Beer Guide - Abbey And Belgian Beers

An Introduction To Abbey And Belgian Beers

Beer Picture

Belgian boasts a curious bond between beer and religion. Germany have a few monasteries turning out beers, but in Belgium there are hundreds of beers available that are either made by monks, based on old religious recipes or just take the name of an order to brand a brewers take on the style. There are seven monasteries where the monks brew on site - Achel, Chimay, Koningshoeven La Trappe, Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren - these are called Trappist Beers and include a Dutch monastery as well. Those made by commercial brewers who are just using a monasteries name are called Abbey Ales. You might think that the Trappist beers are made using age-old techniques with equipment that looks more like a museum piece. The truth is that the monks use modern equipment and the technology they have at their disposal would make many other brewers green with envy.

The primary abbey styles in are the dark Dubbels, the strong blonde Tripels and the absurdly strong dark Quadrupels. The idea of monks wanting to brew beers of skull splitting strength may seem odd, however the monks themselves usually drink lighter table beers. The Trappist Beers are usually available in specialist beer stores and Belgian bars. The Chimay beers are the most widely available and give a good idea of the styles. The most popular Abbey Ales are Leffe, which most supermarkets stock. The Maredsous range is slightly harder to find but beats many of the beers that are actually made by monks. These days you will find beers in the Trappist style being brewed all over the world - the majority of these make no pretence of having any link with them upstairs.

Belgian also boasts a wide range of Flemish Red and Sour Ales such as the Rodenbach beers which are usually aged in oak barrels and feel like lambics with dry cherry flavours. Finally categorisation dictates that the myriad of other styles concocted by the endlessly experimental Belgian brewers are grouped together and referred to as Belgian Ales. This includes the lighter strength Abbey Ale.

Belgian Ale

Beer Picture

The trappist beer Orval is the place to start when looking at ordinary or lighter Belgian ales and the heap of contradictions that name entails. First off, at 6% abv it isn't very light at all - the monks drink a watered down version. Secondly it is in no way ordinary with flavours of opal fruits, apples, bananas and bubblegum alongside it's bitter malty foundation. The skittle shaped bottle and chalice glass it is presented in are also far too attractive to be called ordinary. Finally, unlike the lager marketing folk who tell us that "fresh beer tastes better" - Orval tastes better if it has been left somewhere cool for a year before consumption. Some bars will even list the aged Orval seperately on their beer menus.

If you are a newcomer to Belgian beer, and are the kind of person who prefers to dip a sensitive toe into uncharted waters rather than take a swan dive, then Orval might prove a bit too much. Less challenging fare is supplied by major brewers InBev and Moortgat in the shape of their competing Leffe Blonde and Maredsous 6 Abbey ales. The Leffe has a confident mix of fruit and coriander whilst the Maredsous does a similar thing, but a creamy subtlety. You'll find an even better take on the same idea just over the Dutch border with the lively La Trappe Blonde. The Wesvleteren Blonde takes a different approach that avoids spices and has a strong hoppiness which is unusual for the style.

With Belgian beer styles catching on around the world there is a danger of uninspired "me too" beers clogging up the market - bland beers that are an express lane to drunkenness - however the classics are holding firm and there is still room for exceptional new beers to fight their way through – wherever they are brewed.

Five To Try -
1. Orval
2. Thiriez Blonde du Esquelbeck
3. Koningshoeven La Trappe Blonde
4. Witkap Pater Stimulo
5. Lancelot Duchesse Anne

Abbey Dubbel

Beer Picture

Abbey dubbels are dark, malty ales that get their name from being twice as strong as regular beers - clocking in at 7 or 8%. The original Dubbel was made by the Westmalle monastery and has a gentle mix of stewed fruits and spices with a heavy, creamy mouthfeel. The beer is generally found in bottles, however you should look out for Belgian bars that have it on tap. This seems to give the beer an extra vibrancy. Most of the trappist beers stick to this formula with varying amounts of spice and yeast in the flavour. The Rochefort 8 and Westvleteren 8 adds bitter coffee and liquorice making a more intense brew.

On the secular side the Maredsous 8 plays up the fruitiness of the beer and is one of the finest Dubbels around. Elsewhere the Dupont Moinette Brune has a caramel sweetness to it, the St Bernardus Grottenbier has a surprisingly heavy dash of coriander, Grimbergen Dubbel has a twist of orange and the Ciney Cuvee Brune has a port like edge. Dubbels will always deliver a dark fruitiness, but you may find a few surprises too.

You will also find Dubbels in surprising places. In the South island of New Zealand there is a town founded by Scottish Presbyterians. In the winter of 2010 the local microbrewery produced a superb beer called Dubbel Happy that had an explosion of white chocolate, all spice, nuts and liquorice. It had incredible depth of flavour yet was balanced and easily drinkable. It was also produced as a limited run which the brewery has no plans to repeat, though they are trying out some other abbey style ales. You'll find these one off brews all around the world – American brewers especially seem to have got the knack - and they are well worth taking a punt on.

