Trappist Beer – The Divine Brew
What does it mean: Trappist Beer and why does it start at six dollars a bottle (if you can get it at all)? After a bit of imbibed research and some hard sought questions in a few local European Beer Pubs, I’ve found out some interesting facts about what makes a Trappist Ale so special, and why they’re themselves worth the trip to the countryside Abbeys of Belgium (plus The Netherlands, Austria & yes, the USA). First, onto the monks themselves.
The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.: Ordo Cisterciensis Strictioris Observantiae), or Trappists (who get their name from the original La Trappe Abbey, named so for its isolation in a Normandy valley), are a contemplative Roman Catholic religious order, that follows the Rule of St. Benedict, summarized in the motto, ora et labora (“pray and work”). That work tends to be the production of bread, cheese and, some of the best beer the world has ever quaffed.
The rules and regulations of Trappist Beer as set down by the International Trappist Association (ITA) in 1997 state that the beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist abbey, by or under control of Trappist monks. The brewery, the choices of brewing, and the commercial orientations must obviously depend on the monastic community. The economic purpose of the brewery must be directed toward assistance and not toward financial profit. And the beer must be kickass.
There are currently 10 International Trappist Association recognized breweries that are allowed to have their products wear the Authentic Trappist Product logo:
- Brasserie de Rochefort – Belgium – 1595
- Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle – Belgium – 1836
- Brouwerij Westvleteren/St Sixtus – Belgium – 1838
- Bières de Chimay – Belgium – 1863
- Brasserie d’Orval – Belgium – 1931
- Brouwerij der Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis (Achel) – Belgium – 1998
- Brouwerij de Koningshoeven (La Trappe) – Netherlands – 1884
- Stift Engelszell – Austria – 2012
- St. Joseph’s Abbey – United States – 2013
- Brouwerij Abdij Maria Toevlucht – Netherlands – 2014
Why is Trappism so fitting for the brewing of premium beer?
In a word: Quality. Devoted to the Good Work as they are, the monks have long been the key to the survival of the analog ways of classic beer fermentation. The Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian beer purity law of the 15th century states that beer should only be made with barley, hops and water. The fact that yeast was unknown to the German brewers of the time notwithstanding, it was the peasants of Northwestern Europe (Belgium, France, Netherlands) who began to use distinctly un-beer-like ingredients to add flavor, such as citrus and herbs. to make Saisons and other beer, which remember, dear drinker, was once brewed in open vats, leaving the wind to germinate–and flavor–with whatever happened to fly by and drop in. For the Germans, who developed the bottom-fermenting lagern method of cellaring beer to keep it at a constant temperature (and ipso facto inadvertently gave birth to the modern Budweiser), this method of brewing was messy, undisciplined, unfathomable. So as much as we are dealing with the German certainty that comes with controlled chemical reactions, we are also left to waft in the Gallic wind as the Hand of the Almighty Brewer mixes his nectar for us–by way of the monks who protect his secret recipe–to slip behind the veil if only a wee bit to witness the golden ale light of the divine elixir. Chance or Divine Providence? Depends on your upbringing. Depends on your outlook. But enough flim-flam. On to the drink!
What is a typical Trappist Ale?
Many of these top-fermented ales are cap numbered (6, 8, 10, etc.) dating from the days before labels, when barrels were marked with one, two or three crosses, generally to denote strength, which translated into three simple categories: Enkel, Dubbel, Tripel. While the Enkel is not really brewed much anymore, some breweries offer more sessionable varieties of the stronger versions on tap at the brewpub. If you have never been to one of these abbeys, then all you may know of the Cistercian brewery is the Dubbel and the Tripel.
The origin of the dubbel bubbled forth from Westmalle in 1856. Hence Westmalle Dubbel is the benchmark and has been imitated by many other breweries worldwide, leading to the emergence of the Dubbel as a distinct style. Apart from the classic Westmalle, the Chimay Red, La Trappe Dubbel, Ommegang and New Belgium‘s Abbey Ale are delicious examples of a strong, dark dubbel.
Dubbels are a strong, dark ale (brown color comes from dark malts) with full flavor flavor and a robust body. And while not as overtly aromatic as one would first notice after pouring the molasses-hued ale into a snifter-like glass with a wide lip and taking the initial sip, swishing the more complex, caramel-textured flavors about one’s mouth, encountering an unexpected dry cereal crispness and fruity complexity, one’s interest is more than piqued. You long for a day reserved for solely for drinking down these dark candy sugared Dubbels while picnicking on apples and grapes and cheese and freshly baked bread in the pastoral sun of a Belgian lea surrounded by wildflowers and bubbly Belgique Belles Femmescooing haughtily into your warm ears. Pour another one sir, for though these bottle-fermented ales are slightly heavy, they go down smoother than panties on well-lotioned thighs.
