Witbier with spruce and grains of paradise - Brain Sparging on Brewing


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June 10, 2022

Witbier with spruce and grains of paradise

Belgian witbier is an underrepresented beer style on this blog and in craft beer in general. It is one of the few Belgian beer styles I've never brewed despite being one of my favorite beer styles to drink. There is a lot of overlap between the many low ABV saisons I like to brew (and drink) and witbier that have pushed witbier to the side in my brewing. Nevertheless, I drink a lot of it. Here in Colorado I am spoiled to have easy access to Funkwerks White which is an early beer from the brewery discontinued and brought into regular production again. I also Senior Discount by Funkwerks's sister brewery in Fort Collins, Jessup Farms. While witbiers can often feel overly sweet and heavy handed with orange flavors, these two do a great job of capturing the flavor with phenolic undertones and a slight acidity that livens the spicing. 

Witbiers also often suffer from a needless lack of diversity. Too often witbiers, especially in the US, brew up the same citrus peel and coriander with minimal yeast character and a doughy feel. Undoubtedly Hoegaarden and its heir Celis White taught the world that meaning of witbier; however, the style has quietly taken on other flavors such as Blanche de Bruxelles's chamomile, thai lime leaves, or rosemary. Witbier can hold up to flavors beyond citrus from spicing and pepper from yeast to create interesting but approachable flavor combinations. Still, we don't want witbier to suffer early 2010s saison's unfortunate years as a dumping ground for every spice and herb a brewer could find and added with the heaviest of hands. Spicing in witbier should be restrained but gently present. Whether spicing must follow Hoegaarden's lead of citrus character is debatable--certainly if we acknowledge white beer in Belgium has a history broader than Hoegaarden. (That's a subject for another post...) 

Designing a witbier recipe with spruce two ways and grains of paradise

The witbier recipe that follows plays homage to Hoegaarden's citrus lead but with a definitive departure. My inspiration for this beer is somewhat utilitarian. I need to trim the small spruce tree in my garden and while I had intended to brew this beer in spring to add spruce tips my other house projects got in the way. Spruce is such a great ingredient in beer and food that I would feel terrible about trimming the tree and not making the most out of the opportunity. The spruce branches (removed of their tips) will go into the mash where the hot liquor will extract essential oils and bring the spruce flavor into the beer. I took the idea for this addition from various raw ale recipes using juniper teas and sahti specifically which use juniper branches as a mash filter. I'll then add a small amount of spruce to the end of the boil.  

Paired with the spruce will be a moderate addition of grains of paradise to help round out the beer. Grains of paradise is a wonderful spice mostly relegated to brewing and sausage-making. It is like a mix of pink peppercorn, cardamom and a woodsy note that reminds me of Nugget hops. These flavors will compliment the evergreen flavors from the spruce on one hand and the pepper and fruit from the witbier yeast strain. I am a fan of using ingredients that glue together other attributes in the beer into a cohesive flavor profile in this manner. I find it balances the flavors and avoids clashing two many disparate ingredients together.

Underneath all this spicing is a basic witbier recipe. The grain bill is a classic combination of pilsner malt, unmalted wheat and oats. A small charge of bittering hops gives the beer necessary bitterness. For yeast I opted to stick to a classic with the Hoegaarden strain (WY3944) but from local Colorado yeast lab Propagate which sells the strain as 232 Belgian Witbier II. This strain provides the archetypical peppery phenolics and mild fruity esters of the style. For water I've opted for a balanced mineral profile with an acid addition to help move the final product towards a slight acidity that will help brighten and distinguish the flavors in the beer. 

Witbier recipe with spruce and grains of paradise

Batch Size: 3 gallon       
Est. ABV: 4.6%       
Est. IBU 21       
Est. OG: 1.0546       
Est. FG: 1.014       
Est. SRM: 3.5       
Expected Efficiency: 72%       
Grain BillPounds Ounces SRM Pct. Grist
Pilsner malt2 12 2 50.00%
Unmalted red wheat2 0 3 36.00%
Malted white wheat  6 2 7.00%
Unmalted oats  6 1 7.00%
Spruce branches    0  
Water Profileppm      
Bru'n Water Yellow Balanced (modified)       
PH: 5.3       
Water Additions    Mash Sparge
Gypsum    .6g .8g
Epsom Salt    .6g .7g
Canning Salt    .1g .1g
Baking Soda       
Calcium Chloride    .8g 1.0g
Pickling Lime       
Lactic Acid    1ml  
Mash ScheduleStep Temp.   Step Time  
Single Infusion Batch Sparge       
Mash volume: 7.9 qt       
Sparge volume: 2.6 gal       
Infuse 7.9 qt at 170F156   75  
Sparge 2.6 gal at 180F180      
Boil ScheduleVolume Unit Time IBU
60 minute boil       
First Gold [7.5%]0.4 oz 60 21
Grains of Paradise2 g 15  
Spruce branch0.36 oz 15  
Fermentation Schedule# Days Temp.    
Yeast: Imperial B44 Whiteout       
Starter: NA       
Pitch at 63F2 63    
Free rise to 73F21 73    
Package at 2.3 vol with 2oz sugar30 ambient   

Brewday and Fermentation Notes

Brewed on 6.20.21.

Preboil gravity: 1.036
Preboil volume: 4 gal
Mash efficiency: 72%

Postboil gravity: 1.044
Postboil volume: 3.2 gal
Brewhouse efficiency: 70%

The mash ran a low on efficiency but this is to be expected with a significant amount of wheat when not conducting a cereal mash. The brewhouse efficiency similarly reflects a low mash efficiency. 

The wort has a unique flavor. The spruce is definitely the dominate character but not oppressive. The grains of paradise comes through just a little with black pepper and cardamom. 

The wort left the kettle for the fermentation vessel at approximately 76F and into the fermentation chamber set to 66F. I pitched a full pack of Imperial B44 Whiteout yeast and let the yeast get to know spruce. After twenty hours the beer was aggressively fermenting away so I dialed up the temperature to 72F to free rise to the upper limit of the yeast's temperature preferences. 

Tasting Notes

Appearance: Beer pours between light yellow and off white, sort of an egg white color. (The photo is considerably darker than the beer.) It is expectedly hazy. Fluffy white head lingers with a rocky top. Good lacing as the beer goes down. 

Aroma: Spruce, herb salad, banana, freshly baked bread, rose, sweet orange, white pepper, cardamom. Definitely spruce forward. 

Flavor: Flavor closely matches the aroma. Spruce is the dominant flavor in the beer. It is bready under the spruce. There is a touch of acidity in the finish that lifts the beer and gives it a lingering taste of rose, sweet orange, white pepper and cardamom. Subtle banana extends throughout. 

Mouthfeel: The witbier has a full body that is silky and almost oily. It is smooth until the pop of acid where the beer briefly feels sharp and then mellows out. The aftertaste feels a touch oily. 

Overall: It's worth pointing out that these tasting notes are from 6.10.22 which is almost a year after I brewed this beer. Early on the spruce was so aggressive getting through a 12oz bottle felt like a choice after the first half. I left the bottles alone for a while and I've started getting into them again in the past three or so months. 

Obviously this was too much spruce but as the beer mellowed out it has become a solid beer. It is still very spruce forward almost to the point of being too aggressive. Still not a beer I would burn through over and over in one sitting but a really interesting experience. In addition to reducing the amount of spruce I would also let the mash ph go higher so it has a little less acidity in the back end. The acidity kinda works here to clear out some of the oiliness in the aftertaste and cuts the spruce but with less spruce it would probably be an unenjoyable addition to the experience.

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