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Monday, August 04, 2008

The Trappist Ales

There is no reason Catholic monks should brew exceptional beer, and yet of the products produced by the Trappist monasteries of Belgium and Holland, three are regarded as world standards, one is arguably the best beer in the world, and none are less than excellent. I have recently returned to the monastic beers and have been tasting them in order for comparison, something I've never done.

American breweries are now beginning to tinker with the radical methods of the low countries--beer made with multiple yeast strains, using multiple fermentations, and with sometimes unexpected ingredients before being aged for sometimes long periods in wooden vessels. When you think of this kind of brewing, it makes sense that the monks would do it very well. They have the long view, not regarding beer as a commodity so much as another extension of God's work. They are in no rush to turn a buck, have no intention of becoming a multinational brand. The monks bring care and attention to their beers, and they have been perfecting them for decades. Considering these facts, it isn't surprising in the slightest that the would produce uniformly wonderful beer.

I'll review them in turn over the next few days. I have been looking at them with an eye to understanding what mkaes a Belgian ale tick, and what our own brewers need to do to match these standards. Since they also bring care and attention to their brewing, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect them to meet or exceed world standards within the next couple decades.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Okay, I'll bite -- which Trappist ale would you argue is the best beer in the world?

Jeff Alworth said...

Anon, I'll explain when I do the review. I had intended to post a review of Rochefort tonight, but I ran out of time and energy. Tomorrow.

DR WORT said...

Jeff,

I'm looking forward to see where you go with this series of blog entries!


So much to be said, so much history and so many different beers just within the Trappist landscape. Not sure anyone can pick a "BEST TRAPPIST" as they cover a variety of styles and processes. It's like saying, "Pick your favorite ALe?"

A couple thoughts I have in regard to your intro... Not to be nit picky, but ...

"There is no reason Catholic monks should brew exceptional beer..."

500-700 year of brewing for monastery sustenance gives ya a lot of practice at brewing... ;-}

"American breweries are now beginning to tinker with the radical methods of the low countries."

I think "start" and "Tinker" are correct words in regard to the number of years that American's have been trying to reproduce some of he Belgian's styles, but think that we've been on Belgian brewing and appreciation road for quite some time and have jumped the boundaries of tinkering in some places.

As demographic brewing "Centers" go, BEERVANA is a little behind the Belgian uprising. We just recently started to see more locals brew Belgian beers. Other brewing areas have been brewing and honing down their Belgian Brewing chops for some time now.

I'm glad to see that the NW is finally getting on the bus... ;-}

Brewery Ommegang on the East Coast was the first American-BELGIAN Brewery, it opened in October of 1997. That's 11 years ago and there was a definite Belgian appreciation and WANT probably 15+ years ago.

We now have stellar Belgian beers being brewed in America. New Glarus BC, Russian River BC, Lost Abbey Brewery and Allagash Brewing are all pumping some amazing belgian beers.

This just gives a little perspective.

Awaiting some Belgian brewing history and tasting notes from the Trappist Monastery breweries:

* Bières de Chimay
* Brasserie d'Orval
* Brasserie de Rochefort
* Brouwerij Westmalle
* Brouwerij Westvleteren
* Brouwerij de Achelse Kluis
* Brouwerij de Koningshoeven

I would place my bets on the Best Trappist to be the high gravity variety, as that seems to always be the ones people rate the highest. Westvleteren 12 (almost impossible to get in the US) and Rochefort 10 should be high on the list or the top of the list... Don't want to put the cart in front of horse...

Joe said...

If such outstanding Beligian beers are available from Belgium, what incentive, if any, is there for local breweries to produce Belgian beers? I could see them doing it as one off experiments to gain some info that could be applied to the NW style. But with how rarely(and this is just my perception, which could be way off) they compare favorably to what is available outside the region, I just don't see them sticking to it.

It seems to me that NW brewing sprung up in force to fill a need that wasn't being met in the market and thrived as a result. There is not the same thing happening with Belgian beers right now. If I wanted a Belgian I could go get a bottle of high quality beer from any number of bottle shops.

I guess ultimately the way I look at it is that it's not a bad thing that everyone isn't brewing everything. If that were the case we all end up with a bunch of OK beers and no one would be happy. Specialization is good, I don't think the art world is any worse off because Van Gogh didn't sculpt.

Jeff Alworth said...

Joe, I wouldn't expect any brewery in Oregon to try to clone a particular Belgian ale. But there's a lot to learn from the methods, ingredients, and (particularly) yeast Belgians use. One of the things that got me onto this jag was the news that Upright Brewing is slated to open--a brewery that will take Belgium as it's source of inspiration. What Alex will do with this inspiration remains to be seen, but I hope and expect it to be a riff on extant Belgian styles.

DR WORT said...

"Specialization is good, I don't think the art world is any worse off because Van Gogh didn't sculpt."

Many of the classic artists sculpted and painted. Da Vinci, Michalangelo and others. You know some of the classic artists that transend time...

It's like the difference between Mozart and Antonio Salieri...

"If such outstanding Beligian beers are available from Belgium, what incentive, if any, is there for local breweries to produce Belgian beers?"

...Same can be said for British ales... Don't we have enough of them being brewed around our country? There's still plenty of classics coming in from the British Isles.


