Holy orders for some divine beers
- Credit: Roger Protz
Can beer be heavenly? If it’s brewed by monks, there’s a good chance a celestial choir will burst into loud hosannas – and the choristers would certainly relish a beer brewed by Trappists in a Belgian monastery.
Belgium is famous for having six monasteries where monks brew on the premises and they were joined in 2017 by brothers in Leicestershire who opened the first monastic brewery since the Reformation.
The Westmalle abbey near Antwerp has released a beer that has caused great interest throughout Europe and is available here. The beer is called Extra (4.8%) and it joins the abbey’s long-standing stronger beers, Dubbel (7%) and Tripel (9.5%). In fact, Extra has been brewed for some time but it was made only for the monks’ private consumption. But after years of lobbying by beer lovers it has now been put on commercial sale.
Trappists are officially Cistercians of the Strict Observance but they acquired their common name as a result of being based in a monastery at La Trappe in Normandy. They were forced to flee at the time of the anti-clerical French Revolution and they settled in the Low Countries where benefactors granted them land to build churches that over time became large and impressive Gothic monasteries.
In France the monks had made liqueurs but with no grapes available further north they brewed beer. At first the beer was made to sustain them as they built their churches and engaged in hard agricultural work. But in the 20th century small amounts of beer were sold commercially as the monks needed income to support the upkeep of the abbeys and to help their pastoral work.
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When writers discovered the Trappist beers a few decades ago there was such a clamour from beer lovers that the monasteries started to make the beers more widely available and in greater quantities. But the monks at several of the abbeys brewed a few beers that never left the sanctity of the cloisters until such brews as Westmalle Extra were also put on commercial sale.
Brewing is strictly controlled by the International Trappist Association, which gives a seal of approval to the beers. The reason is to ensure consumers know the beers are true monastic brews, to distinguish them from abbey beers made by commercial brewers in Belgium who are keen to cash in on the demand for Trappist ales.
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Westmalle Extra is a pale gold beer made from French and German barley malts, with hops from Bavaria, the Czech Republic and Slovenia. It has a fruity aroma with powerful hints of pears, with honeyed malt and spicy hops. Hops build on the palate but they’re balanced by rich malt and ripe fruit. The finish starts bittersweet with honeyed malt and pear fruit but hops finally dominate with a spicy and bitter finale.
The Beer Shop at 71 London Road had a few bottles left and wasn’t certain it could get a fresh supply. Check at 01727 568030. Failing that, the beer can be ordered online from www.beermerchants.com or www.thebelgianbeercompany.com.
A Trappist beer that’s definitely available from the Beer Shop is Tynt Meadow (7.4%), brewed by monks at Mount St Bernard abbey in Leicestershire. It was launched in 2018 to help raise funds for the upkeep of the abbey: abbey and brewery featured in a BBC4 documentary on 28 March. There was a fleeting glimpse of me at the launch, but no programme is perfect.
The beer is brewed with pale and dark malts and hopped with English varieties. It has a fruity aroma reminiscent of raisins and sultanas, with biscuit malt, dark fruit and peppery hops on the palate and a long finish balanced between malt, dark fruit and spicy hops.
In common with all the Trappist beers, Tynt Meadow is bottle conditioned with live yeast and will improve with age.