tripel

Beer Monks and the Men Who Love Them


An interesting dichotomy exists in the relationship between clergy and alcohol. One would think that the consumption or production of the world’s happiest poison would be strictly off limits. The opposite is the case, as far as production goes. One wonders if the collective cloistered thought is, “If Jesus can turn water into wine, why can’t we?”

They won’t get an argument out of me.

A casual drinker need not look further than Belgium for the greatest example of this. The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance – or Trappists for short – has brewed their own beer for almost four hundred years.  So revered are their wares, some staunch critics believe them to be among the best beers in the world.

My brother and I discovered this firsthand in mid-July at the Portland International Beer Festival.  One of the multi-tokeners (i.e. pricier) beers was a Trappist tripel. The Christian sensibilities in my sibling drew him to it; I was curious by proxy. At first, he thought that there was gunk in the glass, and he was right. Because Trappist beers are bottle-conditioned, residual sugars and yeast remain from processing. The result was a sweet, somewhat sour, but not overly pungent ale with a lot of character. I was hooked. Line. Sinker. All that.

The desire to delve into the monk muck again, however, took a back burner to other beer styles – mainly because of price. I assumed, given the amount of tokens it took for a 5oz sample, that Trappist beers were out of range of my moth-infested wallet. A grocery run to my nearest Trader Joe’s corrected that.

Among the various 20s and 40s on display, I saw a rather robust bottle of Chimay Grande Réserve. Also known as Chimay Bleue, it was a darker ale – 9% ABV (drunk-dose by volume) – in a bottle large enough for at least two pints worth of goodness. It was an impulse buy.

The moment I got home, my bro-roommate and I cracked it open. It took a second for me to figure out how to undo the wire knot around the cork, but eventually my dumb arse did it. The cork came out with a loud pop, sounding almost like a shotgun blast. Fizz oozed from the mouthpiece like a boy’s baking soda volcano experiment.

As I predicted, the bottle poured two pints, but on the second glass I had to wait for the foam to settle. That took awhile. The liquor color was amber-to-cherry crossed with briar brown. The aroma was light, crisp and pilsner-y. Taste-wise, it was sour on the forefront, pungently sweet in the middle, and possessed an almost tannic aftertaste like over-brewed English Breakfast tea.

If I were to draw a comparison, the closest I could think of was bourbon cask-conditioned ales but a bit stronger on the taste.  Such an impression was probably due to the bottle-brewed aspects. The verdict between the two of us was the same; it was good but not “Trappist tripel” good.

A stint to Wyoming delivered me a second round with another Chimay bottle – this time, their Première (or Rouge). It was described as a brown ale with a fruit-sweet aroma. My step-dad purchased the bottle as a gift, mainly because we were both looking for an excuse to drink something after moving furniture all day.  Unlike the Grande, it was lighter and didn’t yield a sour forward punch. The liquor was smoother, sweeter, and reminded me more of the excellence of the Merchant I had months prior.

I liked the Première so much I subjected my pipe-smoking friend to the breed. He preferred his beers on the wheat-y side, anyway. Said palate was the subject of considerable debate between us – light-hearted, though, I assure. Oftentimes, I avoided Belgian beers and stuck to my hoppy beer-candy. The Chimay proved to be our middle-ground – our tasty truce.

At the same time as the Chimay, we also picked up two bottles of Rochefort’s Trappist. For the life of me, I can’t remember which of the three types – titled 6, 8, and 10 respectively – that we had. If I were to wager a post-buzz guess, I would say 6. I remember the ale being expensive and a wine-like crimson.  The Chimays were quite good…but the Rocheforts were f’ing superb. While not called a tripel, it certainly tasted like one; dark, sweet, nuanced, and packing arse-kickery.

I never thought something from Belgium, close to it, or brewed in that small country’s sugar-sweet style would appeal to me as much as it did. But wow – oh, wow – it did. Sometimes I have to be torn away kicking and screaming before I change my paradigm. When I do, though, I extol the changed virtues from the ramparts.

Recently, my brother looked at me and said, “I can picture you as a monk. Writing, brewing beer, contemplating…praying to God.”

Can’t say I disagree with him on most of those points. The only problem might the distance between me and the barrels. Clearly-labeled “Geoffy No Touchy” signs would be required.

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Thursday, December 2nd, 2010 Beverage Blog No Comments

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