There you are again, perusing the bottled multitudes at the the high-end organic co-op your wife props up with your paycheck. You’re eyeing a sixer of good microbrew to see you through yet another holiday party. You move to the last shelf and see the individual bottles and Flash! An Epiphany. Chimay Cinq Cents. You see the maple colored bottle and its straw label modestly boasting its diminutive “Tripel”. Triple what? Taste? Creamy Golden-ness? Despite the pale, straw colored ale, triple the strength. Not overly, but perfectly, hopped (Surprisingly, the monks use the American-grown Nugget hop), on opening (or decorking if you’ve got the 75cl bottle) an evanescent aroma reminiscent of a fresh harvest of hops just after a rainstorm issues forth. Send the relatives home, grab your glass and get thee to a comfortable chair. This strong pale brew, evanescent of fruity esters with just a touch of ephemeral bitterness washed away so quickly another sip is quite in order, deserves an audience. It needs a deep rich mahogany coffee table and a warm fire, and a finely-sweatered Northern European female by your side. Swirl. Take another sip. Swirl again. Then one more. Maybe that’s what the “Tripel” stands for. All sips come in threes. Though slow down, cowboy. This is made by monks. Trappist monks. Think Sloths. Slow but strong. They cruise relaxedly chuckling away to God while beer bubbles foam away on upper lips, these giddy brewmeisters, high on hops, fermented to high heaven, they take their time. As should you, mon frere. Letting the creamy head mellow and the rich amber settle, take another whiff and let the aromas pour over your skin, feel the soft bite of apples, sniff again and quickly now, take a deep drink, getting the head all over you as the color of caramelized happy liquid floats so smoothly down your throat. The strong crisp taste of raisins lingers so luxuriously on your tongue, on second (or third) thought, taking another sip too quickly is not recommended. Let it rest. Happy Holidays.
It is said that he first golden tripel was produced by the Three Lindens brewery, post-war, when, as famed Beer Hunter Michael Jackson says, “brewers of strong, top-fermenting beers were trying to compete with Pilsener-style lagers. When the Three Linden brewery closed, its product, under the name Witkap, was taken over by the Slaghmuylder brewery, at Ninove, west of Brussels.”
Yet it was, once again the Westmalle version that is considered to be the foundation of this beer style as well. Though striking from the label to the glass bin, Achel Blonde proves that those who drink Blondes do have more fun. I am having more fun than before I opened the bottle. One could only imagine what would ensue if this weren’t merely a bottle containing a beautifully crafted tripel brewed by an order of Belgian monks who’ve been chased out of their abbey time and again (first by the French revolution and then the nazis). The smallest of the Trappist breweries, the Achel freres began brewing again in 1998 and seemingly have never looked back. The proof is in the pour. Patience is the key word here, because it takes what must be referred to as a Belgian Minute in the Trappist lingua franca for the thick, creamy head to dissipate. Notable non-Trappist Tripels include Bosteels Tripel Karmeliet 8.4% ABV, Unibroue La Fin du Monde 9.0% ABV, St. Bernardus Tripel 8.0% ABV, Gouden Carolus Tripel 9.0% ABV, St Feuillien Triple 8.5% ABV, Ommegang Tripel Perfection 8.9% ABV, Boulevard Smokestack Series – Long Strange Tripel 9.2% ABV.
Like many of the Trappist (and non-Trappist) breweries of North-Western Europe, there are varieties offered solely within the confines of the brewery itself. Achel offers the lower ABV Blonde 5% and Brune 5% only on tap (and how delicious that must be–“Friar Tuck, pour me another!”), while the Achel Extra, 9.5% ABV Blonde is only available in the 75 cl bottle. The incentive being to get thee to the chapel.
While the overall style of Trappist brewing is one of strict observance of style and discipline within a world dominated by “beer” brewed with whatever ingredient (soy and corn) happens to most cheaply prevalent, there are a few breweries who don’t strictly follow the traditional enkel, dubbel, tripel format. That’s where the Quad comes in. Quadrupel is a new style loosely based on strong dark ales, well-spiced with notes of citrus and pepper and an ABV over 10%. Just over the Belgian border in the southern part of the Netherlands is the De Koningshoeven Brewery, best known as La Trappe, the most commercial of the Trappist breweries. They produce a Blond (6.5% ABV), a Dubbel (7% ABV), Tripel (8% ABV), a Witte (5.5% ABV), a seasonal Bockbier (7% ABV), and an organic brew named PUUR (4.7% ABV). The brewery also has become known for its La Trappe Quadrupel (10% ABV), following suit in terms of gradually stronger ABV than the dubbel or tripel, while retaining its overall drinkability, despite a boozy tinge of flatness that sets in about halfway point, a slight downer in an generally good drinking experience that could be eliminated with age.
