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The Brew Master: Belgian Beer 101

The Brew Master: Belgian Beer 101

Understanding Trappist, abbey and Belgian-style beers

A Trappist to order: Orval

A Trappist to order: Orval

In honor of the soon coming celebration of Belgian Independence day on July 21, let us lay the ground work for a lofty and extensive topic: Belgian beers. Today’s market place is inundated with beautiful bottles of beer. To make things more complicated, many imported beers are in their native language, and I don’t know anyone that speaks Flemish. Essentially you will find three categories of Belgian beers on the shelf: Trappist, abbey and Belgian style. The first two are actually imported from Belgium, while Belgian style are American interpretations of the various styles. Speaking of styles, there are a mere few when compared to how many styles the American craft brewer produces. The most characteristic styles are as follow: blonde or golden ale (like Duvel), bruin or brune (brown ale), dubbel, triple (Delerium Tremens), white beer (Hoegaarden), saison and strong ales. There are a few specialty styles, such as winter beers, table beers, those produced "à la méthode originale" meaning Champagne beers and of course, lambics.

I think being able to differentiate between Trappist, abbey and Belgian-style beers is a great start. In previous columns, I’ve discussed the spontaneously fermented lambics that are deliciously sour, so we’ll leave those be. The confusion I see most often is the difference between Trappist and abbey. First off, they aren’t beer styles like pilsner, IPA  or stout, but instead tell where the beer comes from. Trappists are a Roman Catholic reglious order, so in order for a beer to qualify as Trappist, it must be brewed in a monastery and the profits must support the monastery or its programs. The seven Trappist breweries are Achel, Chimay, Koningshoeven or La Trappe (the Netherlands), Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren. However, you will probably never see Westvleteren in the United States unless you know someone that has been to the brewery to purchase it, as that is the only way to get the beer. These beers have been and are produced with proprietary house yeast strains that have been developed for hundreds of years. In the United States, the two major yeast purveyors, White Labs and Wyeast have cultured clones that are available to the craft brewing industry. The yeasts are ale yeasts, meaning that they ferment primarily in the top two thirds of the fermenter and also ferment at higher temperatures ranging from 60º F to the high 80ºs. It is not uncommon to ferment a saison style beer at 85º F, the result being a peppery, lemony, estery, complex beer.

One of my favorite Trappist ales is Orval. It is really a style all its own, but if I had to describe and label it, I would say it’s a Belgian pale ale with a hint of sour. It is one of the only mass produced beers that is re-fermented in the bottle with Brettanomyces, a “wild yeast” that evolves farmhouse flavors like horse blanket and hay. The nose is undoubtedly citrus from the drop hop, as well as wet horse blanket. It pours as many Belgian beers do, with a thick, rocky white head that lasts forever. The flavor is mildy acidic with a soft malt backbone. Extremely effervescent and refreshing, Orval embodies the classic spiciness in both the nose and taste that is characteristic of many Trappist and other Belgian beers. [Photo by Arlenz Chen]

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