I begin the tour of monastic beers with Rochefort, an ancient monastery in the French-speaking South. Actually, the town is Rochefort, the monastery is properly designated Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint Remy. The beers of Rochefort are straightforward--each is a similar rich, brown strong ale and they vary mainly in strength, all using roughly similar recipes. Monks employ the older system of degrees to designate this variance in strength--6º, 8º, and 10º. (For those familiar with original gravities, this is straightforward, the degrees corresponding to gravities of roughly 1.060, 1.080, and 1.100.) The most recent recipe in production is Rochefort 8, from 1955.
The monastery actually began life in 1230 as a convent; it didn't become a monastery until 1464. Brewing started in 1595, and monks cultivated hops and barley on the grounds. It went through a series of changes as splits, plagues, schisms, and wars came and went. The ancient monastery was sacked by Calvinists in 1568, and suffered similar ravages in the coming centuries (some bits survive from as far back as 1664). It's not clear how much brewing was happening during these centuries, but in 1887, the entire monastery began restoration. They completed the brewery in 1899--sans hop and barley fields.
The beers of Rochefort are fairly simply made. They use a number of malts, including two pale malts, and others from around Europe, two hop strains, Hallertau and Styrian Goldings, and two yeast strains. Michael Jackson quoted Brother Antoine, who was the head brewer there when he visited in the 1990s: "Two of the pale malts, two of the sugars, two hop varieties, two yeast strains ... two of this and two of that; ... we like to keep it simple." They also use candi sugar in the boil, and this is what gives them control over strength. The result is a range of excellent beer, interesting and unique, but not particularly complex. In my opinion, Rochefort makes approachable beers in the lesser echelon of Trappist ales.
When I went on my shopping spree, I found only the Rochefort 8, the medial beer in the range. This puts Rochefort in a slight disadvantage, because with Chimay and Westmalle, I found the largest in their respective ranges. Rochefort 10 (which I've enjoyed in the past) is richer and creamier and hotter with alcohol, but not a radical departure, so I think my tasting of the 8 will suffice.
When you crack a bottle, the beer exhales robustly, just short of a champagne pop. It pours with lots of fizz, and the head foams up with big, watery bubbles. After these are burned off by the alcohol, and interesting tango ensues as the roiling bead tries to build the head back up while the alcohol keeps trying to burn it off. You are left with at least a skiff, and sometimes a full layer, until your last swallow.
The aroma is one of the nicest things about the beer--it is rich and raisiny, and provoked a feeling of wellbeing in me not unlike when I walk into a bakery. There is a touch of sugar but also something warm and earthy; very inviting. The palate is also sweet and raisiny, and as it rests on the tongue, is something like a liquid fruitcake--lots of winter fruits, a healthy warmth from rummy alcohol, and you can even find bread and nuts if you let your tongue soak long enough. Rochefort is effervescent, however, which makes it slightly cutting going down. This is the trade-off that comes with using sugar. The overall body isn't that dense, syrupy stuff you get in barleywines (though at 9.2, we're in barleywine strength), but the finish has a sugar hardness, like Coca Cola. The body is very nice--substantial, but not burly--so you can tell it's a bargain the monks are happy to have made.
I would recommend Rochefort in the evening, like a Scotch or port. It's not so heavy or sweet that it couldn't be enjoyed after a modest meal, but perhaps too much if you're stuffed. With its warmth and comforting notes, it's a great winter ale, and you would certainly not regret having it in place of a Wassail this December.
OG: 1.066 (6º), 1.083 (8º), 1.098 (10º)
ABV: 7.5% (6º), 9.2% (8º), 11.3% (10º)
Hops: Hallertau and Styrian Goldings
Adjuncts: dark candi sugar
Yeast: two strains used in both primary fermentation and bottle-conditioning
Rating: For the 8º, a B+
Available: Imported by Merchant du Vin and readily available at import-beer stores. In Portland, you can find it at New Seasons in addition to specialty stores.