Although they may not have invented beer, the monks of northern Europe take a lot of credit for developing methods and recipes for producing large quantities of beer, that is to say, breweries. We can also thank the abbots and abbesses, like St. Hildegard of Bingen, for the introduction of hops, and for developing some of the most flavorful yeast strains.
Even today, monks still brew beer. Indeed, some of the best beers in the world — the Trappist Ales — are brewed by men of the cloth. If you have never tasted a bona fide Trappist Ale, you owe it to your beer-loving self to seek one out. You will be in for a treat. Many readers and beer aficionados do not know the difference between “Abbey Ale,” “Trappist Beer, and “Belgian Beer,” and use the terms interchangeably. But they are different. Here is the low-down and a sample tasting.
First, Trappist is a specific order of monks — the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance — who brew the beer themselves. Monks observe the Rule of St. Benedict, a guide for monastic life which originated in the 6th century, which includes a mandate to “pray and work.” Monks are expected to work in order to be self-supportive and to offer assistance to the poor by the income they generate producing and selling goods to the public. These goods are produced from their agricultural products, and include honey, jams, cheese and beer. The seven traditional Trappist breweries are in Europe: Westmalle, Chimay, Koningshoeven, Rochefort, Orval, Achel and Westvleteren. There is a new one on the scene now in the United States, Spencer Brewery, and we’ll catch up with that one.
Abbey Ale, on the other hand, is not made by monks. The term is a marketing tool designed to sell beer. Since 1999, however, there are a few breweries that have made special license arrangements with particular orders to brew beer in their name, with a portion of the proceeds going back to the church or abbey. These are called Recognized Belgian Abbey Beers and are usually labeled as such. The Abbey styles are traditional and tend to be malty, strong with alcohol, and redulent with yeast-derived flavors, and typically include dubbel (double), tripel (triple), strong blond and strong dark beers.
Belgian Beer refers simply to beers either made in Belgium or in the style of a Belgian Beer. This includes the true Trappist Ales as well as other styles: Flemish reds, lambics, gueze, white (blancs), sour ales and saisons — and of course, just plain ales ranging from blond to dark, weak to strong.
One prominent feature of Belgian-produced beers is that they are primarily ales rather than lagers; their yeasts impart a characteristic flavor profile and aroma ranging from spicy (clove-like, herbal) to medicinal. The fruity ester flavors from these yeasts tend toward banana, bubblegum, fresh orange or citrus, often so strong that few hops are needed for flavor. Many of these strains have been in cultivation for centuries, sometimes highly guarded, proprietary strains. Belgian beer is often bottle-conditioned, so the residual yeast in the bottle produces a slight cloudiness balanced by a stronger, champagne-like effervescence. American Belgian-style beers utilize similar strains of yeasts, but are often supplemented with coriander and orange peel to add strength to the weaker American yeast flavor. The best Belgian beers have the complexity and palatability of good wine, and of these, the Trappist Ales reign supreme.
Belgian-style ales have a following in the American craft beer scene, though nothing can yet compare with the real thing. Fortunately, you don’t have to visit Belgium, since many are available in bottles in good beer stores, and occasionally on draft. Some bars specialize in imported Belgian beers, such as Hopleaf in Chicago and Monks in Philadelphia. Draft Belgian beers tend to be high in both alcohol and in price.
I was pleased to find a pack of assorted St. Bernardus Ales at my local beer store. Among the Trappist breweries, St. Bernardus is one of the best. It began in the monastery of St. Sixtus in Westvleteren, whose brewing and yeast strains go back to medieval times. They began selling beer in outsiders in 1838 to raise money for the monastery. A century later, the monastery no longer wanted the bother and distraction of commercial sales, so in 1934 they licensed the production of their excellent beer, Westvleteren 12, to the nearby commercial brewery of St. Bernardus in Watou (also a former Trappist business that was allowed to keep the monastery name). The Westvleteren license to St. Bernardus expired in 1992 and the beer reverted back to the Monastery of Saint Sixtus, who are still producing the excellent Wesvleteren 12 in small amounts, and a few are imported to the US. The St. Bernardus brewery, however, continues to produce a very similar beer using the same outstanding yeast strain, and it is called Abt 12 — the name refers to the head monk, called the Abt or Abbot.
Because of their higher alcohol and heady fragrance, Trappist ales are best enjoyed sipped slowly from a chalice-shaped glass, like the one shown for Chimay (a beer that is also of Trappist origin). I began my tasting with the flagship brew, St. Bernardus Abt 12. It was as delightful as I remembered it when I first sipped it in Monk’s about twenty years ago.
The St. Bernardus calls the Abt 12 “the pride of our stable.” It is a classic dark Belgian “quadrupel,” and as such has a rather high alcohol content. It has a delicious malt mix that is well balanced with the complexity of the yeast and hops. It starts out with a beautiful nose, and ends with an extremely sweet finish. This is one of the tastiest beers you will ever drink, and you will hardly notice the 10% ABV — drink a second one with caution.
Next came Prior 8. It was one of the original recipes licensed by the monks of Wesvleteren to the Watou-based factory, and it is named for a beloved Prior. It is a dark beer, ruby to almost purple, and at 8% ABV it is a classic dubbel. Its taste is described as “a malt-fruit complexity reminiscent of coconut.” It pours a thick head, just barely off-white, that is clean and sweet. I found it both too harsh and too sweet for my (modern) tastes.
The Tripel, on the other hand, is one of my favorites now. Also at 8% alcohol, it is quite different from the Prior. Lacey, white head, lovely pale yellow color, slightly cloudy. It has a nice malt balance, and a quiet finish, not at all sweet, with a nose that is traditionally Belgian. There is minimal discernible spice, but it is very hoppy, more bitter than fruity. You will find a very delightful flavor due primarily to the yeast, which is mellow, complex, with much banana and little spice.
Spencer Trappist Ale is the first and only certified Trappist beer made in the United States. It is produced by the Monks of St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts and is distributed in NH, MA and OH, and overseas in Belgium, France and Spain. It is a classic Trappist with the lower alcohol level more typical of American beers (6.5% ABV). It pours golden, slightly cloudy, with an off-white dense head and a beautiful floral or fruity nose. It is eminently drinkable. It has a strong rich yeast flavor, surprisingly sharp hop bitterness, and a dry finish; it goes great with food.
Leffe is a true Abbey beer, though not a Trappist. Leffe was originally brewed by the Premonstratensian monks of St. Norbert in 1240 at the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Leffe. It was purchased by InBev, the European arm of Anheuser-Busch, and but is faithful to the original formula. It is a pleasant, very malt-forward ale, low in hops, but still has some clove spiciness and vanilla overtones produced by the yeast. It pairs beautifully with food and is a pleasant alternative to mass-market lagers. Another plus is that it is more widely available and less expensive than other abbey ales.
Finally, I tasted a representative American Belgian style craft beer, Abita’s Abbey Ale. This ale in the style of a dubbel (8% ABV) is dark in color, clearly has tastes of Belgian yeast, with hints of caramel, fruits, cloves, spicy. It pours a beautiful tan head; it is smooth with a sweet finish. Abita sends a 25-cent donation to St. Joseph Abbey with every bottle of this heavenly brew.
If you want to further experience these outstanding beers, you might want to consider a trip to Belgium.
Give me a call —
I’d love to go, too.