Visiting the brand-new Trappist brewery
Tasting the latest from Brother Thomas
It was my first sample of the beer from a brand-new Trappist brewery. It came in a goblet, placed on a beer-mat bearing the "Authentic Trappist" logo and the name of the abbey, Achel (pronounced, more or less, "Ackle", with a slightly guttural consonant like the "ch" in loch).
I was in the public cafe at the abbey. Crowds of visitors were lining up to buy glasses of Trappist Achel. The brightly-lit bar-counter would not have been out of place in an airport hotel. At the opposite end of the room, a huge cross on the wall added a balancing touch of solemnity. To one side was a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, revealing a beautifully-fitted brewhouse.
Outside, the courtyard of the abbey had been turned into a terrace, filled with families sitting down to a beer. I had the sense of the abbey being the centre of its village community, as such establishments must have been in medieval times. It was the end of the week and a beautiful afternoon. "Thank God it's Friday," was the mood, and the drinkers buying the beers were helping finance the devotions of the two dozen monks who live at Achel.
I felt like kneeling before this stainless-steel altar to offer a prayer of thanks. For its being there or my being there? Both, I suppose.
Every few minutes, customers wishing to contemplate the source would stroll in and press their noses against the glass wall: two grey-haired ladies; lovers, hand-in-arm; a teenager in a Nike tee-shirt, three toddlers, who lingered, apparently hynotised by the beauty of the shining vessels on the brewhouse platform. I felt like kneeling before this stainless-steel altar to offer a prayer of thanks. For its being there or my being there? Both, I suppose.
From the city of Eindhoven, in Dutch Brabant, it is 20-odd miles south, skirting the town of Valkenswaard, to the barely-evident frontier with Belgium. The abbey's grounds are on the border, but on the Belgian side, in the hamlet of Achel, near the village of Hamont, in Belgian Limburg.
Eindhoven, with major industries like Philips electronics, has made the whole area somewhat suburban. It is part of the Kempen, a sandy heath that was once a no-man's-land on the route from Anwerp to Cologne. Cistercian monks did much to cultivate the area in the 12th century.
The abbey of Achel is dedicated to St Benedict, father of monasticism, but has always been of the Trappist order. The monastery was established in 1845, and had a brewery until the First World War. The Germans took away the kettles in 1917, and the monks have since earned their keep by running a farm, with vegetables, pigs and dairy cattle. Achel has for decades been the only one of Belgium's six Trappist monasteries without a brewery.
As the community of monks has grown older, and found difficulty in attracting younger brothers (though it has not stopped trying), the running of the farm has become a strain. A year or two ago, the community began to wonder whether it might be time to bring back brewing. One of the monks, brother Titus, commented at the time that many readily-available Pils beers were "no better than a glass of water". He added: "Monastic life is about simplicity, quality and strength, so beer is the most suitable product for an abbey."
Some unused land was sold for about £300,000, and a brand-new brewhouse was bought from the Belgian suppliers Meura and fitted in an area that had formerly accommodated the dairy.
While still a student, Tom had read about the proposed brewery and applied for a holiday job. He is clearly at home in his new career, and even sports a haircut that is perilously close to a monks' tonsure.
The technical consultant was brother Thomas, who until his recent retirement had been head brewer at the Trappist abbey of Westmalle, producer of a world-class Tripel. Brother Thomas -- a passionate, opinionated, brewer -- has trained Tom Poncelet to make the beer. While still a student, Tom had read about the proposed brewery and applied for a holiday job. He is clearly at home in his new career, and even sports a haircut that is perilously close to a monks' tonsure.
Since retiring from Westmalle, Brother Thomas, who admits to 70-odd years, has lived at Tillf, near Liege -- in a convent. He assured me that his quarters were quite separate from those of the sisters. But why the opposite end of Belgium? "After 42 years as a brewer, I could not retire and live around the corner". He now has a 70-mile journey to Achel on brewing days, but talks airily of driving at more than 100mph. Achel brews once a week, in batches of ten hectolitres, and all the beer is sold at the abbey cafe. There is at the moment no bottling line.
While young Tom fetched out the beers, Brother Thomas answered my questions and provided a commentary. The first beer, identified as Achelse Blond 4 (the number referring to abv), is lower in alcohol than any other regularly-available Trappist beer. It is a golden ale: with a clean, very smooth, light maltiness and a crisp finish. This brew has a beautifully delicate hop character, from its spicy aroma, through gently emerging, flowery, flavours, to a lingering but clean dryness.
It is brewed wholly from Pilsener malt, and the hops are Kent Golding, Hallertau-Hersbrucker and Saaz, but in five additions, to a respectable 33-37 units of bitterness. Westmalle yeast is used. Primary fermentation is at 18-20°C, followed by a month of warm-conditioning at 10°C. The beer is filtered, but not pasteurised, and served with natural carbonation.
This is clearly inspired by the oddly-named Extra, of a similar strength, served to the monks of Westmalle at mealtimes. It is less complex, though it lacks the bottle-conditioning of the Westmalle. Brother Thomas said he was looking for "purity and subtletly", and added: "This is for drinkers, not tasters." He then put to me the argument so popular among brewers that the drinker must be able to enjoy "a few glasses", which is difficult if the beer is very complex in its maltiness, hoppiness, spiciness or yeast character.
I asked whether the "few glasses" might cause drunkeness that would disturb the monks about their devotions.
While disagreeing with the premise (I think complex beers are more-ish), I asked whether the "few glasses" might cause drunkeness that would disturb the monks about their devotions. "You can't get drunk on this beer!" he responded, thumping the table (a gesture I remember from our meetings at Westmalle, where he argued the same properties for his 9.0 abv Tripel).
A stronger Achelse Blond, at 6.0 per cent, was "for tasters", he reluctantly conceded. It was decided creamier, with hints of vanilla in its maltiness and grapefruit in its hop character.
He said that, once the brewery and its beers were beter established, he would like to produce more ambitious beers. A unfiltered version of this stronger blond could be a next step.
A 5.0 per cent Achelse Bruine, with a touch of caramel, was lightly smooth and toasty. This might in future be given more of a dark-malt character. Brother Thomas has not yet found a dark malt that gives him quite the character he seeks.
When he told me this, I remembered another Trappist telling me that the key to good beer was "Benedictine patience".
The abbey cafe closes on Mondays. During the week, it opens at 11.0, closing at 6.0. At weekends, it remains open an hour later. (Tel 32-011-800-769).
Published Online: FEB 22, 2001
Published in Print: SEPT 1, 1999
In: What's Brewing
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