White Bread in a Glass

Oyster-friendly wines: So passé. What you really want for your Kumamotos is witbier.

February (with an R) is the time of year when the obligatory wine-with-oysters articles emerge. Maybe it's because I grew up on the inferior bivalves east of the Mississippi, but when I make a date with oysters, I always want beer—wheat beer, to be precise, and lots of it. Technically, "wheat beer" describes any beer made with a good deal of wheat. I'm talking about a certain kind of wheat beer that hides under a fluffy white head. Witbier, white beer, witte, weizen, bière blanche, und so on und so forth, all refer to a style of brew tied to sunshine and summertime. But I know of no better combo with wintertime Kusshi oysters from Cortes Island, B.C., than a lightly citrus-scented, slightly cloudy white beer. An old recipe, going back to the Middle Ages, white beers traditionally use little, if any, hops and are at least partly filtered, unlike the entirely unfiltered German hefeweizen, which has a denser taste. White beers also differ from hefeweizen in the predominant use of unmalted wheat and a distinct mixture of herbs and spices, called gruut, which originally substituted for hops as a preservative. Coriander and bitter orange head the list of characteristic gruut ingredients and give the beer a sweet edge in aroma and flavor. The gruut, as well as a little yeast schmutz, contribute to the beer's soft, zesty flavors. White beers get along with oysters because they are devoid of a hoppy bite that would overwhelm the oyster's unique liquor. Their light aroma and their sweet-sour dynamic complement a sweet oyster like a Kusshi or a Kumamoto and contrast with the briny notes of some of Hood Canal's oysters, such as Quilcenes. What to chug when you shuck: Hoegaarden Witbier/Bière Blanche ($1.50 for 12 ounces): Beer snobs be damned, this light beer is easy to love. Its orange flavor is turned down low, and the coriander seed almost hints at candy. The finish has a little bit of a tang, like sourdough. Ommegang Witte ($6 for 750 milliliters): This Coopertown, N.Y., brewery is dedicated to Belgian-style brews. Ommegang's white beer has a sharper smell than its Belgian predecessors, and its coriander comes across as toasty, almost peppery. It stands up to the most pungent oysters. If you can find it, St. Bernardus Witbier ($3.50 for 11.2 ounces) tastes richer than Hoegaarden, has a little more spice, and feels a bit thicker, with a slight burnt-sugar smell typical of darker Belgian beers. It hangs on your tongue a bit, just like oyster liquor. Bonus: The St. Bernardus makes a great impromptu mignonette if you smash some frozen berries into it. food@seattleweekly.com

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