Category Archives: Abbey Beer

This beer is an Abbey Beer, in that it relates to an Abbey – it includes Trappiste Monasteries

#247 – Tongerlo Christmas

#247 - Tongerlo Christmas

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.5 %

I have slowly been working my way through the Tongerlo collection; a fact made more noticeable by the recent re-marketing of the beers and adaptation of styles. I first tried the very average Tripel Blonde (#30) where I was able to introduce the brewing at the Abbey. I then followed up with the slightly better Dubbel Bruin (#137); and a look at the Norbertine monks. The latest offering is the Tongerlo Christmas beer, and now a closer look at the history of the Abbey.

The religious community at Tongerlo was formed in 1133 by a group of monks from the Norbertine Abbey of St Michael of Antwerp, who had been invited by the wealthy landowner Giselbert Castelre to settle on his Tongerlo estate. The monks were characterised by the Norbertine traditions which was a popular and modern movement at the time. The Abbey grew in power through the 13th Century as a papal bull placed Tongerlo at the centre of a number of parish churches in the region. Numbers soon grew on the estate and the community began to spread itself wider. The remit of the Abbey steadily became more powerful, and the buildings grew in size with the best local architects enhancing the beauty of the place.

The rise to prominence was only checked in the 16th Century when the Abbey fell under the strongly Catholic stronghold of ‘s-Hertogenbosch.Rome began to increase taxes and salaries from Tongerlo considerably, and it was only in 1629 under the Calvinist revolt that Tongerlo was spared. It was probably a case of ‘better the devil you know’ however as the Calvinists banned all Catholic worship and many monks were exiled away from their parishes. Things became even worse in 1796 when the French Revolution swept into town and the Abbey came under private ownership. It was as late as 1838 when the Belgian state came into being, that a religious community found its way back to Tongerlo. The brothers have largely remained ever since; with just a brief sojourn at the Abbey of Leffe when a huge fire swept through and destroyed many of the buildings in 1929.

The Tongerlo Christmas is not your traditional dark Christmas fayre. It pours a rusty copper colour with a small and unassuming head. The hint of vanilla on the nose wasn’t completely lost on me, although I struggled to reach the same conclusion once it hit my tastebuds. It was a fairly fruity and enjoyable beer which just lacked any unique characteristics which might have led me to recommend it any further. Essentially if Father Christmas was buying you a sack full of Christmas beers this yuletide you might be a bit disappointed with too many of these.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Belgian Ale, Christmas Beer, Haacht

#224 – Affligem Dubbel

#224 - Affligem Dubbel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6.8 %

Affligem Dubbel is what I like to call a proper Abbey beer. There are some breweries which might use the name of a defunct Abbey to help sell their beers, such as the St. Feuillien range or the Floreffe (#40) beers made by Lefebvre, but then there are those breweries which work under the licence from an existing functioning Abbey. The Affligem beers are very much in the latter category, and lets face it when it comes to Abbey’s, you don’t get much more ‘proper’ than the one in Affligem.

It all started not far short of a thousand years ago, when monk Wedericus from St. Peter’s Abbey in Ghent coerced six errant knights to repent their violent lifestyles and seek a new direction in life.  St. Anno, the Archbishop of Cologne at the time provided the guidance, and Count Palatine of Lotharingia provided his land, and essentially the spirit of the Abbey of Affligem had been founded. In 1085 the new monks had adopted the teachings of St Benedict, and by the next year the first church had been consecrated. That same year the Count of Leuven offered around 200 hectares of his domain to Affligem, and the land began to grow at a remarkable rate (over 8000 hectares at its pomp). The Abbey of Affligem was easily one of the richest domains in the Low Countries.

Affligem was also one of the most influential with many monasteries being founded by the Abbey – these included Bornem (1120) and St. Andrews of Bruges (1100). It became known as the ‘Primaria Brabantiae’ which essentially regarded it as the most important in the Duchy of Brabant. The banner of Brabant was stored there during peace time, and at least five Dukes are still buried there. The power grew through the 14th and 15th Centuries following consecration as an Abbey, and then the granting of Primate in the Brabantian states. Monasteries and religious institutions all over Europe wanted a piece of Affligem.

It wasn’t always good news though. The Abbey was twice plundered during the 14th Century wars between Brabant and Flanders, and monks were often exiled for periods of time. This happened again in 1580 when followers of William of Orange looted the place, leaving it empty for up to 27 years, and then of course there was the French Revolution which took the Abbey out of play for another 76 years until it could be reformed. The Abbey has existed in more placid circumstances ever since and still contains 22 working monks to this day.

The famous Affligem beers have been brewed at the Abbey in some form since 1574, which would have included the brown Dubbel. This is a highly rated mid-strength brew which is fairly standard in appearance and aroma, but is ultimately a pleasurable beer to drink. It has a fair degree of carbonation which was something of a surprise, and leaves a particularly fruity after-effect on the tongue. The whole package is particularly professional and although the beer is not exactly a world beater there is certainly a deep satisfaction felt sitting down drinking a beer which has such a worldly history.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Dubbel, de Smedt

#223 – Guldenberg

#223 - Guldenberg

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

Guldenberg was the very first commercial beer brewed at De Ranke. It was so named because of the ancient Guldenberg Abbey which once stood in the town of Wevelgem, and brewed the local beer. It was in this town that Nino Bacelle, the founder of De Ranke was born.

