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Belgium: Mecca of Specialty Beers, Part Two

by Paul Etcheverry
Continued from Part I.
Say the word "Belgium" to many folks and you'll get some lame attempt at a joke involving waffles. Utter the same two syllables to a brewmaster, chef or gourmet and the response is likely to be "beer." Taking the word association game one step further, mention Belgium and beer to a malt beverage connoisseur, and the next words will be "Trappist monasteries."

It's true. Abbeys, that are home to one of the most severe orders of monks in Belgium, brew some of the most delicious, lovingly crafted beers in the world. And while these divinely inspired ales are not quite up there with the sizzle of first love, the wonderment of new marriage and parenthood, or the rapture of a 1986 Celtics-Lakers game, they rank among the globe's culinary treasures.

It shouldn't be that great a surprise that six beers that can legally be termed Trappist ales (if they're not brewed in monasteries by Trappist monks, they can't have that designation) hail from Belgium. After all, this is a country that abounds with beer restaurants, where hop shoots are served, a la asparagus, as a gourmet treat, where traditional "cuisine d'biere" predates the invention of lager yeast.

Belgium's beer lore extends back at least 1000 years. In the last three decades of the 11th century, Benedictine monks established the original Orval abbey in Southern Belgium, near the town of Florenville. When the Trappist order, founded in La Trappe, Normandy, ultimately broke from the Benedictines to observe Cistercian rule, they rebuilt the monastery known as Notre Dame d'Orval and made it a stalwart institution, somehow enduring wars, plagues, famines and hostile regimes. It is no small irony that the 12th century Cistercians, who became the lifeblood of the Orval abbey, came from the town of Champagne.

The pursuit of the perfect beer runs deep in the history and consciousness of Belgium. Consider the following inevitable passage from gastronomy guru Michael "The Beer Hunter" Jackson, whose Great Beers of Belgium is an absolute must-read for anyone wishing to learn how that scrumptious snifter of Chimay Grande Reserve came into being. To quote Mr. Jackson, from his informative Pocket Guide To Beer, "St. Arnold of Oudenaarde is remembered for having successfully beseeched God, in the 11th century, to provide more beer after an abbey brewery collapsed." He is the patron saint of Belgian brewers some of whom display his statue by their kettles (French speakers can, if they prefer, remember another beery miracle, that of St. Arnold at Met). The 13th century Duke Jan the First of Brabant, Louvain and Antwerp has passed into legend as "The King Of Beer."

Another "beery miracle" features the Orval monastery, a countess and a holy fish. Back in the 60's (the 1060's), the drop-dead gorgeous Countess Mathilda of Tuscany (1046-1115) was enjoying a saunter through the beautiful country outside Florenville as only a royal can. While viewing her reflection in a pond (probably to make sure that she was not having a "bad hair day") the countess inadvertently dropped her beloved golden ring into the opaque waters. She asked God for the ring's return, promising that if her prayer was answered, this land would be declared sacred. And, magically, a plucky trout surfaced, holding the coveted ring in his mouth. Not being a mercenary fish, he let the Countess retrieve the royal heirloom. Apparently, the countess made good on her word: the Orval monastery was formed by Benedictine monks on these grounds in 1070. To this day, the striking Orval Trappist Ale logo features the magic trout and golden ring, and the monks claim that the pond in the ruins of the old abbey is indeed the spot where Countess met fish.

While the brewing of handmade craft ales to provide sustenance for the brothers during fasting at Lent may well go back as far as the aforementioned beer legends, the dates when the monasteries began producing and marketing their brews for the surrounding communities varies. A major impetus to the growth of the monasteries in Belgium was the influx of Trappists from France, fleeing guillotines and diminutive despots. Even the Belgian Trappist abbeys were sacked at the time of the French Revolution, then repressed by Napoleon's regime. The Westmalle monastery, near Antwerp, the first of the abbey breweries to fully recover from the ravages of war, started brewing its distinctive ales in 1836. Westvleteren's St. Sixtus abbey, founded in the 1830's, not long afterward commenced making its malty monastic brews. The Notre-Dame de Scourmont abbey began producing Chimay in 1862, originating the "Trappist Ale" moniker, and was the first monastery to market its beer commercially. The earliest Trappist brewers could well have been the brothers of Rochefort, who were creating hand-crafted abbey ales in Shakespeare's time.

