The pride of Belgium: chalices of liquid gold

Last month, we saw some generalities about the abbeys, monks and their works. Let’s look a bit deeper into the results, now. Or, reverting to my initial question (the difficult one): what characterizes a trappist ale?

If you open one of the design-award eligible bottles of Orval ale, next to, say a Rochefort 10, and complete the probe with a bottle of Westvleteren yellow cap, and a 75cl Achel De Drie Wijzen, you might be further away from an answer than ever before. To crown it all, tasting will confirm it to you: there’s nothing unlike a Trappist ale, as another Trappist ale. This might sound as a great Joris Pattyn aphorism, but I’m afraid I won’t compete for eternity with this one. Not in the least, because it isn’t true.

First of all, some Trappist ales ARE related – and not only inside one and the same abbey, at that. The latter is obvious: Rochefort 6°, 8° and 10° share inherently the same recipe, only proportions (dry matter/water) vary. Better even, the recipe for the first Rochefort brew, was actually obtained from Chimay brewery, and their legendary brewing father. But, the Rochefort monk that started brewing, had learned his trade in another local brewery, whilst he himself came out of Achel – maternal abbey of Rochefort! In the same way, Chimay followed the example of Westvleteren, that was, in turn, their motherabbey.

One could argue that even the most important thing in determination of taste, the yeast, will adapt to an environment. Long ago, when Westvleteren had their own yeast, brewery St. Bernardus, that obtained license for the “St. Sixtus” beers from the Westvleteren abbey, obtained the abbey’s yeast. St. Bernardus people claim still to use its descendant. Westvleteren, that has ended outsourcing fifteen years ago, but has not enough laboratorial means to provide for their own stable culture, go regularly to Westmalle brewlab to get fresh yeast. Westmalle yeast that is also used in… Achel, the newest of trappistbreweries (in fact, brewing in the Limburg trappist abbey lay dormant between 1917 and 1998!). So you see, links aplenty.

But it is not in the yeast that lies the understanding of what determines a trappist beer. And in fact, I dare to go further than most writers have done so far: I link it to the general Cistercian rule that says that the monks are allowed “to manufacture the drink of the area”. BTW – knowing that the first Trappistmonasteries (as a more strict community inside the Cistercians) were French – what do you think the first Trappists made, that way? No, it was NOT wine. It was cider – the drink of Normandy, where they originated. I might slightly overdo this beautiful picture, but I claim my stake: a trappist brewery has to be seen inside its environment – in space and time.

Beer was liquid nourishment during days of fasting – often in such a monastery. When the monks came out with their beer for sale outside the brewery, it was made a bit stronger, to appeal to customers and to compete with local brewers. But it remained the local drink. Let’s take that idiosyncratic one: Orval. Today it nearly stands as a beer on its own. But – even with its legendary German brewmaster of yesteryear (Pappenheimer – what’s in a name!) in mind – this beer is a lot less exotic when compared to the Picardian Saisons or Bières de Garde. A question that is often asked, here, is which other beer resembles Orval? Usually the answer is one of the Orval clones, or another expressly bitter beer. I will answer: Saison Dupont, as the last real traditional Saison. Orval started as a strong saison avant-la-lettre.

Westvleteren 8, these days at least, is sweet when young, and gets slightly bitter after some ripening. But once, the 8, even the 12, but certainly the 6 and the long-gone fathers’ 4, where dark sweet-sour ales – just as their many brethren in that remote part of West-Flanders. Van Eecke, of course St. Bernardus, but even Desplenter and their examples (Vondel, Van den Bossche, Costenoble,…) brewed dark, sweet-sour, strong ales.

Westmalle will be eternally recognized for “inventing” the blonde “tripel” style. To me, it is very akin to the Moortgat-brewed Duvel – that is never seen as a tripel… but is called a strong Belgian blonde ale… Ah? Isn’t that exactly what a Westmalle tripel is?

Rochefort 8, 10 and Chimay Capsule bleue? They are Walloon strong, fruity, spicy, yeastester-determined and dry-bitter beers. Fully adapted to their environment, in a strong edition. That La Trappe brews the most varied spectrum of beers – from blonde (formerly “Enkel” (Single) to Quadrupel – has not only to do with the difficult search for funds at the Northern Brabant abbey. It forms also a part of Dutch (beer)culture, that is caracterized by the Dutch tendency for fads and fickle customers…

In this 21st century, this has all become very unclear. Muddled by modern transport, mondialisation of offer, imitation, experimentation, trappist ales seem just another range of beer amidst all the other special beers. Special beers, that are seen to be made, these days, from Groenland to New Zealand. Belgium is but a small spot on a big, interconnected globe. But look at them with a pre-war glass, and you will see: trappist ales fit their natural habitat seamlessly. In my eyes, that makes them only more remarkable. And in a way, very modern again.

italian version

di Joris Pattyn