It all started in 1994 when our man Nino started brewing under his own name. His family had been in the industry since the 1930s, and Nino himself started to tinker with recipes and homebrews from about 1981. He studied brewing (now why didn’t I get that career advice at school?) in Ghent during the mid-Eighties and continued to practice his art. Eventually in the early 90s he had begun to really perfect his passion and friends and family were urging him to launch to the public. He decided to go for it and took the less risky route of using another brewery’s equipment. This meant less initial investment, and so a relationship was formed with Deca Services in Woesten.

In that first year Nino managed to produce nine thousand litres of Guldenberg, which was received to much acclaim. Demand continued to increase and Nino began to once again survey his options. It was then in the mid-Nineties that Nino decided to join forces with a friend and fellow beer lover Guido de Vos, who was a founder member of the HOP beer tasting association, and who had also been tinkering with homebrew for much of his life. The Nino Bacelle brewery suddenly became a 50/50 venture and with that in mind they chose to rename the brewery. De Ranke was officially formed in 1996 and has rarely looked back since. They continued to brew at Deca until 2005 but I will save that story for another brew.

So what about the Guldenberg beer? Well, I would say it certainly lives up to the hype. It’s a strong crisp blonde ale weighing in at 8.5% and is particularly hoppy. This is derived from the use of high quality Hallertau hops, and of course a good measure of dry-hopping. I wouldn’t go as far as saying it’s in the same league as the XX Bitter (#131) on that front but it certainly matches it in overall presence, with the extra ABV perhaps giving it a leading edge. It’s a particularly delicious beer and one that essentially launched one of Belgium’s most impressive breweries.

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Filed under 8, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Brewers, De Ranke

#221 – Leffe 9

#221 - Leffe 9

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

This was my first deviation from the standard Leffe Blonde (#41) and Leffe Brune (#25), and I was reliably informed that the Leffe 9 was the pick of the bunch. It was time to find out. I’ve tended to drift my conversations around Leffe to the politics and machinations of the rise of Interbrew, so I will take a break from that today. I’m going to concentrate on the beer, and according to the website, the Leffe 9 is a perfect Aperitif beer. It all sounded a little bit poncey and thus I deemed it worth the briefest of investigations.

Aperitif is a French term for a starter drink which opens the formalities of a meal. Not only is it a starter but it also serves as the welcome to your guests and is designed to stimulate the appetite. It is usually alcoholic in nature, and comes served with some kind of nibbles. The general suggestion is that the Leffe 9 has ‘spicy, bitter and fruity aromas with a slightly smoky aftertaste’. This would therefore be ‘delightful with charcuterie, cheese or tapas’. I didn’t find this particularly helpful due to tapas normally constituting

a) anything approaching its sell by date which is traditionally given to customers to accompany their drinks (in Spain), or

b) anything approaching its sell by date which is routinely served up in the smallest of portions and charged at excruciatingly exorbitant prices to customers who think that sharing a few meatballs is truly liberating (in the UK).

Why not try making a ‘brioche waffle with fried foie gras and raspberry and spice sauce’ – apparently the power and smoothness of the Leffe 9 will marry well with the baked fois in the apples causing a ‘feast for the senses’. Alternatively why not try ‘mini-sandwiches of smoked trout, Ardennes ham and fromage frais with black pepper’ or ‘mini-skewers of red pepper preserves, chorizo and small sweet potatoes’. I’m trying to take the nonsense out of beer drinking and then Leffe start writing rubbish like this. Whilst there is nothing wrong with admitting that Belgian beer is somewhat more classier than your average lager, any man that cracks open a Leffe 9 and then pops on a pinny to immediately rustle up some vol-au-vents is probably missing the point.

The Leffe 9 is so named because it is 9%. It isn’t therefore a beer to be trifled with. Apparently it is not correct etiquette to lubricate guests beyond the point of not being able to sit up straight or to spend each course staggering to the lavatory so I wonder whether this is the ideal aperitif beer; although again it is common practice to usually only just serve the one. I began to consider the above in terms of my hosting etiquette and realised perhaps that I still had some way to go. One beer just never seems to be enough, and although I very much enjoy a good Belgian beer with good food, the thought of entertaining my friends with a food pairing exhibition fills me with abject horror. I did therefore drink the Leffe 9 alone, and did deem it to be fairly decent but it was far from perfect. It started very strongly with plenty of bite but lost much of its oomph in the middle, thus I promised myself next time I would try it with a terrine of caramelised pheasant offal.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, InBev (Belgium)

#217 – Grimbergen Tripel

#217 - Grimbergen Tripel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

Only beer #217 and it was with some relief that I reached the end of the Grimbergen range with the Tripel. I’m not saying that these beers are awful in anyway, but if ever there was an example of mass marketed mediocrity then this is it. This is an accusation often levelled at Leffe, but to be fair I’d take the Leffe Blonde (#41) over any of the Grimbergen beers any day.

It was only a few beers ago when I went exploring the Grimbergen website to search for the Goud/Doree (#212) and it was there that I found something most peculiar. Everything was in order on the Belgian version of the website, but somehow I had also managed to end up on a slightly different version of the website which presented me with what could only amount to a parallel universe. Where I was previously perusing through the Grimbergen Blonde (#8), and Grimbergen Dubbel (#9), I suddenly found myself at the end of a long dusty wardrobe staring out at an alien wintry landscape – there in full Grimbergen regalia stood a Grimbergen Blanche, and a Grimbergen Rouge. I rubbed the centre of my eyes to dramatic effect and looked again only for a Grimbergen Ambree to bounce into view. I really had entered some awful version of Beer Narnia.