;-}

Joe said...

DW - I knew someone was going to hit me with Da Vinci and Michelangelo. There are always going to be exceptions to the rule.

On your second point, what I was saying is that there were unique market forces at the time of the craft brewing revolution that allowed it to thrive. In my opinion those forces don't exist today for Belgian beers. It’s not a matter of over saturation. It's good to go outside your comfort zone in all aspects of life, it makes you a better person (and brewer too). I hope all the success in the world to those brewers trying to make inroads on Belgian styles. I just don't think the current environment will support a little Belgium and the easy comparables to best the style has to offer will discourage brewers from trying. Just one man’s opinion.

Let me pose a question: Would you like Deschutes to shelve Abyss for a year in order to properly pursue a barrel aged Belgian, or would you want to buy an Abyss alongside the best Belgium has to offer?

Great discussion by the way, thanks for facilitating Jeff.

DR WORT said...

Joe - Thanks for the rally! To respond to your post:

"I just don't think the current environment will support a little Belgium and the easy comparibles to best the style has to offer will discourage brewers from trying. Just one man’s opinion."

You may be right in regard to the NW's palate of 90% hop tweaked British style ales, which seems to be the major comfort zone. Other markets and demographical areas have expanded their palates and are more than receptive to the multitude of Belgian styles. Some Belgian beers are an acquired taste, the taste for something other than buckets of hops... ;-}

I think NW beer drinkers are pretty savvy, just not always well beer educated. This is not their fault. We are all a product of our surroundings and what we are exposed too. I believe that local beers drinkers are "STARTING" to get turned on to the Belgian beers through local beer pubs. They "WANT" something NEW and are now being exposed to something new and adventurous, Belgians.

I think, there will always be a large group of local beer drinkers who live in the comfort zone of "Drinking what they know." For many local drinkers, they're beer experiences has only been one courageous jump.... PBR to IPA. Some think that's a big enough change and jump and will choose to not move on... They feel they've found Beervana in a glass and don't need to move on. That's fine, the rest will move on to new beer horizons. More for us... ;-}

While us beer geeks know far better, we have a hard time moving others along. The Breweries want to produce what the locals want, which is fine. But, now some are taking the next step.... To EDUCATE the beer drinking community.

If the US beer drinkers were happy and sedentary with their beer choices we'd still all be drinking Budmilloors. It's been the beer revolution that's created our beer evolution. ;-}

"Let me pose a question: Would you like Deschutes to shelve Abyss for a year in order to properly pursue a barrel aged Belgian, or would you want to buy an Abyss alongside the best Belgium has to offer?"

Easy! I've drank tons of Russian Imperial Stouts over the past 20+ years of quality beer drinking. I think Russian Imperial Stouts are sipping and cellaring beers. They could be put into 12 oz bottles and pulled out for cold winter nights for the next 10 years.

One key to sales is to increase desire...not to over blow the consumer and over expose a product. That said, I would DROP the Abyss and brew it every other year or so. In the meantime, a nice quality Belgian (Flanders Red or Brown, Oud Bruin, Strong Blonde or other) seasonal brew would be nice educational, diverse and delicious addition. Of course, it has to be a quality product, not some beer that says "Belgian Style" on the side and made with weak malt base, local fruit, standard ale yeast and then just thrown into a barrel and then call it a quality Belgian beer. (Sound familiar?) That's just a rouse that's trying to dumbing down the locals.... Didn't seem to work, what a SURPRIZ! ;-}

We're seeing Belgian Beers being a sustainable product in certain beer regions: Ommergang & Allagash on the East Coast are producing all Belgian beers and thriving. Russian River Brewing & Lost Abbey Brewing are producing a huge selection of Belgian beers and can't keep the shelves filled, if the beers even make it to a shelf!

So, I think Belgian beers are more than a sustainable product. The question is "Are WE educated and ready to make them sustainable?"

I think Jeff is making a noble effort to educate the NW about Belgian beers. Belgian brewing has a wealth of history, fascinating ingredients and brewing methods. I'm sure a savvy beer loving community will love to thrive and expand their knowledge and palates. Turn on your friends and do a Belgian tasting.... Maybe crack open a Dubbel while typing a rebuttal... It all works!

I'm running a American Belgian Beer review on my Blog in honor of Jeff's Belgian series. Please feel free to check it out.

http://wortblog.blogspot.com/

Ben, aka BadBen said...

Being a NW-expatriot living in the Midwest, it's interesting to see this discussion.

Here in Kansas City, Boulevard brewing and their brewer (a Belgian from Brugge), have been brewing a seasonal Belgian Wit for 7 years with great success (in the land of A-B Bud). They now have a few barrel-aged corked-bottle conditioned options, as well. You'd think that the "Midwest Lager Palate" wouldn't support this success, but Boulevard has increased production 600% since year 2000, and is now the "largest American-owned brewery in Missouri!"

A few of the local brewpubs have dived headlong into having (at least) a Belgian Pale on tap, with some fun seasonal offerings, as well.

Something that I do miss from the PacNW is the variety of Hoppy IPAs and Double-IPAs that you all take for granted...but I make up for it by brewing my own. I really think that our local breweries and pubs are missing the boat there, somewhat.

Happy trails,
Bad Ben

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