Five To Try -
1. Westmalle Dubbel
2. Westvleteren 8
3. Moortgat Maredsous 8 Bruin
4. Rochefort 6
5. Dupont Moinette Brune

Abbey Tripel

Beer Picture

The monks at Westmalle are also the architects of the archetypal Tripel. These are pale coloured beers that are around 9% abv and have an unashamed alcoholic malty flavour. The Westmalle tripel has a deep bitterness and retains the creaminess of their Dubbel. The Tripel from the monks at Achel has a fruit edge that is reminiscent of foamy banana sweets with a hint of lemon. This banana flavour crops up in many Tripels. Chimay go the other direction by upping the spiciness and having a heavy mouthfeel akin to a wheat beer. These three beers deliver the range of flavours you will find in different Tripels. The La Trappe Tripel has aspects of all three.

One of the most famous secular Tripels is Tripel Karmeleit by the Bosteels brewery. It is made with six types of grain including oats, wheat and barley. The beer feels thick and heavy at first, with subtle herbal, malt and banana flavours. However the gassiness and alcoholic make it feel lighter and invigorating. The Reinaert Tripel is similarly potent but feels almost buttery with caramel malt flavours. The Leffe Tripel is blends the spicy flavours of it's siblings with the classic fruity flavour you expect of a Tripel.

French brewers seem particularly keen, and very adept, at making Tripels. Sant Erwann from Brittany is a floral wonder with a rose and lychee aroma and a light biscuit malt taste. The Mor Braz brewery uses sea water in their beers and the Ambree that they produce is a Tripel with a salty edge that goes well with the classic maltiness.

Five To Try -
1. Koningshoeven La Trappe Tripel
2. De Proef Reinaert Tripel
3. Mor Braz
4. Bosteels Tripel Karamelit
5. Bretagne Sant Erwann

Abt And Quadrupel

Beer Picture

Quadruples are the bruisers of the abbey ale world. They are the late night fireside brew, the after dinner cigar, the single malt of the beer world. They are dark ales that are over 10% abv. The most celebrated is the Westvleteren 12, a beautifully balanced mix of coffee, fruit and spice that is covered in depth elsewhere in this book. The more easily obtainable St Bernardus 12 will take care of business if you can't make the trip to the Sint Sixtus abbey. Despite their names, the Rochefort 10 is stronger than either of the 12s. The Rochefort is a porter style ale with a potent roasted malt flavour and an alcoholic finish.

The Chimay Blue is the most widely available of the Trappist quadruples. It has a dark yeasty, fruity flavour where the gassiness balances the heavy flavours. The other two Chimay beers are available in 33cl and 75cl bottles. The Blue, also known as Grand Reserve also comes in 1.5l magnum bottles - the kind you usually only find with champagne. This isn't just a case of buying in bulk. The larger bottles are meant to help the second phase of fermentation giving a fuller and smoother flavour. Just don't try to drink a whole magnum by yourself.

Quadruples can suffer from an overly alcoholic taste that kills off the other flavours. This is a slight problem with La Trappe Quadruple and a bigger problem with the treacly Gulden Draak, which the makers claim is a "dark tripel". Though Gulden Draak has won many awards it is a very intimidating beer.

Five To Try -
1. Westvleteren 12
2. St Bernardus Abt 12
3. Koningshoeven La Trappe Quadruple
4. Rochefort 10
5. Chimay Bleue (Grand Reserve)

Sour Ale

Beer Picture

The world today has a sweet tooth. The general view is that "sour" is what happens when milk goes bad. The place you are most likely to find the world sour in modern cuisine is Chinese food, prefaced by the words "sweet and". This presents a problem for Flemish Red Ales, traditional made in north Belgium and aged in huge oak vats. They are a sour mix of cherries, stewed fruit and roasted malts – not something that readily appeals to the alcopop buyer. The beers had been in decline during most of the 1980 and 1990s. Some brewers tried to find ways to reduce the cost of the expensive brewing process, replacing the oak vats with steel containers with wooden beams suspended inside or trying to chemically sour the beers.

Thankfully a small revival has kicked in. Palm took ownership of the Rodenbach brewery, which had been around since 1821 and invested hard cash restoring the brewery. The beers are a mix of young and old oak aged beer, with the Grand Cru having a higher percentage of old beer giving an intense fruity taste that has elements of a oak aged red wine. The Verhaeghe breweries Duchesse de Bourgogne is made in a similar way but has onion marmalade, balsamic vinegar and a hint of gueuze to it as well.

Elsewhere in the world sour beers are finding a niche audience with beer enthusiasts, particularly in the USA. However one of the most striking beers is from the cuckoo brewers Mikeller who commission other breweries to produce their beers. It’s Alight will taste to some like a bacterial inflection but to other will be a stunning beer with flavours of citrus, yeast and camembert.

Five To Try -
1. Palm Rodenbach Grand Cru
2. Verhaeghe Duchesse de Bourgogne
3. Petrus Oud Bruin
4. Liefmans Goudenband
5. Mikeller It's Alight