Monday, July 16, 2007

Beercraft newspaper article #43: Trappist ales

More on the beer trip tomorrow. I owe you guys the biweekly newspaper column. It just so happens that the subject matter meshes well

In Belgium, the quest for the Holy Ale continues

This column is being written literally hours before the start of a trip to Belgium. That’s right, gentle reader. We at Beercraft are so focused on bringing you accurate, up-to-date information on the world’s beers that we’re willing to travel across an ocean to find it. And we swear we’re not just using this column in an effort to write off a vacation in Europe.

Anyway, since the plane is leaving in three hours, let’s get down to today’s topic: Trappist Ale. And no, it’s not made by dudes in buckskin and fur hats with raccoon tails.

The Trappists are a monastic Catholic order that follow the teachings of Saint (not Pope) Benedict. They’re technically called “The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, but that’s awfully wordy for a beer bottle. Instead they take their moniker from the abbey of La Trappe. Most of their abbeys are located in Belgium, although the order has spread to other regions as well.

These guys are serious monks. They live a life of rigorous personal poverty. They remain silent as much as possible during the day. They basically do two things: work and pray. When not at prayer, they’re making products to support the abbey: Cheese, bread, even clothing. But the most famous fruit of their labor is the Trappist ale that has given Belgium international renown as the world’s beer Mecca.

Belgian law allows only six abbeys to sell their beer as Trappist ale: Achel, Orval, Chimay, Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren and Koenigshoeven. There are numerous other “abbey ales” that are brewed by laic interests and not necessarily at the monasteries themselves.

For many, the beers produced by these six represent the holy grail of brewing. They are all exquisite, Brown or reddish in color, with a fruit and nut aroma and complex malt flavor. Each sip reveals more intricacy of flavor: a hint of coriander, caramel, is that… citrus? Trappist ales are more deep and complex than any other beers in the world.

Trappist and Abbey ales are categorically divided by strength. There’s Singel, which is already strong, Dubbel, Tripel and Quadrupel, which can tip the scales at a skull-crushing 12%. Hey, even a monk gets to live a little!

Unfortunately, Trappist ale seems nigh-impossible for brewers outside of Belgium to duplicate. Each abbey uses a proprietary strain of Belgian yeast, and they’re not giving it out to just anybody. Brewery Ommegang in Cooperstown New York comes the closest, benefiting from the resources of its Belgian parent company Duvel, a longtime brewer of abbey ales.

Other American stabs at the Trappist/Abbey style have yielded good, if inauthentic, results. If your only exposure to “Belgian Ale” has been through a bottle out of the Saranac Summer Sampler 12 pack, it behooves you to try a glass of the Trappist stuff. It’s night and day (although we’ll happily down a few of the Saranacs too).

As you might expect for a beer style brewed by monks in only six abbeys in a tiny European nation, Trappist ale is not cheap. In a Rochester beer bar, expect to pay wine prices. But that’s the cost of greatness. If it’s cheaper in Belgium, we’ll let you know.

Although it seems doubtful that Delta will give us any on the flight over.

In other beers:
Old Toad General Manager Jules Suplicki has recently taken on the responsibility of beer selection for the bar, and she’s developing nicely. Using patron recommendations as well as those of beer distributors, Suplicki has built an eclectic lineup of excellent beers.

Last Sunday the Toad was featuring Okocim Porter on draft and Czechvar (the real Budweiser) as a bottle special. You just don’t find these beers in Rochester bars. Well done, Jules!

Suplicki’s predecessor in the Toad’s Cellar, Joe McBane, is hard at work hand-renovating his new beer bar, in the old Gregory Street MacGregor’s location. We recently had a look at the construction. He’s gutted the place. Don’t expect MacGregor’s when the new bar opens in August. Do, however, expect a fantastic beer selection!

Bruce is a certified beer judge and commercial brewer. Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to


Anonymous said...

"Belgian law allows only six abbeys to sell their beer as Trappist ale: Achel, Orval, Chimay, Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren and Koenigshoeven"

Looks a lot like 7 to me :-)

Anonymous said...

Actually, the Order has a standards organization which only allows Trappist abbeys meeting the most rigorous standards to label their bottle "Trappiste". In Belgium, those abbeys are Chimay, Orval, and Rochefort in Wallonia, and Westmalle, Achel and Westvleteren (good luck finding any of that!) in Flanders. Koningshoeven went through a couple of decades' fight to be allowed to use the label after being booted out by the other abbeys, and for the past few years it is being sold as a Trappist, as well. Although it is very close to Flanders both physically and culturally, Koningshoeven is in fact located in Holland, not Belgium.

Garrett Hohn said...

I concur. English ales are grossly overrated and stylistically quite similar to one another. Typically people rave about German beers but Belgium wins hands down. My Belgian personal favorites are Westmalle Double and Orval Double. I also tilt the hat to Leffe Blond too!