For me, transcendental Trappist ale is the closest beer gets to the finest Bordeaux or vintage Port. Meditating on its moreish, bitter-sweet complexity summons deep contentment and profound questions: Is there life after beer this good? And why can’t I feel my toes?
Authentic Trappist ales
Brewed by Trappist monks of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, as part of their adherence to self-sufficiency, Trappist ales are consumed as ‘liquid bread’ to sustain the monks through periods of fasting.
Drinking is not a sin, but drunkenness is, so the monks tend to drink Patersbier (Father’s beer), generally around 3.5% alcohol. Their strong beers are sold to help fund Trappist communities and charitable works.
These angelic ales are marked by a hexagonal logo with the words ‘Authentic Trappist product’ to differentiate them from hundreds of ‘Abbey’ beers, many of which have no ecclesiastical connections and few of which contribute any of their profits to charity.
The six Belgian monasteries brewing Trappist ales, with the names of their beers in brackets, are as follows Our Lady of Scourmont (Chimay), Saint-Remy (Rochefort), Our Lady of the Sacred Heart (Westmalle), St Benedictus (Achel), St Sixtus (Westvleteren), and Orval (Orval), so good they named it twice.
They are joined by two monasteries in the Netherlands, De Koningshoeven (La Trappe) and De Kievit (Zundert), and the Austrian Engelszell monastery with its Gregorius ale. More recently, The Fontane Abbey in Italy and St Joseph's Abbey (Spencer) in the USA have been producing Trappist beers.
‘Trappist’ does not denote a single style of beer. It’s a broad church, if you’ll pardon the pun, but all the beers are extremely potent, ranging from 6.5% to a cassock-busting 11.3%.
They’re all ales, as opposed to lager, and are unfiltered and unpasteurized. With the exception of Chimay Blue, which is available in Waitrose, they’re as hard to find as hens’ teeth, unless you know where to look (see below).
Trappist ale styles
There are three principal styles of Trappist ale: Dubbel, which is dark reddish/brown with Christmas-cake, dried fruit flavours at about 6-7% alcohol; Tripel, which is golden and glorious with bitter citrus and marmalade flavours, ranging from 8% to 10%; and Quadrupel, a sweet, sipping beer with Madeira-like notes and strong enough to blow the roof off a cathedral.
What to pair Trappist beers with
These robust and comforting beers are the perfect match for rib-sticking stews, game, roast pork and chicken, strong and blue cheeses, bitter chocolate and, served slightly chilled, with barbecues in the summer.
Recommended Trappist beers
I’ve made a selection of beers to show a cross-section of flavours. They’re all available from the websites listed below, mostly priced around £3 - £4 per 33cl bottle, depending on strength.
These websites also sell excellent mixed/gift packs of Belgian beers and authentic Trappist glassware. Drinking these beers from a goblet or chalice feels as good as drinking Champagne from a flute or a Dry Martini from a proper cocktail glass.
Orval (6.2% alcohol)
Pale orange in colour. Intensely dry and herbal with a hint of sage. Pineapple and tangerine fruitiness, with a touch of sourness on the finish. Great with spicy Thai food.
Chimay White (8%)
Pale and refreshing, despite its strength. Fruity notes of grapes and raisins, with a dry, moreish finish.
Chimay Blue (9%)
Dark and strong with caramelized notes and Port-like flavours. Fruity and dry, like biting on a sultana with a piece of stalk attached. Available from Waitrose.
Karmeliet Tripel (8.4%)
Not a Trappist beer, but similar in style. Amber-coloured three-grain beer made with wheat, oats and barley. If they made peach marmalade it would taste like this. (Available from Waitrose.
Westmalle Tripel (9.5%)
Heavenly golden glow with earthy aromas. Seville oranges and liquorice. Miraculously, it is so bitter it becomes sweet again. Often touted as the world’s best beer.
Rochefort 10 (11.3%)
Deep and dark with a rich mix of candied fruits, chestnuts and bitter chocolate, with which it goes surprisingly well.
Where to buy Trappist beers
Trappist ales are available from beersofeurope.co.uk, beerritz.co.uk and beerhawk.co.uk.
Some micropubs will also stock a range of Trappist ales and can often sell bottled beer to take away.
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