some minor headaches in marketing the beer.
“You say it’s a witbier, and someone will say, ‘Well, it’s not spicy like a witbier,’” he tells me. “It’s like, ‘Well, witbiers don’t have to be spicy.’”
What a witbier does need is a lively yeast strain. As with saisons, it’s often the star of the show. In fact, Humbard used the same house blend of three saison yeast strains that he employs to brew Handsome Beer’s Galaxy Saison.
“I like this strain for beers that have a stronger aroma and lower bitterness,” the head brewer explains. “Some saison yeasts have a little bit of bubblegumminess to them, and I think that ester doesn’t play well with hops – I find it pretty off-putting. So, I selected three yeast strains that don’t produce that characteristic as much but still have a little bit of the classic, estery aroma that I affiliate with abbey beers or an old world saison.”
It isn’t the most neutral yeast strain, but it’s also not the most aggressive. It’s “middle of the road,” he shares, and it doesn’t overwhelm any of White Ale’s other flavors.
“If you pick a yeast that’s super aggressive and really let it rip, it’s pretty hard to control how much of that flavor you’re going to get and how it’s going to play well with other components,” he cautions.
And any sort of unbalance will immediately shine through with a witbier.
“It’s sort of a dangerous style, because there’s not a lot of places to hide,” Humbard says. “If you make a mistake in a witbier, it’s pretty transparent that there’s something wrong. With a big, imperial stout that’s been in a bourbon barrel with cocoa nibs and coffee beans, there can be almost any flavor in that beer and you wouldn’t be able to pick it out.”
Like the majority of Handsome Beer’s offerings to date, White Ale was brewed at Old Bust Head Brewing in Warrenton, Virginia. For the time being, that’s where they plan to continue brewing, though MacDonald is exploring two other options. The life of the “gypsy brewery” – and the significant reduction of overhead – looks great on paper, but it comes with its own set of logistical irritants.
“It’s tough because the pricing with this business model is really, really tricky,” MacDonald shares. “I think it was a little bit easier back in the day for guys like Stillwater to get in because they could charge much higher prices. We want to be able to sell our beer at a somewhat reasonable price so that at the end of the day, customer aren’t paying more than 8 or 9 bucks for a glass.”
Glasses of White Ale will begin popping up around DC and Maryland bars this week as the 25-barrel batch spreads through Handsome Beer’s distribution network. For the first time, the brewery will be sending the beer to market in half-barrel kegs. Deviating from its more usual sixtels will reduce the brewery’s profit margins some, but the larger containers makes life easier for beer gardens. (Now they won’t have to swap out sixtels every ten minutes.)
“We wanted this to be something that people are serving a lot of,” MacDonald explains. “We want it to be something sessionable.”
Handsome Beer also opted for simplicity in choosing its witbier’s moniker.
“It’s very clear, very obvious,” MacDonald says of White Ale. “We want all of our names to simple, straightforward, elegant. We’re not that fond of clever, tongue-in-cheek shit.”
After over a decade of working in restaurants, the Handsome Beer co-founder also knows that a cumbersome name can backfire on a brewery.
“The name has a huge effect on a beer’s sales,” he shares. “If people have modest difficulty pronouncing a name, they won’t order it.”
Like any brewery, Handsome Beer doesn’t want anything getting in the way of its beer and a potential customer.
But MacDonald also sees its White Ale as part of a larger contribution the the city.
“The way I think about brewing is: What would be really good for the city? If we want DC to be a really awesome beer city – and, beyond that, an awesome cultural city – what do we need to get there?” he tells me. “What we need is not more of the similar, traditional, regular stuff, but rather interesting takes on things. That’s not say to say we’re making the best witbier in the universe, but I think we’re saying, ‘Here’s an interesting take on this, and one of the reasons that DC is special is that we have stuff like this.’”
Photos courtesy of Handsome Beer.