When you think of Belgium, what comes to mind?
Chocolate? Sure. They produce 172,000 ton per annum via 2000+ chocolatiers. In Bruges, they have a museum dedicated to the confection.
Billiard balls? Probably not, though the company Aramith supplies around 80% of the billiard balls used today. They're manufactured in a small village near the French border.
The beautiful game? A side boasting Hazard, Courtois, Lukaku, Dembélé, and De Bruyne barely beat any of the teams they played in the 2014 World Cup hosted by Brazil. Okay, they made the Quarterfinals. Still they should have gone further with that level of talent. Lionel Messi beat an entire country that day.
The failure of Marc Wilmots aside, Belgians also make beer. For the purpose of this discussion it's the Trappist monks who brew. Do they brew.
I don't have a lot of experience with Belgian brewing. According to Roger Adamson, the certified Cicerone guiding my educational expedition today, I'm not alone. "Belgian beers have yet to really have their due. Especially the traditional Trappist ales. They're some of the most beautifully integrated beers for how complex they are. Despite those complexities, they're still very drinkable."
Roger oozes reverence for this craft. This is no rote lecture he’s giving. It’s a paean.
The first thing you’ll learn talking with Roger is that there are six Trappist beer producers in Belgium, eleven overall. It’s not a style of beer, i.e. lambic or barleywine. Rather, it’s a sect of Christianity with three rigid rules for certification, the gist being:
The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery.
The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery.
The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture.
That’s where the rules stop, though. There are no hard and fast definitions for Dubbels, Tripels, and Quadrupels*. Hell, the term “Quadrupel” is mostly used in the U.S., not Belgium. Also, the monks care not for the German Reinheitsgebot Purity Law of 1516, either. There’s a juxtaposed punk esthetic under those esters and phenols.
The introduction over, it’s time to put one’s senses to work.
First up were the Dubbels. Roger chose the Chimay Premiere (7% alcohol by volume) and the St. Bernardus 8 (8%ABV). The Chimay had a copper coloration while the latter was more amber. I noshed on some Port Salut cheese and an apricot while Roger discussed the importance of sugar. “Sugar is one of the secret ingredients of these beers. The most important thing about brewing with sugar is that it’s going to add higher alcohol without adding heft. It’s going to keep it well-attenuated or, as the Belgians like to say, ‘digestible.’”
The Chimay was markedly light with notes of stone fruits like peaches. Of the pair, it was a touch brighter. The St Bernardus ran richer with notes of dark cherries and clove. There was no hint of alcohol on the nose, tongue or throat.
Next were the Tripels: Westmalle Tripel (9.5% ABV) and Tripel Karmeliet (8.4% ABV), the former being the standard bearer of what a Belgian tripel should be. The pair stood in stark contrast to the dubbels – and, later, the quads – in that these were pale yellow. Roger chimed in, “The Tripel style is spicey. It’s got a nice kind of phenolic character that has peppery notes. I get nutmeg in this.
“Also, in the Dubbel and Quadrupel styles, hops play a very minor role. You should notice a little bit of hop dryness and floral hop character in the Belgian tripel.” I chewed on some peppered salami slices as the beers stood up to such an aggressive mate. “They’re kinda like the Swiss army knife of beer pairing.”
There are a lot of theories for naming the different beers, it's not just that each style is stronger than the last in terms of alcohol. Roger Adamson subscribes to “strength” as a reflection of the amount of grain used to produce the beer. The closest thing to actual rules regarding Trappist ales is the Beer Judge Certification Program Style Guidelines. Here’s a link to the 2015 Edition – they are their own category, #26.
So, yeah, the recipe is old, but a monk then wouldn’t recognize what’s produced today.”
Finally, the Quads were up. Before me was Rochefort 10 (11.3% ABV) and La Trappe Quad (10% ABV), which is actually brewed in the Netherlands. “This is the torchbearer of the style,” said Roger, referring to the Rochefort 10. “It definitely has some port wine-like characteristics. Try this with the fig.” It manages to be sweet without being cloying. The La Trappe is “ester-y” offering up a banana-like sweetness. While you taste the alcohol in these, neither should be considered “hot,” surprising for such elevated ABVs.
There’s romance in the heritage of these monasteries and the beer they produce. Don’t be fooled because Rochefort Brewery is hundreds of years old. They've only been brewing the Quad since the 1940s. While the beer may be based on something more antique, what's brewed today isn't the same.
Kilns which roast the barley have changed allowing for indirect heat. The brewing process has made huge advancements in equipment alone. The hops and yeast have evolved. Sanitation is a major factor as opposed to, say, the 1800s. So, yeah, the recipe is old, but a monk then wouldn’t recognize what’s produced today.
Lastly, don’t be in a hurry to open one. Dubbels and, especially, Quads make excellent candidates for cellaring. The important reason is that they are bottle conditioned, meaning there’s live yeast and some unfermented sugars at the time of bottling. An aged La Trappe Quad has been known to develop sherry or Madeira-like characteristics. Just remember to store it upright for a few years.
So crank up some Dead Boys or Hüsker Dü and maybe play some pool while watching footie. While you’re at it, slice some stone fruit, chocolate, and charcuterie. Most important, tie it all together with a Trappist beer and let the harmonies wash over you. You’ll find bliss.