With the horrific realisation that I might have to try more Grimbergen beers, I panicked and stumbled back through the wardrobe grasping at the fur lined coats and gasping for breath. As I sat in a puddle on the floor I tried to make sense of what I had just seen. I tried the website again. Nothing. I searched for Grimbergen. Nothing. I even checked with the O’Mighty one at ratebeer. Still confused. I looked back through the wardrobe and there was nothing but a sturdy oak panel. Christ, what did they put in that Val-Dieu Tripel (#216)?

Once my mind was straight(er) I was able to eventually find my way back to the reality which all stems from the history of takeovers which have punctuated the existence of the Brasserie Union; from its days as Alken-Maes, to the takeover by Carlsberg, and now where it sits under the watchful sentry of Kronenbourg. The latter of course are a monolithic beer producer in France, and all the apparitional beers which clouded my judgment do exist but more notably for the French market. There is even a Grimbergen La Reserve which I’m still working out whether I need to consider adding to my Odyssey. For now though I’m drinking the Grimbergen Tripel with the view that this will be my last for quite some time.

In fairness this may not have been that bad a beer. Although the pour was particularly flat with little sign of any lasting head, and that there was a certain flatness to the carbonation – the taste was quintessentially Tripel. There was some medium spicing and a good level of alcohol which you would expect from a beer of 9% ABV. I would go as far as saying this was the pick of the range that is marketed in Belgium – and I will leave it there for now. I have grudgingly accepted that that there is no quelling that damned Phoenix.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Tripel, Alken-Maes, Phoenix

#216 – Val-Dieu Triple

#216 - Val-Dieu Tripel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

The Brasserie de L’Abbaye du Val-Dieu is in actual fact the only non-Trappist brewing Abbey in Belgium. I won’t go into the history of the Abbey as I covered that when christening the Val-Dieu Biere de Noel (#127) but that opening gambit is certainly an interesting enough nugget of factoid to whet my appetite for the Val-Dieu Triple.

The whole rules and regulations thing which governs becoming ordained as a Trappist brewery has been covered before (#7) although I will need to refresh slightly to explain how the Abbey at Val-Dieu was left high and dry. Firstly in 1997 the brewery at the Abbey ceased to function as a fully operational monastery – there were simply not enough monks remaining. Today at the brewery all the main duties are carried out by laymen, and it looks likely to remain this way for the foreseeable future, despite the fact the Abbey remains a fully functioning religious institution.

The other issue, which is much more complicated is that which relates to the subtle differences between Trappists and Cistercians. For a starter explanation have a read of the Witkap Pater Tripel (#94) but essentially the Cistercians were a splinter group from the Benedictines, and the Trappists were a splinter group from the Cistercians. It’s very loose, but essentially the Trappists are actually known as ‘Cistercians of the Strict Observance’, and they focus far more attention on being contemplative. This aside – the bottom line is that the Abbey at Val-Dieu is Cistercian and always has been.If this religious pendancy wasn’t quite so rigid we would see far more designated breweries across the world than the Magnificent Seven we have in Belgium (and the Netherlands). In particular in Germany there are many non-Trappist monasteries producing beer just like the one at Val-Dieu. Its just they aren’t Trappist.

Anyway, the beers in question that are produced at Aubel are based upon an original recipe from the Val-Dieu monks, and they bear the hallmark which designates them as Authentic Belgian Abbey Beer. The Val-Dieu Triple regardless of its designation was a particularly decent beer – as standard a tripel as I could describe in terms of looks, aroma and taste. It was sweet, strong and quite dry on tasting but it didn’t jump out in any way from its competitors. In many ways, just as all the above will confirm, it really is the nearly-man of Belgian beer.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Tripel, Val Dieu

#212 – Grimbergen Goud / Doree

#212 - Grimbergen Goud (Doree)

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8 %

Yep. Who would believe it? Another bloody Grimbergen. This time it’s the turn of the Grimbergen Goud or Doree, depending on your linguistic preference. If you still need a translation then you can call it the Grimbergen Gold.

I have previously spent a fair amount of time writing about the Grimbergen Abbey (#8), and the new world following the take over by AB/InBev (#9), but I hadn’t really concentrated on the Grimbergen brand. I may as well have a look at that as it’s something that the marketeers in the new world are taking very seriously. Anybody who disbelieves me is free to click on to their website – http://www.grimbergenbier.be/, where a quite beautiful animation tells us the legendary story of the Grimbergen phoenix on the label.

You will recall that the Abbey at Grimbergen has had a tumultuous history, being razed to the ground on numerous occasions, but each time it rebuilt itself and rose again to greatness. The phoenix was the perfect symbol to identify with this history, and in 1629 was chosen as the emblem of the Abbey. The mythical bird has been revered throughout history for its infinite ability to regenerate itself from the ashes – from the Persians, through the Greeks, to the Romans. Even in modern day England, the football team Aldershot Town have the symbol of the phoenix on its club badge since it too has faced a massive period of rebirth following financial meltdown.

The motto of the Grimbergen brand sums up the history perfectly – Ardet Nec Consumitur – Burned but never destroyed. It accompanies the phoenix on the Abbeys coat of arms and can be seen etched magnificently into the buildings stained glass windows – another image which iconically finds itself on the beer label. It was almost with a renewed sense of sympathy and reverence that I unpopped the golden cap to the Grimbergen Goud/Doree.

