With the arrival of winter, many people turn to dark, heavy beers—almost chewy in their rich, caramelly sweetness. I prefer to head in the other direction and look at this as the perfect time of year for something festive and bright to balance dark winter nights. Nothing does that better than a refreshing, lightly spiced white ale.

A white ale, also known as a Belgian witbier, is an unfiltered wheat beer that pours a cloudy golden color with a thick, white head. It’s flavored with orange peel and coriander, which provides a soft balance of citrus and herbal spice, sometimes accompanied by overtones of cloves and pepper provided by Belgian yeast strains. Hop bitterness is low, although some versions may have a little extra spiciness added by a hop variety called Saaz. Wits are medium-bodied, with the wheat providing a creamy mouthfeel, while a slight acidity adds a crisp finish. Wits have just enough sweetness to accompany the citrus and spice, but not so much as to make those flavors candylike. Most are lighter in alcohol, ranging from 4.5–5.5% ABV (alcohol by volume).

Photo by Rodney Margison

If you want to try a traditional Belgian witbier, look no further than Hoegaarden (WHO´-gar-den) Brewery from Belgium. Their witbier has a rich complexity of flavor that is hard to match. Bitter orange peel adds subtle citrus that is accentuated by the lemon-pepper flavor of coriander. The traditional Belgian yeast strain adds clear notes of clove (and some say a hint of banana), enough to complement but not overwhelm the other flavors. Despite its complexity, this is a refreshing beer with enough character to feel like you are treating yourself to something special. 

A newcomer to the witbier scene, New Belgium Brewing Company’s Fat Tire Belgian White, has impressed me with its smoothness and balance of flavors. It is a bit less spicy than the Belgian classics, perhaps because it uses American hop varieties and an American wheat beer yeast that lacks substantial clove flavors and aromas. It has a slight sweetness up front to support the citrus and spice flavors, but it fades to a smooth finish. This witbier doesn’t have the complexity of its Belgian cousins, but it’s one of the most satisfying beers I’ve had lately.

Getting even closer to home, Bloomington’s own Upland Brewing Co. offers a witbier in its Wheat Ale. This beer pours a honey-gold color with a solid white head. I find the citrus leans more toward lemon than orange, and the cloves and coriander are fairly subtle, letting the wheat character shine through. There’s some spiciness from the hops, with just a bit of hop bite at the end of the taste. With a slightly thicker body than some other witbiers, Upland’s offering is a nice balance of refreshing and substantial.

As the nights grow longer, I suggest you forgo the darker beers, pick up a witbier, and let its brightness of color, aroma, and flavor lift your spirits.