When I first had Chimay’s Grande Reserve I didn’t know what an ale was and certainly had no idea of the history behind the beer I loved so. Now I know all kinds of things about all kinds of beer, but what made Chimay an “Authentic Trappist” ale still evaded me… until now:
I have more history with Trappist beers than any other, at least more history I care to remember since keg stands involving natty light are better forgotten. Here’s the story: my parents took my brother and I on a trip to Amsterdam, London, Paris and Brussels. As I alluded to earlier, my beer experience to this point had only involved red cups and frat parties. The last night of the trip was in Brussels and we went down to a restaurant right in the middle of town and asked what local beer they recommended. We received a bottle of Chimay Grande Reserve (blue), then another, and then a few more. Needless to say I didn’t know beer could be so good or so strong. I had also never seen my parents drunk, which was fun and the night ended with the realization that if you’re drunk on a cobblestone street you’re gonna have a bad time.
That experience is what set me on the 8-year journey that has brought be to the point where I’m writing beer reviews for this blog. Now I’m setting out to learn, and share, why Belgian ales are so special.
First off who are Trappists?
The Trappists are a religious order of Roman Catholic monks who reformed to live a more conservative life, leaving the Pope and following the rules of St. Benedict:
- Fidelity to Monastic life
There is also a bit about silence, but it’s not the kind of extreme vow of silence people think about with monks. It’s more about cutting out stupid idle chit chat. There is another rule of St. Benedict that monks are able to live by the work of their hands. This has, luckily for us, been interpreted by the monks to mean that they can make stuff and sell it to pay for food and repairs and what not. So the order started in France then spread around Europe and the world; there is even a Trappist monastery about 2 1/2 hours form Cincinnati in Bardstown, Kentucky.
So how do religious monks get into making beer?
Monks got started brewing to feed and sustain their community back in the middle ages, since they don’t have any rules against drinking. Eventually they realized that they could sell their beer as a way to pay for those upkeeps I mentioned earlier.
What does it take to be an authentic Trappists?
Sadly many monasteries were destroyed in the World Wars. It was also during those wars that the beer brewed in the monasteries came to the attention of American soldiers and we all know there isn’t much more Americans love more than beer. So after the wars the beers got a lot more popular and lots of people started copying their style and calling themselves Trappists even though they weren’t. So, in 1997 some Trappist monasteries founded the International Trappist Association (ITA) to stop copycats. They don’t just do beer, they do cheese, and wine, and a few other things as well… but we here like beer. They setup the following criteria for their beer:
- It must be brewed in, or very close to, the walls of the monastery by monks, or directed by monks
- Brewing is secondary to monastic life
- They can make no profit. The money goes to maintain the monastery and the rest to charity
Who are the authentic trappists?
- La Trappe (which is actually in the Netherlands, not Belgium)
Most of those breweries have three or four main styles of beer as follows. A Enkel (single), Dubbel (double), and Tripel (triple), some also have a Quadrupel. They aren’t really doubling or tripling anything, it just shows an increasing of alcoholic strength. Enkel’s come in around 5%, Dubbels 6 -8%, Tripels 10%, and Quads 10%+. Those strengths aren’t hard and fast rules, for example Rochefort’s 10 (their Quadrupel) is 11.3%. As I review beers in these styles I will provide more information on them there, if you’re curious now I recommend checking out Beer Advocate’s style guide or the BJCP’s Style guidelines.
If you’re suddenly curious and anxious to try these out then many Kroger’s carry Chimay and any finer beer store (Jungle Jims, Party Source, Dutch’s etc…) should carry most, if not all, of these beers. I strongly recommend starting with the Chimay Grande Reserve (blue label), it has become one of the most popular Belgian ales. If you’re feeling more adventurous check our Rochefort’s 10, though it will set you back about $7 for a 12 oz bottle.
So now you know and knowing is half the battle! Look out for my reviews of as many of these beers, and other imitators, that I can get my hands on.