The beer poured a somewhat flat earthy blonde with a particularly disappointing head that had faded before I’d even brought the beer to my lips. There was little carbonation or aroma to speak of and I was typically disappointed with the taste which certainly didn’t go anywhere further than the Blonde (#8) had. The beer is given a third fermentation in the bottle, and is enriched with aromatic hops but I couldn’t tell the difference. This was just another tame beer which is superfluous to a very tame range, and once I had finished with the bottle I stuck this at the very bottom of the recycling in the hope that finally the phoenix might give up its struggle.

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Filed under 5, Abbey Beer, Abbey Tripel, Alken-Maes, Phoenix

#205 – Grimbergen Cuvee de l’Ermitage

#205 - Grimbergen Cuvee de l'Ermitage

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7.5 %

Another beer from the surprisingly extensive Grimbergen range, and following the recent review of the Optimo Bruno (#194), here follows another with a bold claim of greatness. One would fully expect that with the appellation Cuvee de l’Ermitage this would be some kind of serious brew – Cuvee de l’Ermitage translates crudely as the monks best beer from the most select vats, or something along those lines.

This claim is more likely to have been true in the past, as Alken-Maes (who took over the old Union brewery in 1978) inherited this then highly regarded beer. The original beer was a full 1% stronger in ABV weighing in at 8.5%, and was brewed largely as a Christmas beer. At one time it even bore the name Cuvee de l’Ermitage Christmas. It was largely brewed as a kind of seasonal beer using a selection of three kinds of hops and a variation of special malts. After fermentation it was left to rest for three months in carefully designed tanks which would allow the beer to develop its characteristic flavour – often referred to as bitter, and not unlike Armagnac brandy.

The term ‘Cuvee’ as it is most often used these days in relation to wine seems to apply fairly reasonably to this old beer, in that it reflects a batch of beer blended in a distinctly different way to the rest. The term Hermitage refers most generically to a place where groups of people would live in seclusion in order to devote themselves fully to religious or monastic purposes. This was almost always ascetic in nature, and some of the finest beers known to humanity have been made in this way – the Trappist way.

I never tried the original beer, so I can only comment on the latest incarnation of the recipe, but this is certainly no Cuvee, and it certainly isn’t made in a Hermitage. For me the Cuvee de l’Ermitage is just another average beer that isn’t even as good as the two staple Grimbergen beers (#8, #9) on which it is trying to clearly discern itself from. It was firstly far too thin, with a weak insipid head, which ended up resembling a faded pale amber. It didn’t smell of a great deal but had a fairly unique flavour – quite hoppy with plenty of citrus. This was once a seemingly great beer, but is now little more than a marketable addition to an extremely average range of brews. What else would you expect though from Alken-Maes?

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Filed under 6, Abbey Beer, Alken-Maes, Belgian Strong Ale, Phoenix

#197 – Ename Cuvee 974

#197 - Ename Cuvee 974

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7 %

This is an interestingly titled beer, which actually refers to the founding date of the local borough of Ename, which has now essentially been subsumed into the bigger town of Oudenaarde.

The beer was first brewed in 2002 as a winter beer, at a time when the local town was working very hard to celebrate its rich medieval heritage. Since the 1980s there has been an ongoing project called Ename 974, jointly sponsored by the Flemish Heritage Institute and the Province of East Flanders. The aim of this work was to conduct important archaeological excavations, historical research and to promote the local municipality. The resident brewery Roman supported this work by promoting a new beer to the Ename range.

Another key driver of the Ename 974 project is the Provincial Archaeological Museum which was opened in 1998 and is located beside the St Lawrence Church. It highlights the daily life in Ename from the early Middle Ages until the present day. The Roman brewery also supports this local cause in the form of royalties paid for the sale of its beers. The logos that adorn the Ename range of beers are in reference to the ruined Abbey which is part of the archaeological presence in the town. It’s pretty much an accepted truth that a brewery who can tie their beer to an Abbey will sell more beer regardless of the quality.

There are plenty more Ename beers to be drunk and so I will save the enlightening history of the abbey until then. For now I need to wheedle my attentions away from archaeology before anyone falls asleep and onto the important matter in hand. Beer. The Ename Cuvee 974 was a promising looking brew, which poured obediently leaving a good looking average sized head atop a dark amber mass. The aroma was hoppy and herbal with a tinge of fruit, which to be honest promised more than the actual beer delivered. There was certainly a degree of exotic spice contained within but it was eminently unable to take me anywhere else. A nice beer but in the end really rather average. I guess at least though I have done my bit for the restoration of history in Ename.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Roman

#194 – Grimbergen Optimo Bruno

#194 - Grimbergen Optimo Bruno

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 10%

This was the first beer I had tried from the Grimbergen range, outside of the supermarket popular Blonde (#8) and Dubbel (#9), and from all the hype around this I expected to be impressed – Optimo Bruno literally translates as “Best Brown” in Italian.

The Optimo Bruno is widely available nowadays, although originally this strong dark beer was brewed only as an Easter brew. There will be time to look in more depth at the whole concept of Easter beers, but today I wanted to concentrate on the “Best Brown” tag. How did this bold claim stand up in light of other brown beers I have drunk so far? Having had an extended break from writing about beers in recent months it certainly seems an ideal time to reflect.

