Sunday 26 February 2012

The Monks, The Monasteries & The Nectar Of The Gods!

"I'm not French! I'm Belgian" says the funny looking man with the trimmed mustache, and skips along with his cane, leaving Hastings behind looking stupid as always. Though the Trappist monasteries originated in France, it is the beer producing monks in Belgium and Holland that have brought fame and glory to the name, not to mention a tremendous respect from beer lovers from all across the world. Like the travels of Tin Tin and the imagination of Georges Remi, the Belgian Trappist style, and other Belgian beer styles like Blonde, Saison or Lambic, have traveled the world, sowing seeds of inspiration and admiration amongst professionals and home brewers. In this post I'll mostly talk about the Trappist breweries in Belgium, but I'll cover some of the other stuff as well, enjoy!

There are a total of 174 Trappist monasteries worldwide. Only seven (Six in Belgium, one in the Netherlands.) produce Trappist beer and are authorized to label their beers with the "Authentic Trappist Product" logo that indicates a compliance to the various rules of the "International Trappist Association". They are: Westmalle, Rochefort, Chimay, Achel, Westvleteren, De Koningshoeven & Orval. One can argue high and low about complex Imperial Stouts, amazing hoppy IPA's and super high ABV beers that steal the spotlight these days, but you will always circle the beer wagons a couple of times before you end up in Belgium eventually. To this day after tasting between 2.000-3.000 different craft beers from all over the world, tap, bottle and can, I have yet to taste a replica of a Westmalle Dubbel, or an Achel Extra Brune that covers the complexity and combination of malts, light hops and the amazing Belgian yeast strains, which makes these dubbels and tripels amongst the most enjoyable drinks one can imagine. Where the Americans have copied and reinvented the English styles by hopping the hell out of them, "less is more" is ruled out when it comes to the American breweries, the main focus in a Trappist brew is usually the malt profile and the yeast strain. But what are dubbels & tripels you ask? I'll give you a little introduction to these fab beer styles.

Hey, try some of these...

Trappist breweries, and the limited range of beer styles they make, are ranged as being the best beers in the world. I happened to agree, and here's why;

A Dubbel, or a Brune if you like, is a fairly strong (6-8% ABV) Brown Ale, with understated bitterness, fairly heavy body, and a pronounced fruitiness and cereal character. They are very malty in flavor, even more that the English brown ales, and very sweet with hints of dried fruit, especially raisins and prunes. A typical definition to these beers is "liquid bred", a term that monks used for beer back when it was seen as a necessity to brew in order to feed people, (Yeah!) and as a tool in order to get closer to God. Not to be forgotten to survive the fasting of Lent which lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, no small challenge, so it was important the beer was nutritional and included everything needed to sustain the human body through this time.

Tripel is a name to describe the strongest beer in their range produced by the Trappist monasteries. Tripels as a style are generally beers with an alcohol content ranging from 8-10% ABV and are golden strong Pale Ales. They are often dry, spicy and gives aromas of banana, pineapple and pears. (Aromas that in other beer styles indicates contamination of some sort during the fermentation state.)

There is also the Patersbier (Father's beer) that is only available within the monastery. This beer does not designate a style as such, but is usually just a weaker version of one of the "commercial" beers they have, and is usually just drunk by the monks on festive occasions. The monks at Chimay drink Patersbier to every meal. How much they drink is a matter of individual choice!

The last style that some brew is the Blonde style, which is a Pale Ale only weaker in ABV. The first La Trapp from De Koningshoeven was a Blonde, and they have later introduced a Quadrupel, being stronger that their Tripel. Many Abbey breweries (Commercial breweries not run by any monasteries, but have a monastery look and taste to them.) have adopted the Blonde style. They also make Brune, which is their version of Dubbel. (Trappist Brewery Achel call theirs Bruine, it’s O.K. to be confused.)

Our daily bread: Sharing is caring!

How about some of my favorite styles from some of my favorite "monk-mates":

The Trappist Abbey in Westmalle was founded 6 June 1794, but was not elevated to this rank until the 22nd of April 1836. The first beer was brewed on the 1st of August 1836 and first imbibed on the 10th of December 1836. This beer was described as light in alcohol and rather sweet. By 1856 the monks had added a second beer, the first strong brown beer. This brown beer is today considered the first Dubbel. The current Dubbel is derived from a recipe first brewed in 1926, and is my favorite Trappist brew, and I rank it as one of the best beers I've ever tasted. Westmalle Dubbel is very very malty with a rich body. Freshly baked bread in liquid form, giving a nice head. (Laugh!) It is dark brown/ruby in color, heavyly carbonated, and releases some awesome aromas when first poured into a glass, (Preferably a sniffer or tulip) giving away its obvious Belgian characteristics. Hints of yeast, caramelized sugar, raisins/prunes and apples/pears.

