Saturday, 17 November 2012

Belgian Beer, Trappists, Abbeys, and Official Designations

Many speak of Belgian beers with reverence, many of Abbey beers, and many simply (or specifically) of Trappist beers.  Many others are simply confused (isn't beer beer?  Monks make beer?  How can Belgian beers be made outside of Belgium?)  Some others, like... ahem... myself, have a slightly faulty memory and err on public blogs.

Despite my correction, I hope to also make this post clarifying and enlightening by, first, considering what Trappists and Trappist  Beers are and, second, distinguishing them by style and from Belgian/Abbey beer designations.

Trappists themselves are Benedictine monks who, as prescribed by Saint Benedict, strive to sustain themselves through quality production and sale of goods rather than through tithes and community contributions/donations.  Though Trappists also make cheese, liquor, wine, bread, soups, cleaning products, religious products, artwork, and more, they are famous in the beer community for their remarkable (and remarkably) strong ales.

Trappist Beers are, technically, only those marked by the Authentic Trappist Product hexagonal logo (easily found by google search) according to criteria set out by the International Trappist Association to protect their brands (which are not only beers). Amongst other criteria that are less pertinent herein, this logo essentially means that the product was made within the walls of the monastery either by monks themselves or at least under their supervision, while much of the proceeds go towards charitable endeavours.

Of late, this meant there were seven Official Trappist breweries, recalled by many via the memorable acronym WOW RACK:

Westvleteren (who sell a Blonde, a Dubbel [8], and a Quadrupel [12])
Orval (who sell a unique Belgian Pale Ale only)
Westmalle (who sell a Dubbel and a Tripel)
Rochefort (who sell two different strength Dubbels [6 and 8] and a Quadrupel [10])
Achel (who sell two Tripels [Blonde and Extra Blonde] a Dubbel [Bruin] and a Strong Dark/Quadrupel [Extra Bruin])
Chimay (who sell a Dubbel [Premiere/Red], a Tripel [White], and a Strong Dark [Grand Reserve/Blue])
Koningshoeven (or La Trappe, who sell nine different beers including the standard Blonde, Dubbel, Tripel, Quadrupel, and an oak-aged version of their Quadrupel)

However, it was widely known that another would be coming soon, presumably from Mont des Cats, and surprisingly, it was officially beaten to official designation by Austrian monastery Stift-Engelszell.  Mont des Cats, however, despite being allowed to call itself a "Biere Trappistes" (and the first from France, with the others all being in Belgium, except for Koningshoeven from the Netherlands and the newest from Austria) does not and will not for the foreseeable future carry the Authentic Trappist Product label - despite being brewed within the halls of a Trappist monastery by the monks themselves, since it is being brewed and bottled at Chimay's monastery as Mont des Cats lacks its own brewery.  Stift-Engelszell, however, does carry the official designation, thus officially being the eighth Trappist brewery (and the ninth may not even be Mont des Cats since "The Trappist monks of the Abbey of ‘Maria Toevlucht’ in Zundert have plans to start a brewery between the walls of their Abbey."

I had inadvertently recalled Mont des Cats as being the eighth in my prior blog post, but it is not officially the eighth - though it is the unofficial ninth in many ways!

For me, personally, the new acronym to recall this next time is WOW RACKS (or perhaps, WOW RACKS 'eM, I guess!)

Belgian beer styles - and not only those of Trappist production - developed a unique history through their geographical exemption from the Reinheitsgebot, often called the German (or Bavarian) Beer Purity Law which allowed them to experiment with different adjuncts (as well as through the specific qualities of their divergent yeast strains and their bottle-conditioned processes unlinked to the Purity Law).

Throughout European history, when water was potentially contaminated and untrustworthy, beer supported human survival (insofar as boiling killed parasites and beer wort had been boiled, but this wasn't known to be the reason at the time!)  Monasteries, as most other religious locations, had become the centre of local life and even those that didn't sell their product also brewed beer for their own consumption (and literal survival).  These beers, called paters (or, occasionally in contrast, 'singels') are still frequently brewed, but solely for the consumption of the monks and they are typically much weaker than their stronger, publicly sold counterparts.

Westmalle seemed to invent both of the styles we now, following their lead, call Dubbels and Tripels.  Though these terms often simply imply colour and alcoholic strength, as well as specific taste and aroma characteristics, they have at times reflected the gravity difference on the old scale - with the original gravity quite literally being double and triple that of the specific monastery's standard pater.

A dubbel is a strong brown ale that is bottle-conditioned (that is, primed with sugar to feed the living and unfiltered yeast within the bottle that continues to ferment and develop past the point of bottling), while a tripel is a strong(er typically) pale ale that is also bottle conditioned.  For flavour, aroma, colour, and other typical style guidelines, I link here to their descriptors from the Beer Judge Certification Program: Dubbel, Tripel.  Chimay premiere (otherwise called Chimay Red) is probably the most widely known dubbel, though I personally adore the Rochefort 8 (and long to try the much rarer Westvleteren 8).  Westmalle Tripel - the first tripel - is the standard against which all others are judged, though I personally found it less enjoyable when consumed side-by-side with the Achel Extra Blonde (even if the Westmalle defines the style and is still a clearly great beer!)

There is considerable debate as to whether a quadrupel exists as a distinct style, whether it is simply a poor differentiation from the "Belgian Strong Dark Ale" style, or whether it is simply an amped-up dubbel.  (This debate centers around the fact that the term was applied anachronistically to pre-existing beers rather than given to beers created to fit the criteria of a pre-existing style).  Regardless, and without siding in the debate herein, this characterization tells you what to expect from a quadrupel or Belgian Strong Dark Ale, again with the BJCP descriptor here.  Westvleteren 12 - often dubbed the best beer in the world - is perhaps the best known quadrupel, though the style is highly praised (when done well as it is difficult to sustain the alcohol without booziness and the resulting complexity of the style) and many of the highest rated beers on BA and RateBeer are quads/strong darks.

Yet, many praised versions of these - and other Belgian styles - are not made by Trappists (nor in Belgium) at all.  These are often called Abbey beers - a term literally without precise meaning as they could be made by non-Benedictine monks, outside of the Trappist Association's terms, or simply by a commercial brewery (occasionally masking their product as if to make it appear monastic).  St. Bernardus, Leffe, and Affligem are three famous Abbey brewers, though many others exist.

Personally, I care little for the Trappist (or Authentic Trappist) or Abbey designation and am much more concerned with the primary question of "is it a good beer?"  And, many Abbey beers certainly are, while many aren't, yet the Trappists are always of a high quality if still subject to the inevitable value of personal taste.

These - live, bottle-conditioned - beers tend to be very sweet with strong carbonation and often cater to both beer lovers and non-beer drinkers alike.  If you have the chance, I encourage you to taste them, and if you find any Stift-Engelszell or Wesvleteren, please let me know where I can procure some to advance my Trappist enjoyment!  (Note that expensive 6-packs of the famed Westvleteren 12 may be coming to Ontario soon - if briefly - though more on that when the news arrives and accordingly permits!)

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