You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look
through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
(Song of Myself)
(4.2% American make from 330ml bottle) With a faithful reproduction of the Belgian Wit style, Philadelphia Brewing Company’s Walt Wit does have its own unique take upon the classic continental style. This a brewery that is proud of Philadelphia, proud to be brewing in Philadelphia, and proud to be a part of revitalising their local community in the Kensington section of the City of Brotherly Love. This is one of their four flagship beers, and was smuggled back with me from Philly to London on my last trip. Anything quoting Whitman has to be good right? Well, let’s see, shall we.
The beer pours with a thick white head that thins down but sustains itself through the sipping. This is situated atop a golden, straw coloured body with a consistent bubble and clear unfiltered sediment. Take one look at the bottle after you are done pouring to see the residual sugars left over after the secondary fermentation has run its course. On the nose you will pick up a slight citrus kick. When sipped, this beer is surprisingly not overly bubble. It has a mild citrus flavour owing to the grapefruit peel used in the brewing, and a mouth drying slightly tart flavour reminiscent of a Gueuze Lambic ale. There is also a slight spice to it but nothing over the top because besides the grapefruit, a bit of chamomile was used as well. Overall, not overly complex but well-played for a Belgian Style Wit bier.
The Wit is first and foremost a wheat beer. The malt components are usually a nearly even split of malted barley (2 row variety) and unmalted wheat. A small bit (5% give or take) will be composed of oats. The high level of protein from the malt gives the beer is characteristically hazy appearance. This is a style that predates the hopping of beers when different herbs or spices were used instead. The hops are added in order counter the malt sweetness with some bitterness, and in a witbier they are used sparingly, if at all. Here the minimal hops added were locally sourced from the Kensington Greensgrow Farms of Philadelphia. In the Belgian-style, there are a number of flavourings added. Traditionally this will include oranges of two types, one sweet and the other bitter. On top of this, coriander is usually added also to bring that distinct spicy taste which you associate with Belgian beers.
This beer is a solid representation of the style, as PBC use all three types of malts in their batch. The flavourings include not only orange peel but also grapefruit. I would assume this is done to give it the necessary tartness which otherwise is difficult to produce. For the spice, coriander and chamomile are added. The spicing can be a fairly complicated thing, and can include a number of other spices like pepper or cumin. Here the use of the two different citrus peels plus the spices bring about the well-balanced and well-recreated Belgian-style Wit.
You might ask what all that gunk at the bottom of the bottle is. Well, it’s the yeasts from the secondary fermentation along with some residual proteins which have settled to the bottom after chilling the bottle. This is a correction to what I had previously thought (thanks avid reader and beer professor SSchrader). Contrary to what I had thought, the sediment will probably not be fermentable sugars because they will have been consumed and converted to alcohol until the yeasts can’t take it anymore because of either the pressure or the level of alcohol in the bottle. It is actually quite bad to leave too much sugar in the bottle for fear of either the taste going off (acidic) or the bottle being vulnerable because of the significant pressure from the carbonation due to the CO2 created by the yeast (bottle bomb – boom baby boom).
The beer will have undergone its primary fermentation at the brewery. It is then bottled with some active yeasts which continue to act on the sugars present. This is a very common thing in traditional Belgian beers where at the end of the pour you see slightly thicker and seemingly off-coloured liquid coming out. When it hits the white foamy head, it leaves its trace.
This beer is unfiltered meaning that the existing yeasts which performed the primary fermentation were not filtered out after brewing. Believe it or not, but when you open a bottled beer, and it pours out crisp and clean with nothing floating around in it, that is no mistake. For the sake of cosmetics, yeasts are removed. In cask conditioned ales here in the UK, there are a variety of ways to make the yeasts settle during the fermentation process, for instance through the introduction of fish swim bladders. I have been on several brewery tours here, and have had the process explained. The fish swim bladder is put into the fermentation tanks, and as it floats down, it pulls the yeasts down with it, making it easier to remove. When the ale is then put in the cask (keg), some more swim bladder can be added, and if cellared correctly with the cask sat properly, the swim bladder will again congeal the yeasts to the bottom of the keg. No brewer has yet been able to explain to me where the idea to use a fish’s swim bladder comes from, but it works.
Why bottle condition? Well, for a few reasons. First, when yeasts strands are present in the bottle, they help add natural carbonation (CO2 released during the fermenting of sugars by the yeast). Sadly, some beers are artificially infused with gas to provide the carbonation (I’m looking at you, lager). Think about it this way: when you have an English IPA on cask it has an initial subtle head to it which dissipates after it is poured. This is because as it was pumped out of the cask the natural carbonation is released and a head is produced. Take now an American IPA, which is not on hand pulled cask, but rather from a gas pump. The carbonation in the beer is artificially added to give it that bubble. Personally, I prefer the natural cask conditioned ales to the artificially carbonated ones, but opinions differ.
Philadelphia Brewing Company began producing in 2008 after the owners Bill and Nancy split from the Yard’s Brewing Company. They operate in the Kensington section of Philadelphia on the premises of a brewery built in 1885 for Weisbrod & Hess. The Weisbrod & Hess company were brewing on-site up until Prohibition was ushered in with the eighteenth amendment in 1920 over President Wilson’s veto. After thirteen long years that saw the rapid growth of organised crime, the twenty-first amendment was passed and signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt. Weisbrod & Hess brewed until 1939 when they went out of business. Decades past and the Kensington area saw much of its former industrial production disappear, leaving the area impoverished. When PBC came into the neighbourhood things were looking grim, but they have fought long and hard to turn not only the area but its reputation around for the better.
Active members of their community, Nancy and Bill have helped in organising local events and prefer to look at their staff as extended family. They believe in their local community, and have partnered with a local growing scheme called Kensington’s Greengrow Farms. This is one amazing outfit, and an organisation worth supporting, because not only did they supply the hops used in the Walt Wit, but they also operate a brilliant community growing scheme, nursery, farmer’s market, and a nifty website filled with good recipes.
Walt Whitman was born on Long Island, NY in 1819, and is credited as being one of the most influential American poets. He worked throughout his life in various roles going back and forth between differnt journalism jobs in order to make ends meet. His seminal work, Leaves of Grass, was first published in 1855. He continued to work on this collection throughout his life, and completed it shortly before his death in 1892 while living in Camden, NJ. Living through most of the 19th c, Whitman bore witness to many important events in the expansion and formation of the US. This was a tumultuous period in American history with the culmination of decades of compromise and in-fighting over the expansion of slavery. Whitman volunteered as a field nurse during the American Civil War. He witnessed first-hand the carnage wrought when the Confederacy of the United States of America seceeded pitting neighbours and families against each other. The central issue was not only a human rights one, but that of a division of power and economic drivers between the industrial North and the agrarian South.
Whitman will remain an important figure within the canon of American poetry. He was able to transcend the contemporary understanding of nature and man, and elevate them to something worthy of poetry. As with painting for example during the Italian Renaissance, the human form was held up with the same regard as those creatures of divinity. His humanist views evoke powerful emotions and are a tribute to the senses.
I will close this entry with the ending of one of my favourite poems of his, Song of Myself, and again say cheers to something that matters.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you nevertheless,
And filter and fibre your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.