Praise The Lord

Posted by on Mar 16, 2014

Monday night’s Trappist and Abbey Ale tasting brought in quite a turnout which almost entirely consisted of brewing students. It is a somewhat curious thing that the Belgian lineups seem to attract those with a serious interest in beer. That isn’t to say that people who prefer American IPAs or come to a Scottish beer tasting don’t appreciate beer, it’s just that Belgian beers are, frankly, less approachable and much more difficult to comprehend than most others. In short, Belgian beers are the Burgundies of the beer world, and just as you’ll find with the best Burgundies, the complexity of the beverage is nothing compared to the nuggets of information that we obsessive drinkers try to glean from sampling them.

Trappist beers, in particular, represent a group of ales with a reputation perhaps only rivaled by Lambic brewers. These beers are brewed by Cistercian monks who often carry out their tasks in silence and create their works of art solely to provide to the monastery and charitable functions. While it would be foolish to say that these holy men don’t have any formal brewing education, their craft is largely a result of tradition and repetition. It isn’t really that surprising that decades, even centuries, of practice would result in fantastic beers, but I don’t think I only speak for myself when I say that there seems to be something almost supernatural about these beers.

Abbey-style ales are of a similar breed, though they might be considered to be a result of the success of Trappist ales. Brewers of Abbey-style beers do generally have ties with a nearby church, and oftentimes they do contribute a portion of their profits toward its upkeep, but they are, in effect, commercial breweries. Their growth in the 1900s and attempts at taking some of the Trappist beer market is one reason why the Trappist name is now so protected and prized. Leffe is a prime example of an Abbey brewery, for while it was originally established by the monks of Notre-Dame de Leffe, it is now owned by AB InBev.

Whatever the abbey and whatever the brewer, though, Trappist and Abbey ales are generally solid bets if you’re looking for a tasty beer. Just be sure to mind the high ABVs that they tend to hide very well behind a veil of drinkability. These beers are often qualified by numbers or names that provide a guide to the strength of the beer. There are a lot of contending theories on what they all mean, but I generally tend to think of the names relating to the final strength of the beer and the numbers relating to the traditional measurement of the original sugar content of the wort. For a bit more information on this read the ‘Rochefort 8′ section in the ‘Beer History 101‘ blog.

1) Orval: I featured this beer in a tasting last December. As before, it displayed the lovely dry spice and hay qualities the pineapple characters really make you go back for more.

2) Westmalle Dubbel: Westmalle is one of the older Trappist breweries. Listed as officially ‘Trappist’ in 1836, they began brewing soon after with demand, and production, increasing thereon out. I featured their Tripel at a tasting in January, and the Dubbel is another beer style that was, essentially, invented by this brewery. It has loads of banana and raisins coming through with a dry ‘clovy’ finish.

3) La Trappe ‘Isidor’: Koningshoeven brewery is one of the few Trappist breweries located outside of Belgium. Selling it’s beers under the ‘La Trappe’ brand, this particular beer was brewed to celebrate Koningshoeven brewery’s 125th year anniversary and is named after Brother Isidorus, who was the abbey’s first brewer. It pours gold, yields loads of toffee apple on the aroma and also reminds me of bananas foster.

4) Achel ‘Bruin’: The abbey of Achel was destroyed during the French Revolution and remained in such a state until it was rebuilt by a group of Westmalle monks in the mid-19th century. It began brewing beer in 1852 and was certified Trappist in 1871. This beer might be considered a Dubbel as well, and contains similar dried fruit and sherry notes along with a bit of a solvent-like finish that was very appealing to me at least. One attendee aptly described it as a ‘backwards beer’ with the alcohol hit coming to you at the end even though it started out very warm and mellow.

5) Rochefort ’8′: Another oft-featured beer, there seems to be little need to describe this beer yet again.

6) St. Bernardus ‘Abt 12′: The only official ‘Abbey’ beer of the night, St. Bernardus uses the same Westmalle yeast strain that many other breweries (like Westvleteren) do, and this Quadrupel is often considered to be the closest thing to Westvleteren 12 (often rated as one of the best beers in the world) that you’ll likely find. It had spicy alcohol fumes reminiscent of a good whisky, but the flavours were much more like chocolate and sour cherries.

The final vote wasn’t terribly close, with St. Bernardus claiming a landslide victory.