Trappist beers and abbey ales
These deep winter days provide the perfect backdrop for traditional, European brews and this week we’re going to take a look at some of our favourite Euro beers – Abbey ales and Trappist beers.
Abbey ales and Trappist beers – if you’re anything like us the very phrase will be conjuring images of In the Name of the Rose-style monks toiling in grim but devoted silence over great cauldrons of brew to a soundtrack of Gregorian chants while peasants beyond the abbey walls die of plague or get ripped off by marauding kings . The combination of monks and beer is such a vivid one and while our historical references might leave a bit to be desired, we’re not totally off the mark.
Trappist beers are still produced by (or at the very least, under the instruction of) authentic, real life Trappist monks in authentic, real life Trappist monasteries. In 1997 the International Trappist Association was formed to ensure that only genuine Trappist beers were labelled as such and the 11 certified Trappist breweries currently in operation are: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren all in Belgium, Koningshoeven and Zundert in the Netherlands, Stift Engelszell in Austria, St Joseph’s (Spencer) in the USA, and Tre Fontane in Italy. All of these breweries operate under a strict monastic principle of self-sufficiency and worship i.e. any commercial income made from the sale of the beer go back into the running of the monastery or are given to charitable organisations; and, God comes first, yep, even before beer. And God help a brewer who tries to pass their non-Trappist brew off as the real deal – the International Trappist Association is having none of that nonsense.
The Westvleteren 12 (I know – sounds like something from Game of Thrones right?) is a legendary Trappist beer and one of the most highly rated beers in the world. In terms of packaging, it is a study in uber-cool monastic restraint – just a simple brown bottle and classy cap. It is hard to get your hands on – remember, it’s not a commercial enterprise for the guys who brew it so they are not churning the stuff out to meet demand – but if you’re lucky enough to try a bottle no doubt you will have a religious experience of some kind. Strong, dark, fruity, earthy and rich, smooth and full-bodied, it is undoubtedly a perfect example of a perfect Trappist quadruple.
Abbey ales are a slightly different story in that they don’t have to be brewed under the same strict monastic conditions as authentic Trappist beers. In fact, many brewers of so-called Abbey ales have nothing to do with a monastery whatsoever. While Abbey ales do tend to fall into certain categories and styles e.g. dubbels and tripels, don’t go thinking that just because something is called Beer du Saint So-and-So that it is has a genuine connection with monastery of some kind. To distinguish themselves from such beers (many of which are, in fact, examples of the Belgian abbey style) the Union of Belgian Brewers introduced a “Certified Belgian Abbey Beer” logo to identify beers legitimately brewed in association with an existing or former abbey. One such beer is the Maredsous Brune which you might recall very fondly from a previous month’s beer box. At 8% it is an Abbey Dubbel style beer and features some of the classic characteristics of the style – rich and malty with a lively carbonation, a deep brown colour, and plenty of caramel in the aroma and flavour. One of our favourite examples of the aforementioned non-monastery associated Abbey ales is Anderson Valley’s Brother David Dubbel. There were no monks in a 50 mile radius of this beer but it remains a cracking example of the Abbey style.
Tripels are stronger again but without the rich, dark malts, they tend to be pale and exhibit a slightly stronger hop profile. The Westmalle Tripel is considered the mother of all Tripels and if you’ve had a try of it, let us know what it was like. It’s still on our bucket list. In the meantime we’re enjoying Moa’s St Joseph Tripel and Red Hill’s Batch 1000 Tripel which is darker and sweeter than your average Tripel but still with that distinctive dry bitter finish.
So next time you’re having a quiet quaff on your Abbey or Trappist brew, take a little moment to think of those monks. We’ve got a lot to thank them for.