Today we’re reviewing an Abbey beer. Or is it a Trappist? What's the difference.
Beer, it seems, has always been a Belgian tradition. The widespread beverage-centered Beaker Culture was present in Belgium from as early as 2800BCE. That’s a long time ago. Fast forward to the eighth and ninth century and monasteries dotted throughout the Belgian countryside give rise to one of Belgium’s great brewing traditions; abbey beers. Most monastic religious orders worked in various cottage industries to support themselves. Some made cheese, some farmed sheep, and others brewed beer. That's how they supported the ministry of the monastery. I can’t tell you how much I wish St Luke’s could start a microbrewery as a way of supporting the life and ministry of the church. Steeped in tradition I tell you! Steeped! Just looking for some financial backing. Anyone...?
Anyway, in the early days of monastic brewing, there was no such thing as “hopped” beer. The bitterness in beer was instead derived from “gruit,” a secret mix of herbs and spices disguised in grain. The right to sell and trade gruit was restricted to the religious orders and political houses of the day. Hops didn’t arrive in Belgium until the beginning of the 14th Century and when they did, permission to uses hops was granted by the regional Bishop and a tax was levied. There it is again people, the craft beer industry is a church tradition! I’m telling you!
Over the centuries a vast array of different style brews were experimented with. Belgian brewers were artisanal in their approach. Or in other words, the brewer as an artist was under no obligation to brew beer that conformed to any particular pattern or style. Over all though Belgium beer tends to focus more on malt that on hops with drinkers preferring more nuanced beers rather than the big flavors more often associated with hops. Herbs and spices are often added and the beer is normally quite sweet. Most notably though, Belgian beer is brewed with a very distinct kind of yeast, that gives all Belgian beer a unique and distinct flavour.
What about Abbey beers verses Trappist beers? Abbey and Trappist beers are the direct descendants of monastic breweries. Abbey beers now refer to "abbey style" beers brewed by commercial brewing companies. Trappist beers are those still brewed by monks on a monastic property. There are licensed officially as Trappist beers. There are eleven monasteries still brewing and officially recognised as a Trappist brewery. Six in Belgium (Orval, Chimay, Westvleteren, Rochefort, Westmalle and Achel), two in the Neatherlands (Koningshoeven and Maria Toevlucht’s), one in the United States (St Joseph’s Abbey), one in Italy (Tre Fontane Abbey), and one in Germany (Mariawald, though they don’t brew beer and rather license other products as Trappist). This doesn't mean Trappist beers are superior to Abbey beers, but they are often harder to get your hands on.
Abbey/Trappist style beers have tended to included, a dubbel (a dark brown fruity and spicy style beer, 6% - 7.8% ABV), a tripel (a golden beer, spiced and malty with refreshing hops, 7.5% - 9.5% ABV), a quadrupel (that is even bigger and bolder than a dubbel or tripel, a big, strong and dark beer ABV 10% and above), a saison, a witbier, a sour brown beer, and also lambics. Way too much to go into now and we’ve already covered a lot.
Tonight’s beer is St Bernardus Brewery’s Abbot 12; a quadrupel! In 1945 the Trappist Monastery St Sixtus decided to limit it's production of beer to that which was needed for the monastery, gate sales, and sales to a few local taverns. Instead of brewing commercially they granted a licence to brew to a local cheese factory and Brewery St Bernard was founded. The brew master from Westvleteren became a partner in the brewery and bought some of the recipes from Westvleteren Abbey. As a side note Westvleteren 12 is regarded by some as the finest beer in the world and it very hard to get your hands on. Now brewing as St Bernardus their offerings are referred to as Abbey beers rather than Trappist and we'll be sampling their Abt 12 (Abbot 12). Here is the blurb straight from their website...
The St.Bernardus Abt 12 is the pride of our stable, the nec plus ultra of our brewery. Abbey ale brewed in the classic 'Quadrupel' style of Belgium's best Abbey Ales. Dark with a full, ivory-colored head. It has a fruity aroma, full of complex flavours and excels because of its long bittersweet finish with a hoppy bite. Worldwide seen as one of the best beers in the world. It's a very balanced beer, with a full-bodied taste and a perfect equilibrium between malty, bitter and sweet. One of the original recipes from the days of license-brewing for the Trappist monks of Westvleteren.
Let's see if it measures up.
Price: $9.99 330mls (pretty expensive, but it has made the trip from Belgium).
Alcohol content: 10%
Colour: A deep and dark cloudy brown. Very slight head that fades quickly.
Aroma: Smells sweet and spicy. Cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg, raisins and dates.
Palate: It’s fizzy, sweet and spicy. Not spicy like hot chillies, but rather a pleasant tingle of baking style spices in your tongue. At 10% ABV it feels almost warm even though I’m drinking it chilled. Plenty of sweet caramel malt flavours coming through.
Finish: It’s in the finish that you get the distinct flavour of Belgian yeast coming through. It’s not as strong as in a beer like Moa’s St Joseph but it is still unmistakable. This is a bit toned back compared to other Belgian beers I've had and is really nice. When more pronounced I don’t enjoy it as much. There is a bitterness at the same time, hidden inside the raisin cookie maltiness, just a touch but it balances things nicely. It is very sweet. The more I drink the sweeter it gets, almost port like.
On the Chart: This wonderful beer is certainly down towards the malty end of the chart rather than hoppy. There is some hoppy bitterness for sure but it is subtle. In terms of complexity, there is plenty going on here. Yum, yum, yum. It’ll be up the scale in terms of complexity.
Conclusion: St Bernardus promote this beer as full bodied in terms of flavour and “a perfect equilibrium between malty, bitter and sweet.” I don’t think this is false advertising. This is pretty delicious. The Belgian yeast won’t be to everybody’s liking but if you find this part of the beer pleasant to your palate, you’ll find the rest of it delicious. It’s a big beer. No doubt about that. But it is also a beer with plenty of nuance and finesse. Well worth shelling out the $10 for it one time. I'll get another one some time for sure!
Reviews pending:Moa's Festive IPA Belgium Edition.
Lion Breweries' Waikato Draft