Previous Belgian preparation nights have seen Beer Blotter sample Belgian Trappist beers from both Orval and Rochefort. We decided this day that we should sample the remaining three that are available in America: Chimay, Westmalle and Achel.
The Trappist beers are by no means the be-all and end-all examples of Belgian Brewing, but they are important pieces of the puzzle. They are excellent examples of the long, rich tradition of brewing in Europe.
For many, the thought of Belgian beer evokes visions of robe-clad monks using any time not dedicated to worship, to laboring by the brew kettle. The marriage of a holy lifestyle with the meticulous formulation of the most holy of intoxicants. This is a powerful image. All ingredients carefully selected by the hands of the chosen, combined in the fashion overseen by many a generation, for hundreds of years. Weighing out proportions, exacting recipes passed down through generations. Fermentation with yeast strains that have been ever so precisely perfected and kept secret by any means necessary. Continually creating flavors undoubtedly unique.
Even if the flavors experienced don’t make you weak in the knees, which they often do, the deeper, historical experience can move you. In the mid 1800s our ancestors were drinking the same delicious beers that we are tonight. We like the way this makes us feel. It’s a beer tradition unique to a very small part of the world that we feel very fortunate to be able to visit in just a few short weeks.
We started with Chimay, brewed in the Scourmont Abbey in Chimay, Belgium. Chimay seems to be the most widely recognized Trappist brewery here in America, which caused us some surprise when we discovered that it is second to Westmalle in production. Though numbers rarely lie, the flavors of this beer, in comparison to other Belgians we have tried, speak of mass production. Of course, though Beer Blotter may wish it so, not all beers need to be flavor bombs. Chimay’s brewing monks deserves no less respect, after all, it is the Trappist way to use all monetary gains from the production of their products to assist in the advancement of their community, based on Monastic values, and not toward financial profit.
Specifically, we sampled Chimay Premiere (Red Label), which is the lightest of Chimay’s offerings, coming in at 7%. The pour revealed a glowing amber hue with a rocky head that eventually mellowed and disappeared. Some floaty, yeasty bits were found swimming within. The scent out matched the flavor, with a lot of fruitiness to be found such as apricot and pear. Behind that, as it warmed, some metallic and soapy qualities could be detected. There is mild sweetness present on the pallet, and a graininess that is nearly lager like. This is most confusing. Belgian ales rarely have a flavor profile so subdued. Beer Blotter would probably never seek this beer out, but if Chimay Red were the most plebian of craft beers, we’d be living in a much better place.
Our second Trappist brew of the night was from the Trappist Monastery of Westmalle in Malle, Belgium. Their 9.5% Tripel is one of only three beers produced and is often referred to as the best example of a Belgian Tripel available. If we didn’t know that this one was bottle conditioned, we would have learned quickly. The moment the cap was cracked a geyser of foam spilled forth. A monk’s meticulous labor puddled on the table…a sad sight. What remained in the bottle made it to our glasses and shown a cloudy yellow-gold with, paradoxically, very little carbonation. The nose was dominated by banana bread and a little soap at first, but transformed into a very white wine like experience as it warmed. The yeast provided a slight bubble gum presence and the booze was evident. Words like “bright” and “sharp” and “grainy” could be used, which again could be used to describe a light beer with minimal complexity. Pleasant to smell and easy to drink, but the quantity produced seems to have had an effect on the quality. Never the less, you hand me a Westmalle Triple and I will thank you.
The third and final Trappist creation of the night possessed all the exciting complexity that we hope for in a Belgian beer. The Saint Benedictus Abbey of Achel in Hamont-Achel, Belgium makes 5 beers, of which two are only available at the abbey itself. We had the 8% Bruin. She poured a very cloudy brown, near dirty river water in complexion. A really nice, frothy head of foam rose high on the pour and offered remarkable lacing. The aroma was busy to say the least, and seemed to shoot deep into the nose. It was as if you could feel the sensory nerves dancing with delight. Cherries and strawberries were in play, with a distinct sour wood aged quality. A lot of sweetness could be detected before even tasting it. This quality of intense sweetness seems to be ubiquitous in well made Belgian beers. The flavor is sweet, yes, but also tart, nearly sour. The body is thick. The fluid’s legs on the inside of the glass are very telling of this. Dare I use the word cloying? Syrupy. This beer is like cherry or rhubarb pie filling aged in oak. It’s really freaking good.
Beer Blotter had one more very special beer this evening.
Pannepot – Old Fisherman’s Ale, 2006 vintage from De Struise Brouwers in Oostvleteren, Belgium (not Trappist). This was our showstopper. This ratebeer.com top 50 brew is quite hard to come by, but Beer Blotter is quite crafty, and we just had to have it. This 10% Belgian Strong Ale pours a dark, swampy brown color with a nice tan head and plenty of stickage. The foam slowly diminished to a wisp, but never fully departed. The scent was full of licorice and root beer barrel candies. Deep and complex caramelized sugars and butterscotch would be found in the flavor, which had a depth that nearly drowned us. Literally breath-taking. Booze was evident as we allowed this to warm. Thankfully, the fluid coated the mouth completely with its brilliance and left an aftertaste that lingered and lingered. We were reminded of a well-aged barleywine. At one point, we were firmly struck with a realization of…pretzels. The scent of pretzels was so clear and precise. Even the salt crystals resting on top could be tasted. Definitely one of the best beers we have ever tasted. For the love of God, seek this one out.
This concludes another wonderful Belgian night for Beer Blotter. The anticipation is really mounting. If you have any recommendations for our journey please speak up.