Belgium's Great Beers
Understanding the styles
This term is properly applied only to a brewery in a monastery of the Trappists, one of the most severe orders of monks. This order, established at La Trappe, in Normandy, is a stricter observance of the Cistercian rule (from C”teaux, in Burgundy), itself a breakaway from the Benedictines. Among the dozen or so surviving abbey breweries in Europe, seven are Trappist, six in Belgium and one just across the Dutch border, all established in their present form by Trappists who left France after the turbulence of the Napoleonic period. The Trappists have the only monastic breweries in Belgium, all making strong ales with a re-fermentation in the bottle. Some gain a distinctincty rummy character from the use of candy-sugar in the brew-kettle. They do not represent a style, but they are very much a family of beers. The three in the French-speaking part of the country are all in the forest country of the Ardennes, where hermitages burned charcoal to fuel early craft industries. It is not usually possible to visit the abbeys without prior arrangement by letter, and can be difficult even then. Most offer their beers in a nearby café or auberge/inn.
Orval: The most singular of the Trappist brewing abbeys, in both its architecture and its beer. The name derives from Vallée d'Or ("Golden Valley"). Legend has it that Countess Matilda of Tuscany (c1046-1115) lost a gold ring in the lake. When it was brought to the surface by a trout, she thanked God by endowing a monastery. The monastery, originally Benedictine, later Cistercian, was certainly brewng before the French Revolution. It was sacked at that time, then rebuilt between 1929 and 1936. It is on the French frontier, at Villers-devant-Orval in the Belgian province of Luxembourg, not far from Florenville. The finest craftsmen of the period worked on this particularly abbey, which was seen to crown the centenary of the modern kingdom of Belgium. The present Abbey, officially called Notre Dame d'Orval, stands alongside the ruins of the old. Bread and cheese are made for sale, as well as a startlingly dry, hoppy, ale of approximately 6.2 abv, with an dark orange colour. This world-classic brew gains some of its astonishing complexity from a secondary fermentation with multiple strains of yeast, including "semi-wild" Brettanomyces which imparts a "hop-sack" or "horse-blanket" character. Devotees like to bottle-age this beer for between six months and three years. It is a powerful aperitif. There is a shop at the abbey, and a bar-restaurant nearby (A 'Ange Gardien, 3 Rue d'Orval, tel 061-311886).
Chimay: The best-known of the Trappist brewing monaseries. This abbey, also called Notre Dame, stands on a small hill called Scourmont, near the hamlet of Forges, not far from the town of Chimay, also on the French border, but in the province of Hainaut. Originally a glass-smelting town, Chimay is now a centre for tourism in the Ardennes. The abbey, in the Romanesque style, was built in 1850. While the early abbeys brewed for their own communities, Chimay was he first to sell its beer commercially. Between the two World Wars, it coined the appellation "Trappist Beer." After World War II, Chimay's great brewer Father Théodore worked with a famous Belgian brewing scientist Jean De Clerck to isolate the yeasts that identified Chimay's beers as classic Trappist brews. These yeasts, which work at very high temperatures (up to 30¡C; 86¡F), impart a character reminiscent of Zinfandel or Port wine, especially to Chimay's 7.0abv and 9.0abv beers, which have a colour to match. Between the two is a drier, paler, hoppier version at 8.0abv. In ascending order. In ascending order of strength, the standard bottlings are identified by red, white and blue crown tops. There are also larger, corked, bottles as Première, Cinq Cents and Grande Réserve. The strongest will mature in the bottle for at least five years. It makes an excellent accompaniment to Chimay's Trappist cheese (similar to a Port Salut) and is even better with Roquefort.The beers are widely available, and can be found near the abbey at Ferme des Quatre Saisons, 8b Rue de Scourmont, Forges.
Rochefort: The least well-known of the established Trappist breweries. Notre Dame de St Rémy is near the small town of Rochefort, in the province of Namur, where the valley of the river Meuse rises into the Ardennes. The settlement dates from at least 1230, when it was a convent, and brewed at least as early as 1595. The oldest parts of the buildings date from the 1600s. After the Napoleonic period, the abbey was restored in 1887. The beers, tawny to brown in colour, have an earthy honesty, perhaps deriving from a quite simple formulation, in which dark candy sugar is a significant ingredient. They have flavours reminiscent of figs, bananas and chocolate. The range is divided, according to an old Belgian measure of density, into beers of 6.0, 8.0 and 10.0 degrees. These have 7.5, 9.2 and 11.3 per cent alcohol by volume. The brewery has always quietly gone about its business, but in recent years it 10-degree beer has won a growing appreciation. The abbey does not have its own inn, but the beers can be tasted locally at two local hotels: Limbourg (also good for charcuterie and game), 2 Place Albert, tel 084-211036; fax 084-214423; and the slightly more expensive Malle Post (which also has jazz weekends), 46 Rue de Behogne, tel 084-210987, fax 084-221-113.
Westvleteren: The smallest of the Trappist breweries. The abbey of St Sixtus, at West Vleteren, near Ieper and Poperinge, dates from the 1830s. Its beers are not filtered or centrifuged at any stage of production, and emerge with firm, long, big, fresh, malty flavours and suggestions of plum brandy. The Belgian degree system is again used to identify the beers. The figures 4.0¡, 6.0¡, 8.0¡ and 12.0¡ on the crown cork roughly reflect the alcohol content in this instance (though that cannot be precise in a strong, bottle-coniditioned, ale. The strongest might be closer to 11.5 but has on occasion been rated the most potent beer in Belgium. The beers are available next door at the Café In De Vrede. Otherwise, trade and public alike have to go to a serving hatch ta the abbey, A recorded phone message (057-401057) tells callers which beer will be available, and when. If the 12¡ is on sale, cars will begin queuing, long before the 10.0 opening time in the morning. Each car is rationed to ten cases. The monks are inflexible on this point, even toward a café-owner who makes a 1,500-mile round-trip from Odense, on the Danish island of Fynen. "We make as much beer as we need to support the abbey - and no more," say the monks.
Westmalle: Famous for one beer in particular, a world classic, though its makes three. The abbey of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart is in flat countryside at West Malle, between the city of Antwerp and the Dutch border. The monastery was established in 1794, and has brewed since 1836. It is thus the oldest of Belgium's post-Napoleonic Trappist breweries. Its renown, though, derives from the introduction of golden Trappist ales to meet competition from fashionable Pilseners after World War II. Its beers include a marvellously subtle, golden "Single" (curiously called Extra), brewed at 4.0 per cent for the monks' own consumption, but sometimes also found outside the abbey; a dark-brown, fruity Dubbel (the Flemish spelling), at 6.5; and its most famous beer, its golden-to-bronze, aromatic, orangey-tasting, complex Tripel, at 9.0. These Trappist classics have popularised the notion that an "abbey-style Double" should be strong and dark and a "Triple" yet more potent but pale. The beers are available in the village at the café Trappisten, 478 Antwerpse Steenweg (open all day)
Achel: Brewing is being revived, on a small scale, at this sixth Trappist abbey - in Belgium, but close to the Dutch city of Eindhoven. The abbey had a brewery before World War II. In 1998, it opened a small pub initially selling Westmalle prior to making its own beer. This positive step came at a time of less happy news from across the border, where the Koningshoeven abbey was considering consigning its Schaapskooi brewery, producer of the La Trappe ales, to a joint venture with a large, commercial lager-maker.