Another amazing brewery that recently came out of celibacy is the fantastic Achel, the smallest of the seven Trappist breweries. The Achel Brewery has a special location and is actually located in 2 countries. While the gardens are nearly completely in The Netherlands, the buildings of the Abbey are over the border, in Belgium. Twice has the monastery been destroyed, once during the French revolution, and the second time during the first World War. With help from Westmalle and Rochefort they rebuild it, but they did not start brewing again until 1998. They make some amazing brews, but two can only be drunk from tap in the brewery, and the Extra 9,5% ABV Blonde (75cl bottles only) is only available directly from the monastery.

So what is the difference between Trappist beer and Abbey beer?

"The designation "Abbey beers" was originally used for any monastic or monastic-style beer. After introduction of an official Trappist beer designation by the "International Trappist Association" in 1997, it came to mean products similar in style or presentation to monastic beers", as Wikipedia so nicely puts it. There is even a "Certified Belgian Abbey" beer logo, like the "Trappist Association" has, that indicate beers brewed under license to an existing or abandoned abbey. The requirements for registration under the logo include the monastery having control over certain aspects of the commercial operation, and a proportion of profits going to the Abbey or its designated charities. There are also other Abbey-branded beers which are marketed using other implied religious connections, such as a local saint, that are not connected to any of the above organizations and are purely commercial. Amongst these you will find brands that are owned by the biggest sharks in the business, who's name will not be mentioned here…

But why so fond of the monastery blues you say?

Well, let's go back a few years to when my beer drinking days took a turn for the better. I used to be a huge whisky fan, and still am. Some of my favorite whiskies are smoked, cask strength whiskies, mainly from The isle of Islay. This was when I was still drinking cheap lagers by the buckets. (Beer-bongs anyone?) Then I discovered English ales like Spitfire and Hobgoblin, and things started to happen. I quickly discovered the American brewing maniacs from Stone Brewing, and after drinking the Stone IPA, not to mention the Ruination IPA, I was hooked, and needed my weekly hopfix. I was now a full time hop junky, devouring everything of interest I could get my hands on. For some years the beers I drank got hoppier and more complex, moving over to Barley Wines and Imperial Stouts aged in old socks and your mother's baggy panties or something like that. But still I had a hard time feeling the Belgian. I tried "La Trap" a few times, but I felt like i was drinking vomit every time, and that's the way things stayed for a very long time. Not until Haffy suddenly showed up with a bag of Belgian Strong Ales and told me; "I've settled my score with the Belgians, and the Belgians won", I didn't believe him off course, so we had a real Belgian showdown, and guess what; The Belgians hasn't got a sitting parliament, they are practically not even a real country! (I made that up!) They make cheese and chocolate and hate each other! (Flanders vs. Wallonia) But they make some awesome beers, they make some really, really awesome beers! And they are so different from most brews out there. And now I love Lambic and Abbey beers, I crave for Wit or a nice Saison on a rainy summers day, I hunger for more banana flavor in my beer, a flavor most brewers fear like the black plague, but not the Belgians. Go Belgians go! I hope you guys finally get a break soon, and start drinking beer together instead of beating each other in the head with a French stick.

Hmmmm, what to think of this!

But back to basics:

As I told you earlier, the malt and the unique Belgian yeast strains together create something amazing. And naturally this means that I have to talk a little bit about the different strains of yeasts that is not only used in Trappist beers, but I feel I have to mention some that are used in other styles also, like the seasonal Saison or the wild and crazy Lambic.

Yeast is everywhere, and in many forms, and some are good for baking, and some are good for beer or wine, and it's depending on what byproducts the yeast produces that decides in which type of product it is most suited. Brettanomyces Bruxellensis and B. Lambicus are two key yeast strains used for Lambic beer which is left exposed to the open air so that fermentation may occur spontaneously. While this exposure is a critical feature of the style, many of the key yeasts and bacteria are now understood to reside within the brewery and its fermenting vessels in numbers far greater than any delivered by the breeze. It is this unusual process which gives the beer its distinctive flavour: Dry, vinous, and cidery, usually with a sour aftertaste.