I always face a dilemma when I am roaming Belgium in search of new beers. As I trawl the drankencentrums with my trusty home-made beer list, drooling like a kid in a candy shop at the vast selections on offer, I almost always neglect to bring back home enough tried and trusted beers which I have previously delighted in. In terms of high quality brown beers which should grace any cellar, the pick of my adventure so far has been the Trappistes Rochefort 8 (#31), Trappistes Rochefort 10 (#13), Chimay Blue (#45), St Bernardus Tripel Abt 12 (#46), and the Westvleteren 12 (#66). While nobody can deny the quality of any of these highly rated beers, listing these as the top 5 brown beers out of 193 drunk so far does seem somewhat like sitting on the fence. It wouldn’t take a reader long to pick up any reputable beer book or website and find the same views replicated hundreds of times.

There has to be some motivation in giving up the regular imbibing of these classics to force yourself through what at times can feel like an average Belgian back catalogue of beer. This motivation is always completely revived when every once in a while you find a beer which hits your salivary G-spot which was completely unexpected. You get the feeling of exploration and discovery which somehow doesn’t equate to the joy of finding a beer that is universally idolised. For me there have been a couple of brown beers which have hit that spot. The T’Smisje Dubbel (#184) was about as good as it gets, albeit closely followed by the Maredsous 8 Brune (#111).

So could the Alken-Maes self-styled “Best Brown” measure up to these high standards? The bottom line was that this was a decent brown beer. It poured a dark ruby red, and was slightly thinner than I expected of a 10% beer. There was plenty of depth to the taste which was certainly nicely complicated, although there was perhaps just a bit too much ‘herbal, which left it tasting slightly more artificial than some of the aforementioned browns. I can therefore confirm that this beer is indeed an “Optimo Bruno” but only in the Grimbergen range (and that certainly isn’t the boldest statement I will ever make).

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abt/Quadrupel, Alken-Maes, Brewers, Phoenix

#193 – Saint-Martin Cuvee de Noel

#193 - Saint-Martin Cuvee de Noel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

It had been a while since my last grapple with a St. Martin beer (#69), and I tried the Cuvee de Noel with next to no anticipation whatsoever. It was better but really only marginally. So who was this St. Martin whose reputation seems relatively under threat now due to this recurring crap beer association?

He was born in Italy of all places in the 4th Century, the son of a Roman military officer and tribune. He would join the army himself at the plucky age of fifteen having recently discovered Christianity, and ended up serving in a garrison in what is now Amiens in France. He clearly wasn’t the fighting type though, and he was jailed for cowardice at a young age for refusing to join a battle; citing his faith as the catalyst for this change of heart. He chose instead to help the sick and needy, and is famously represented in modern day imagery giving half of his officer’s cloak to a beggar who entreated him. It’s difficult to make out but this also seems to be the illustration on the beer’s label.

A lull in the war saved Martin, who was released from all military details. He promptly took up service as a spiritual student at Poitiers, and sought to convert all those he came into contact with; from the thief who once robbed him in the mountains to his own mother back in Lombardy. He was eventually chased out by heretics to the island of Gallinaria (now Isola d’Albenga) where he settled as a hermit for ten years, eventually forming a Benedictine Abbey in Liguge with a bevy of likeminded monks. He gained great success in building churches and converting the unconvertible, and his reputation soared culminating in his eventual consecration as the Bishop of Tours in 372.

St. Martin continued to live as a hermit after becoming a Bishop becoming clearly a much revered figure who gave almost everything he had to help the needy and the poor.  I’m sure though that he would have also liked a good beer in those days – after all what monk didn’t? although I don’t really think he would have approved of this particular beer. An instantly forgettable, thin and uninspiring ruby red beer which started spicy enough but ended up losing all its strength;  just as St. Martin did in 397 before dying amongst his brethren.

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Filed under 6, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Brunehaut, Christmas Beer, Horse

#191 – Bon Secours Blonde de Noel

#191 - Bon Secours Blonde de Noel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 10 %

While guzzling on the Bon Secours Brune (#28), I introduced the Bernadine nunnery that was formed in Peruwelz in 1904, and then much later while drinking the Bon Secours Blonde (#159) we got to explore the history of the St. Bernard dogs who bedeck the Bon Secours labels. This latest beer brings these two stories to a nice neat conclusion.

Prior to the formation of the nunnery, a monastery had been founded by monks in 1628 in the rural town of Peruwelz. There are legendary tales of the first brewmaster and unsurprisingly this chap, Father Baudelot was something of a habitual drinker. Sundays were the days where the monks would travel between the monastery and the village of Bonsecours to celebrate at the local church, and the journey back for Father Baudelot was always something of a pub crawl. He would spend long convivial evenings hopping between taverns listening to the stories of the locals. Most nights he would stagger home late, although there were times when he might only make it intact, with the help of his St. Bernard dog who would lead him back in a straight line in the early hours of the morning. Bon Secours does after all translate as ‘good help’ in French.

The brewery Caulier later honoured this story of Father Baudelot through the addition of the St. Bernard dog to the label of their Bon Secours beers. The monastery is long gone, as is now sadly the nunnery which recently shut down in Peruwelz, but through the local beers the legend still remains at large. I might have chosen a better beer however to regale this story. The Bon Secours Blonde de Noel was not an entirely pleasant experience. It was somewhat doughy with a flat overpowering hint of rotten fruit, and although I like strong beers, this one completely overpowered any quality the beer might have had. I definitely needed rescuing from this one, and there was not a helpful dog in sight.