It has been said that The Best Beer In The World is made at the Westvleteren Brewery in West Flanders, and is sold exclusively to individuals (who must promise before god not to resell) at the abbey store, who have called in advance. You probably have to do some push-ups as well. The Trappist Westvleteren 12 (Strong Belgian Dark Ale, 10.2° ABV), sells for 40 Euros per 24 bottles (plus 12 Euro bottle deposit). Quite a deal for locals, but tough for American Beer Enthusiasts to get a glass. The last of the major breweries to hold out to international distribution, the monks of St Sixtus also deem it perfectly acceptable to bottle their brews without labels. That must be some brew if they don’t feel the need to label it nor let most of the outside world purchase it. It goes back to a post-war accommodation between a local brewer who produced a similar yet noticeably different brew for distribution until the early 90s. When the deal ended so did Westvleteren desire to expand. When I went to Brugge several years ago, I was too young to drink anything but Stella Artois. I have not yet been back, but in one of his reviews, Michael Jackson says, “Beers of ‘triple’ strength are said to have been especially associated with the city of Bruges.” Good enough reason to book a return trip.
Moving east through the Ardennes toward Luxembourg it is beer-growing country. Take the locally plentiful crops of barley, hops and wheat, add the monks of Abbey Our Lady of St Rémy and you get the heady brews of Rochefort. Upon opening a lanky brown bottle of Rochefort 10 (blue cap, 11.3% ABV), a dark and immediate bouquet grabs one’s olfactory senses and takes one back to the days of Saint Rémy. Before then even, the Abbey was founded in 1230, and the monks began to brew beer sometime around 1595. Survivors of local invasions, greedy plunderers, monastic and social revolutions–and yes, the nazis–the motto Curvata Resurgo (Curved, I straighten up), which illustrate the three theological virtues: the palm tree (faith), the star (hope), and the rose (charity), does well to demonstrate the resolve of these Trappists in their dedication to beer brewing as the lord’s calling. But don’t go expecting to have a revelatory experience at the tap, because they only bottle to go.
The more pagan aspects of my mind imagines skinny dipping with sirens in vast natural hot springs of strong malt surrounded by oak-boasting mistletoe with wild almonds growing poolside and you have an inkling of how smoothly the 11.3% alcohol volume slides you into a medieval reverie. There you are cavorting like a drunken cherub in the smooth leather-colored waters when you get the urge to dive, to sink down deep into beery abyss and chase the roots of malted hop eddies unseen. You drain your glass and the silt of more than 400 years of utopian brewing ideals sinks into your tongue, penetrating deeper than mere mortal taste buds allow.
Of the Trappist breweries, the monks of the Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval are perhaps the most independent, producing only two beers: Orval and Petite Orval (a light 3.2% ABV brew mostly for their own consumption). So they make one beer, fermented with Brettanomyces lambicus, which produces the yeasty and spicily aromatic Orval Belgian Pale Ale, 6.2% ABV. The bottle, though nicely shaped, is uneventful considering its boastful Trappist brethren. But then Orval is not the average Trappist beer, if indeed there could be one described as “average”. It has a smoother, more refined, decidedly English air about its orange caramel body, easily observed as early as the pour. This beer is not malt heavy, though does contain pale barley malt. Rather Orval depends more on two stages of hops: an initial dry-hopping as well as the various Hallertau, Styrian Goldings and French Strisselspalt hops. The first taste, a tinge on the bitter side, rather leathery and unfruity, seems overly yeasty and a bit disappointing. Midway through the beer, still nonplussed, I begin to picture the hard-working monks in their habits and their haircuts, toiling away all these hundreds of years. I consider the fact that there are a mere ten Trappist breweries worldwide and that Orval is exported to the four corners of the globe. Maybe it’s just a bad bottle…? As I ponder not so much why I dislike Orval as opposed to why it’s merely not up to par with its Trappist roots, something happens. The beer shifts and the heretofore untasted bounty of flavors begins to show its Belgian blood. Compelled to continue to the last hop-rich gulp, the last few sips are reminiscent of a crescendo, and a strange buzzing of sorts, an aria if you will, arises upon draining the glass, dissipating only as the eager candy-colored liquid works it way molasses-like down my throat. Orval is an opera. It needs to develop and can stand up well to cellaring. Give it the temperament it deserves.
Having yet the honor to taste anything brewed in Austria’s Stift Engelszell, Massachusett’s St. Joseph’s Abbey, or the Dutch Brouwerij Abdij Maria Toevlucht, no comment will be made here as to the quality of their brew, save for one: Should it be prophesied that these strong ales are destined for a chance in a chalice to dance across my lips, to alight upon the taste buds of my tongue and down into the darkened regions of my belly to enlighten my body and mind to their delicate and divine mysteries, I would be a willing initiate.