Beyond their monastic, historic and cultural origins, the Trappist Ales have a few constants in common. They are potent as well as full-flavored brews, ranging anywhere from 6.2 to 10.6% alcohol by volume. All of them employ top-fermenting ale yeasts. These work at higher temperatures and impart fruitier tones to the finished brew than cold-fermenting lager yeasts. British ale and porter, German kolsch and altbier, Irish stout and most Belgian specialties (lambic, witbier, West Flanders red, east Flanders brown) are all top-fermented. Another characteristic is bottle-conditioning, the practice of adding yeast at bottling to induce an additional fermentation. The one other technique the Trappist ales have in common involves the use of light or dark candy sugar as an ingredient. This beet sugar, arranged on strings, offers a myriad of potential uses for professional and amateur brewers. The darker varieties impart raisiny, or rum-like characteristics to high-gravity beers.

The Trappist Ales may share certain techniques and a complex palate, but all seem untouched by regional bents in Belgian brewing. Orval, Chimay and Rochefort are from Southern, French-speaking Belgium, but only Orval has even the slightest similarity to the local specialty beer, Saison. Chimay's distinctive yeast and earthy, herbal tones are, seriously, totally different from any other beer I've tasted. The malty brews of Rochefort are more reminiscent of high-gravity specialty beers and Christmas ales. Westvleteren, the St. Sixtus abbey which produces sweet, creamy, mouthcoating abbey ales, is in Flanders, and bears more similarity to the bottle-conditioned dark brews by the Flemish De Dolle Brouuwers (Mad Brewers) than to the lactic red and brown ales indigenous to the area.

And, without further ado, let's examine the beers:

In the province of Hainaut, next to a small town known as Forges, resides the abbey at Notre Dame de Scourmont, where world-class ales and cheeses are made. It is also close to the town of Chimay, among southern Belgium's centers for tourism. In writer Owen Ogletree's series on Trappist breweries, he described a visit to the Chimay monastery as "truly a religious experience. The monastery and surrounding forest and farmlands are among the most picturesque areas we experienced in all of Belgium. The melodies of the monastery bells calling the monks to afternoon prayers were only surpassed in beauty by the magnificent aroma coming from the brewery."

Beer Head

The beer was designed by two innovators, Chimay brewmaster Father Théodore and scientist Jean De Clerck. The distinctive yeast is the house flavor common to all three Chimay ales. Identifiable by the colors of their bottle tops (red, white and blue), they range from 7 to 9% alcohol, and possess hues from deep, dark copper to brown. Chimay Red offers a pleasing herbal sarsaparilla-root beer-currant palate. Chimay White is the driest, most austere of the trio, while Chimay Blue or Grande Reserve presents the most complex, aromatic and fruitiest flavor profile.

Orval produces one world-class ale, arguably the hoppiest, driest and most unusual of the Trappist endeavors. If you, dear reader, have yet to venture beyond the lager/pilsner style, Orval (although not quite as startling as a puckery lambic) represents a radical departure from conventional notions of what constitutes beer. It is cloudy and bright copper-orange, with an aromatic hop nose. The recipe utilizes white candy sugar, three malts and three fermentations. After a primary fermentation courtesy of Orval's single-cell culture, a secondary fermentation is induced with multiple strains of yeast, including the notorious but celebrated Brettanomyces, which introduces some of the characteristic Belgian sour tones to the mix.