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Filed under 4, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Caulier, Christmas Beer, Dog

#167 – La Montagnarde

#167 - La Montagnarde

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

You might expect a beer that is named after a mountaineer to be based somewhere alpine, but as we have already elicited from the Abbaye des Rocs Brune (#67), the area around the village of Montignies-sur-Rocs forms part of the High Lands National Park. It isn’t mountainous but you could argue it is a little bit hilly. It is for this reason that inhabitants of the village are called Montagnards. This beer is therefore somewhat of a tribute to the people from Montignies-sur-Rocs.

It is very much a village famous for its beer, thus the female brewer Natalie Eloir is something of a local heroine, although there have been other famous female Montagnards. One of these was the French Countess Jeanne de Belleville who laid her hat here at the end of the 19th Century – it is after all a pretty impressive and beautiful place for a Countess to settle. She lasted here until the Great War in 1914 where she did her bit as a nurse at the British military hospital of Audregnies. The nearby Battle of Mons which the allies were to lose however was to be a turning point for the Countess who had assisted getting stranded British soldiers to safety. She was subsequently arrested by the Germans in 1915 accused of “treason in time of war”.

Belleville was part of the underground network set up by Edith Cavell which worked against the Germans, and she was subsequently sentenced to death later that year. Cavell however was unfortunate enough to have been executed first, and such was the outcry from nations such as England, Spain and the USA, that the Germans agreed to commute the Countess and her compatriot’s sentences to life imprisonment. She would see out the rest of the war in the concentration camp at Sieberg until liberation came in 1918. It was Edith Cavell who would end up the martyr, but one should never forget the actions of this Montagnard.

The beer itself is an absolute delight, and almost certainly one of the best beers I have had to date. It was a delicious blend of strength, sweetness, viscosity and spice which tantalised the taste buds. It is a remarkable feat to engineer a beer that is at once sharp and bitter, and yet leaves you overwhelmingly with the addictive flavours of caramel and toffee. This was as close a beer as I had found to Boskeun (#82) which is still the pinnacle for me thus far on this journey, yet with the La Montagnarde, the Eloirs may have created a more stable and consistent contender. I get the impression the Boskeun might have an off day once in a while, but this little treat will always taste as good. A perfect tribute to a real local hero.

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Filed under 9, Abbaye des Rocs, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale

#159 – Bon Secours Blonde

#159 - Bon Secours Blonde

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8 %

Bon Secours translates into English as “good help”, and this message is reinforced on the new and improved Bon Secours labels, by the image of a St. Bernard dog – possibly the most symbolic of animals associated with the rescuing of people. It might not necessarily be truly beer related but it’s a nice little story, with references to monasteries and booze.

There was actually a monastery of St. Bernard, which was situated high in the Swiss Alps, and founded unsurprisingly by St. Bernard of Montjou in around 1050. In the valley below sat a majestic pass which was a popular route for travellers, traders and pilgrims for around the next 75 years, who often brought a variety of dogs to the monastery. It was then that the route became difficult to pass and for almost 400 years barely a soul came through. When the St. Bernard pass did once again open up for travel, the monastery was suddenly guarded by this new huge breed of dog.

Dogs were always so much smaller, and thus it was quite something to suddenly see beasts of this nature. It is thought that during the prolonged period of quiet at the monastery, a number of breeds of dog were mated, which including several larger breeds such as the Tibetan Mastiff. The St. Bernard dogs were an obvious choice for the monks to help lead travellers through the snow and dangerous conditions and were also used wisely as rescuers, with their keen sense of direction and strength and size. Quite whether the dogs really did carry barrels of alcohol on their collars is disputable, but there may have been a small chance they might have contained beer.

As for the Bon Secours Blonde, this was actually fairly reminiscent of a Duvel in flavour (#34). The pour was aggressive, and a hazy golden blonde threatened to burst over the sides over the glass. Once it had died down I was left with a very pleasant mildly hopped beer that perhaps slightly overdid the yeast, but countered it with a citrus twang that kept right till the end. I certainly didn’t need rescuing from this one.

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Filed under 8, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Caulier, Dog

#155 – Abbaye des Rocs Speciale Noel

#155 - Abbaye des Rocs Speciale Noel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9 %

The last time I attacked a beer from the Brasserie des Rocs – the Brune (#67), I was bombarded with sediment. The Christmas beer from the same stable was again no exception – it was literally swimming in the stuff. To be honest I was slightly put off by it at first, but have now slowly begun to appreciate the compliment by the brewer.

The reason the brews from Brasserie des Rocs can look so unappealing is due to the fact that the brewery do not filter their beers at any stage of production. They refer to it as the “Methode Traditionelle des Annes 1900”, which is essentially how beers were commonly made in the early 1900’s. Their disclaimer is that the beer should be poured very slowly into the glass, making sure to leave about an inch in the bottle. They even suggest a strainer can be used as well (I did actually try this with the Brune, and it only made it worse).

The common question of course, is whether all this muck is good for you, and the general answer is that it certainly won’t harm you. All the sediment really is, is the remnants of the yeast, proteins and other natural ingredients which in time leave these harmless meaty chunks. Many beer drinkers, who tend to dislike the textured mouthfeel, opt to leave the gunk in the bottle, whereas others embrace the wholesome goodness by tipping the last bit onto the head and quaffing it down. Some even go so far as to eat the final bit. Either way you look at it, it is for me a great symbol of the traditionality of Belgian beer. It certainly hasn’t stopped the Brasserie des Rocs from selling their beers, which do especially well in the USA.