On some of the darker beers, like Brown Ales, Dubbels or Strong Ales the recommended yeast strains produces moderate esters and spicy phenolic character resulting in a dry but balanced finish, or are you going for a harvest ale, like a Saison, you might want to use a yeast that gives complex, fruity aromas and spicy, earthy, and clove like flavor. Maybe you'll prefer some "Abbey Ale" with a distinctive plum and fruitiness to the taste? You figure it out.

Many breweries around the world make Belgian style beers, and lately a blend of "California" style IPA's and Belgian beer has emerged. Here you get a classic Pale Ale, but using a Belgian yeast strain, or combined with one or more strains, and hopping the hell out of it with bitter citrusy hops resulting in a very fruity and spicy ale with lots of bittering hops and hop aroma, what an awesome combination. A good example of this is the new "Indian Saison" from "Nøgne Ø" in Norway and "Bridge Road" from Australia. A very hoppy, crisp and refreshing beer with moderate hay malt, sour citrus and yeast aroma. Something to really enjoy in the springtime while watching your wife paint the house…

Another example of this type of blend is the Cali-Belgique (Cali-Belgium) from mighty Stone Brewing in San Diego. Here they have taken the classic Stone IPA and just added a Belgian yeast strain. Pine, floral and tropical fruit hop character with that great Belgian bananarama thing going on in the back. It’s pure gold in a sniffer if you may. Greet Zuksess! Got to go visit them Stone(d) dudes sometime soon.

And here is the main difference between the American craft breweries, and the "old school" way of brewing in Belgium, which haven't changed much lately. As Tomme Arthur from Port Brewing/Lost Abbey says in an interview given to "Brew Your Own Magazine";

"I believe that American brewers are very much at the forefront of inspiring a world of drinkers. One of the biggest challenges that brewers with as much history as the Belgians have behind them is that they often can’t focus on innovation. American brewers are not bound by much at this very moment. As such, there are incredible liberties and chances being taken."

Things tend to stay the same, as with the real ales of Britain, and the Bayer's of Bavaria, not to mention the Weissbiers of Germany. But things are also happening in this old bastion of harvest ale. Some breweries are starting to hop their beers more, and as a response to the Belgian IPA's you get in the great land beyond the pond, you get Belgian ales, hopped like an IPA.

But as Peter Bouckaert from New Belgian Brewing Co. says it;

"The problem is that most "Belgian" beer claims really are not Belgian, they are American. We just got into the habit of calling funky, sour or high alcohol beers Belgian. That is not what Belgian beer is; this is what American brewing thinks Belgian is. The US brewing world has evolved so far that it should stop referring to the old world."

Stick your thumb in that! 

Belgium: Watch out for these guys!

Even though I have yet to visit Belgium, I'll find my way eventually, me and Haffy will sometime during 2012 get in the van and cruise down south for another Viking raid. Since we have conquered Aberdeen, New York, Copenhagen, Grimstad and Nærbø in 2011, it will be only fair to sail into the port of Antwerp with our pirate flag high in the mast, ready to destroy any monastery in sight, or at least drink some of their beers and bow in homage and respect!

2012 looks good for now, and we'll certainly be here, so subscribe to the blog and keep drinking those awesome Belgian ales. You only have about 178 awesome breweries, go drink your way through.

This is First Officer Kjetil aka Bongo signing off for the first time.

Cheers, or as the Belgians say; "A votre sante" or "Op uw gezondheid"!


  1. Bra artikkel! Min vei til skikkelig øl var nesten helt motsatt. En blå Chimay vekket min interesse for belgisk øl. Så var det engelsk øl, særlig porter og stout. Så litt belgisk surøl, og så fant jeg fram til imperial stout. Etter gikk det i alt det sto imperial på. IPA-er har jeg alltid syntes var for beske og kvalme før nå de siste to år hvor de sakte men sikkert har vokst seg innpå meg sammen med en ny interesse for lambic, flanders og annet syrlig øl.

    Tror det er lurt å være flere som skriver på en blogg. Kan nok fort bli mye strev å holde en blogg levende alene.

  2. Ja, det stemmer det, blir mye rykk og napp og vi har ikke en sånn terningskast-blogg! Neste artikkel kommer om ikke lenge, så stay tuned, subscribe og del og sånn! Neste artikkel blir en kombinert lese-blogg og video-blogg med intervju av Mike Murphy fra Lervig!

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