While it isn't necessarily an option to barge into the cloistered inner sanctum of a Trappist monastery, the Orval abbey and lush Luxembourg woods offer some truly picturesque locales. The Orval website describes it as follows: "Large stone buildings form a border around a central reflecting pool. Adjacent to the modern abbey lie fascinating ruins of the ancient facility. Visitors are allowed to walk through these ruins and visit a museum containing artifacts, paintings, and photos from the old church." You can also enjoy the outstanding Orval ale, bread and cheese, not to mention authentic local dishes, at a café about half a mile from the monastery.

Where the Meuse river valley rises into the Ardennes lies the beautiful Notre Dame de St. Rémy monastery. Near the hamlet of Rochefort, the abbey was founded in 1464 and restored from the ravages of the Napoleonic era in 1887. It is the least known and most cloistered of the Trappist monasteries, a site for quiet contemplation. Here, the monks create strong, fruity dark ales. The three Rochefort Trappist Ales are known as Rochefort 6, Rochefort 8 and Rochefort 10; their hues range from deep copper to chocolate brown, at potencies of 7.5, 9.2 and 11.3 % alcohol respectively. The recipes blend pilsener and Munich malts and use dark candy sugar in the brew-kettle. Reviewers have found flavors reminiscent of raisins, chocolate, caramel, figs and bananas in these extra-rich "nightcap" brews.

Willie Mays originated the one-handed catch, Charlie Parker cleared the way for jazz improvisers to use chord extensions and substitutions, and the Westmalle brewery invented one of the great brew-styles of the world - the Tripel.

The Westmalle abbey brews what is considered the quintessential Belgian Tripel. Like the other bottle-conditioned Trappist ales, Tripel uses candy sugar in the brew-kettle and triple-fermentation, but its complex character remains neither dark (Rochefort), port-like (Chimay) nor spicy-sour (Orval). But it is a potent brew at 9% alcohol. The recipe utilizes pale pilsener malts to create a bright orange-bronze brew with prominent estery apricot-orange flavors. Tripel could be considered the Trappist counterpart to the Belgian blonde ale. Westmalle also produces a dark brown Dubbel (6.5% alcohol). And reportedly, the milder "Single" that is brewed for the monks' consumption only may well be the most delectable 4% alcohol brew on the face of the earth.

The abbey, founded in 1794, is located in the countryside north of Antwerp, a little south of the Dutch border. Although, as is customary for cloistered monasteries, Westmalle is closed to the general public, you can sample their Tripel and Dubbel on the convivial patio of the nearby Cafe Trappisten.

Mouthcoating, malty beers (one said to be Belgium's strongest brew) hail from the St. Sixtus abbey, the smallest Trappist brewery. This modest South Flanders monastic brewery near the French border makes huge, estery, plummy ales, about as far afield from the tart Flemish red beers and brown ales as imaginable. They are also the hardest to find, only obtainable from the Cafe De Vrede across the street, or sporadically from the monastery. As the monks of St. Sixtus say, "We make as much beer as we need to support the abbey, and no more."

The St. Sixtus monastery at the small town of Westvleteren makes three powerfully flavorful Trappist ales: Special (6% alcohol), Extra (8% alcohol) and Abbott (a whopping 11% by volume). The creamy craft brews of St. Sixtus are the least hoppy of the Trappist ales and share the kind of warming sweetness common to dark, spicy Christmas beers.

To complicate matters, the St. Sixtus abbey gave permission for its name to be used by a brewery nearby, which produced high-gravity beers along similar lines. If you remember sampling a very rich, dark Belgian ale with a jolly monk on the label in the 1980's, it was this St. Sixtus, not the genuine Trappist Ale from Westvleteren; this beer, quite good in its own right, was made by the secular St. Bernard brewery of Watou. Such arrangements between abbeys and breweries are not altogether uncommon; this is why there are Belgian Tripels and abbey style ales produced by secular brewers.

As a tantalizing postcript, word has it that a sixth Trappist monastery, Ach el, near the Dutch border, has commenced making craft ales in the Trappist tradition. Carry on, brothers - we know you were chosen by God to ferment!

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