I had taken a couple of days off the beer since the Quadrupel induced hangover (#154), and even as I poured the dark Abbaye des Rocs Speciale Noel, I was still slightly queasy. I completely forgot to pour with care, and I was faced with a thick dark soup full of yeasty morsels. If anything was going to act as hair of the dog, then this would be it. Again I wasn’t as impressed as the general beer drinking community are with these beers. It was strong and sweet which I enjoyed, but at the same time was more fizzy, and more artificial than I would have liked. There was a lingering taste of charcoal, and I ended up a bit disappointed. Again, it may have been a day too soon for a beer like this, but I will keep the faith. There are plenty more to try from this stable.

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Filed under 6, Abbaye des Rocs, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Christmas Beer

#154 – La Trappe Quadrupel

#154 - La Trappe Quadrupel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 10 %

It was a fleeting visit to Bruges this weekend, and the drive back on the Sunday afternoon was made particularly difficult due to the debilitating hangover which surfaced as I did. As I grimacingly pulled the duvet back over my head I tried to recount our steps from last night. Everything was on track from the Staminee de Garre (#153), whereupon we found a small regional restaurant with a poor beer selection. It was only polite to polish off a few carafes of red wine, and we were then heading for a decent bar to finish off the nights proceedings. I vaguely recall a couple of St. Bernardus 12’s crossing my lips, but the final nail in the coffin came from the deadly La Trappe Quadrupel.

I started to try and sum the amount of ABV I had drunk the previous night, and there was a common thread emerging – every beer was over 10%. The Quadrupel that I finished with was almost symbolic of a night of super-strength Belgian beer. The term Quadrupel isn’t a definitive one, but follows in the footsteps of our introductions to the Dubbel (#16), and the Tripel (#149), in that it is conversely related to the strength of the beer. It is itself a much rarer proposition, and the Beer Advocate website only lists about 90 individual examples, including the Westvleteren 12 (#66), and the St. Bernardus Abt (#46). I must admit, I try not to get too caught up in the whole beer definition thing, but it does make life a little easier sometimes when talking beer. As may be apparent by now, I am not a big fan of recreating the beer sampling websites on here.

Many definitions of a Quadrupel, historically have centred on the link to Trappist style, or Abt (Abbot) style beers. This was kind of fine until the strict designations were made as to what could or couldn’t be officially called a Trappist beer (#7). The Quadrupel terminology now exists really to fit in nicely with the innate desire to pigeon hole beers into categories. Beer Advocate and Ratebeer will have their views, but for me a Quadrupel is simply over 10%, full bodied and of the darker variety. What else do you need to know?

My only recollection of this particular Quadrupel was that it was a deep reddy brown colour, very strong and as I recall particularly delicious. Well, apparently that’s what I kept saying. It turns out I may also have had more than one! I was led home before I could go clubbing (something I normally despise), stopping at random strategic intersections to release the pressure on my saturated bladder. I apologise to the people of Bruges now, and hope I can make it up to you on my next visit.

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Filed under 8, Abbey Beer, Abt/Quadrupel, de Koningshoeven, Trappist Beer

#149 – Westmalle Tripel

#149 - Westmalle Tripel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 9.5 %

Just as Westmalle symbolises the ultimate Dubbel (#16), then look no further than Westmalle for the archetypal Tripel. I often get asked by new recruits who I drag to London’s best pubs for a Belgian brainwash, what is a Tripel? This is best answered I think with an elegant glass of this in your hand.

The term Tripel is mainly used in Belgium and the Netherlands, and now commonly in the USA, to describe a strong pale ale, exemplified in the style of the Westmalle Tripel. The origin of the term is still argued about today, but it almost certainly was a measure of the brews’ strength in the early days. Casks used to be marked with a series of notches or crosses, usually X for the weakest, XX for a beer of medium strength or XXX for the strongest. This makes perfect sense, as does the theory that it was in reference to the original gravity of a beer, which tends to correspond with the 3%, 6% and 9% ABV of beers. You tend to find most Tripels are strong, around the 9% mark, although of course this is no definitive yardstick.

Michael Jackson (the beer critic, not the pop star) argued that the first real Tripel was born in the early 1930s in the Drie Linden (Three Lindens) brewery. The head brouwmeister Hendrik Verlinden had been looking to compete with the strong pale lagers and pilseners coming out of Czechoslovakia, and teamed up with the Trappists at Westmalle to share ideas. Westmalle released the strong blonde ale Superbier, which they labelled a Tripel, and Verlinden followed with the Witkap Pater. This would later become the Witkap Pater Tripel (#94) brewed at Slagmuylder, and the Superbier was turned into the Westmalle Tripel in 1956 with the addition of plenty more hops. It has remained essentially unchanged ever since, and to this day is the paragon of virtue for all Tripels.

I had a number of these in my cellar at home, but chance had not thrown one my way as yet, and thus on my first night in Bruges on a boozy weekend, I couldn’t resist one or two of these over a sumptuous meal. Many modern day beer geeks suggest the Westmalle Tripel isn’t quite the beer it once was, but for me it’s a great beer. It always pours rich and golden, with a thick lemony head, and hits you with attitude on the first bite. By the time you have finished at least two of these off, you are definitely ready to go plonk yourself in the corner of a bar and drink yourself into oblivion.

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Filed under 9, Abbey Beer, Abbey Tripel, Trappist Beer, Westmalle

#139 – Moinette Blonde

#139 - Moinette Blonde

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 8.5 %

There could be a handful of reasons why Dupont chose to name their popular beer Moinette Blonde. I’m happy to run through a number of hypotheses and let you play detective (#75).

1. Well its obvious really. The word monk in French is moine. The success of Abbey beers led to the association. The little monk beer.

2. The original name of the beer created in 1955 was the Abbaye de la Moinette. It was the showpiece beer from Dupont, and again was paying lip service to the sellability of Abbey Tripel style beers on the market. The name was changed to Moinette in 1980 due to the fact there is no Abbaye de la Moinette.

3. The Dupont brewery is situated in a swampy area renowned for its marshland. The modern French term for swamp is marais, whilst the ancient French term was moene. The beer was therefore named Moinette, as it was from the Moene region.

4. In the tiny village of Tourpes, which is the home of Dupont, there used to be an old mill, and a farmstead which belonged to the long line of Dupont ancestors. This farmstead was known as the Cense de la Moinette. The name of the flagship beer was chosen as a sentimental reference to the good old days.

It’s safe to say that all the above are pretty much a minor variation on a common set of truths. The one common factor that is beyond doubt however is the general appreciation of this beer. Aside from qualifying in the Top 100 Belgian Beers to try before you die book, the label and style of this beer reeks of professionalism. The beer itself was similar with a classy velvet finish. The flavour was smooth without being stunning, and yet had all the hoppiness I have come to expect from Dupont. It’s a great beer, but isn’t necessarily the kind of style that I get overly excited about.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Tripel, Dupont

#137 – Tongerlo Dubbel Bruin

#137 - Tongerlo Dubbel Bruin

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 6 %

This is the second dabbling I have had with the beers of Tongerlo, my first stop being the Tongerlo Tripel Blonde (#30) which gave me a chance to introduce the Abbey which so elegantly adorns the beers labels. The abbey is famous for its Norbertine traditions, but just what sets aside a Norbertine from say a Cistercian, or a Trappist?

It all stems funnily enough from St. Norbert, who was a migrant preacher that founded the religious community of Premontre in France in 1121. The influential teachings here spread like wildfire, and the Norbertines or Premonstratensians were soon involved in the beginnings of Tongerlo Abbey in 1133. You may also recall he was the founder of Grimbergen Abbey (#8).

The main difference in the Norbertines of the Premonstratensian order was that they weren’t exactly monks, they were canons regular. It’s a subtle difference, one in which I am trying manfully to get my head round – especially as the orders and expectations manifest themselves so differently through time. Essentially the Norbertines originally based their traditions on the Cistercian (#94), and Augustinian ways, in that they were seeking a more austere way of being, but fundamentally they acted as canons regular, and therefore did not lead the true monastic contemplative life. They had far more responsibility in looking to minister to those outside the abbeys, and were if you like, the link between the inner sanctum of the monks, and the wider secular clergy. A subtle difference but one which saved the canon regulars from the long choral duties, and systemic moral reproofs which characterised the monks lives.

At the end of the day though, they were bonded by the brewing of the beer, and I say amen to that. The Tongerlo Dubbel Bruin itself was a safe brown. Thinner and fizzier than I expected, but with the subtle maltiness that you expect from a decent brown beer. At 6% it didn’t have the kick of some darker Belgians but is one I wouldn’t have a problem drinking again.

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Filed under 7, Abbey Beer, Abbey Dubbel, Haacht

#127 – Val Dieu Biere du Noel

#127 - Val Dieu Biere du Noel

Size: 330 ml

ABV: 7 %

There was a time when I seemed to drink an endless swathe of Abbey beers, but its been a while since I was able to talk purely about an Abbey. In fact the Abbaye d’Aulne (#60) was about the last monastic history lesson.

The Abbey of Val Dieu started way back in 1216 as a tiny settlement, following the migration of a few monks from the Maastricht area who were looking for an uninhabited haven to settle in. This place, now Aubel, deep in the east of modern day Belgium, they decided to call Val-Dieu – the Valley of God, such was the splendid location. Here the monks were able to reap the land, brew beer and live to the Cistercian ways (#94).

The original church buildings didn’t last long though as in 1287 the War of Succession in the Duchy of Limburg caused irreperable damage. She was rebuilt again only to be destroyed in 1574 during the Eighty Years War, and then again by the armies of Louis XIV in 1683. Shortly after this the Abbey began to flourish as one of the most renowned in the country under the jurisdiction of Jean Dubois, but bad luck of course struck again during the French Revolution, and she was destroyed for the fourth time.

It would be a slow return for former glories as between 1749 and 1844 the once regal premises remained empty becoming eaten by the ravages of time. A local monk who had lived through the Revolution, and four monks from Bornem eventually restored the Abbey, which survived as a working Abbey until 2001. Since then it has been home to a small Cistercian community, and of course a brewery.

The Val Dieu Biere de Noel was a fairly solid amberish Christmas beer with good legs and a yeasty topping – the head dissipating into what looked like a trail of amoebas. The beer was too inherently thin to be a classic, but was powerful enough on the taste buds to be enjoyable. I melted back into the sofa and let the last vestiges of the weekend wash over me.

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Filed under 6, Abbey Beer, Belgian Strong Ale, Christmas Beer, Val Dieu