Beer,  Holiday Beers

Saint Mars of the Desert “Abbey” Beer Series

“Austere” is a word often used to describe monastic beers, be they lagers or ales, and it really is a fitting word.  Back in the 70’s when adjunct lagers ruled the earth, or today when highly flavoured craft beers are often at centre stage, the comparative gravitas and simplicity of monastic beers is an exciting draw (to us anyway).  Often brewed using one malt, one hop, one yeast, and sometimes one sugar, these are intriguingly complex beers, and this complexity is achieved through this great simplicity. As Michael Jackson noted in his fantastic book “Great Beers of Belgium” published in 1991, these aren’t necessarily beers frozen in time either – which makes their continued greatness that much more impressive. Think about this: the venerable Westvleteren 12 of “best beer in the world” fame was born roughly the same time as Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. Monastic brewing isn’t just still existing, it’s still alive.

Thriving Trappist breweries today are mostly quite modern enterprises; for instance Orval began brewing in 1931, Westmalle in 1920, Rochefort in 1899, Chimay in 1850 and more recently others have opened in Austria, the USA and the UK. 

It won’t come as a shock to you to hear that Martha and I are in fact not monks.  We’re not Trappists. We’re not Paulanists, not Benedictines nor Augustinians. That said, the mere mention of these sects has us craving delicious frothy beer, either under a tree at the Hirschgarten in Munich or on the patio at In de Vrede in the hamlet of Westvleteren in West Flanders. The first beers of the world were fermented in Neolithic pots. But the first “industrial” beers, and the first good beers of the world, were likely brewed in abbeys by monks.  

The dissolution, the French revolution and two world wars considerably reduced the number of monastic breweries in Europe. It begs imagination to wonder what could have been.

We’ve had many great experiences drinking Trappist beers, and in 2008 we were lucky enough to be swept up into it ourselves. A Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts was interested in building a brewery, in addition to their existing jelly factory to help in the daunting task of supporting their community of seventy monks, and they contacted us to see if we could offer any advice. In the wake of that meeting we were brought in to educate the community of monks on their own brewing history and how beer is made. We went on to brew test batches with them, and best of all we took in an apprentice from the abbey. Brewing with Brother Brian was one of our happiest times ever in this business. After something of a reshuffle, our secret project with Saint Joseph’s Abbey went on to become the first Trappist certified brewery on the American side of the Atlantic.

Very smartly Trappists protect their beers by creating the “Authentic Trappist Product” label, and promptly sending cease and desist notices to any brewers who include the word “trappist” in their beer names or marketing. I know because I received one in 1998. But I’ve never understood why the same can’t be done by traditional brewing regions/groups like Kölsch brewers in Köln, Altbier brewers in Düsseldorf, the saison brewers of Belgium, Lambic brewers and blenders, hazy beer breweries of New England…

Anyway, what are referred to as “abbey ales” aren’t “Trappist” beers, but are of a similar type if no longer (or perhaps never were) brewed in monasteries.  Also, as far as I know abbey ales are never of Trappist or Cistercian origin, but commonly take their names from Benedictine abbeys – either active or the ruins thereof.  If you’re ever unsure whether a beer is Trappist or an Abbey ale, one trick is that Trappists name their brewery after the town it’s in, abbey beers are usually named after the abbey itself. Or you can look for the Authentic Trappist Product logo.

This is basically a rambling preamble to the introduction of our 2020 holiday series of Saint Mars of the Desert Abbey Beers.  We’re excited to have the opportunity to brew a series of three beers, our own line of abbey ales. They are intended to sit alongside in tribute to, rather than simply copy, the great monastic beers.  All three were brewed using the same specially designed water profile and yeast blend. 

We were concerned, in this age of candy flavoured stouts and fruity flavoured pale ales, that these traditional beers would not be greeted with enthusiasm in the British beer trade. We have been greatly relieved and massively happy to have them be greeted with such an enthusiastic response. We hope you will enjoy drinking them, and that they will bring some happiness in the winter months to come.

Here’s a brief description of what we’ve made. For more information on how these fit into the monastic brewing tradition, keep reading after this section:

SPECIAL 4 – 4.8% ABV. This dark reddish-brown ale has notes of marzipan and lightly roasted coffee.  It’s the exceedingly drinkable “refectory” beer of the range and sets the tone for what’s to come.  It was inspired by the old brown version of Westvleteren 6 Dann knew and loved back in the 1990s.

DUBBEL – 7.0% ABV. Our second beer is different from any “dubbel” you’ve drunk before. It’s a very rich, deep gold, hoppy and bitter beer brewed with Whitbread and Savinsjki Goldings and Alsatian Strisselspalt in the coolship. Old world hops and that house yeast character come together to make a really unique sipper.

QUADRUPLE – 8.8% ABV.  Typically beers of this type are stronger than ours in alcohol content, but we didn’t think it was necessary to the character of our quadruple.  This beer bursts with marzipan, dark fruit and green apple and has that drinkability that these beers often have.  A fireplace-and-holiday experience for the Abbot in your life.

Now a little background. The modern types of beers made by the Trappists and other abbey ale producers depend on where the breweries are located and can be any type of beer under the sun.  There are no such rules saying that they can’t make lager, or IPA for that matter. But usually when we think of these beers our minds are in the Benelux region of western Europe. And to that end we have something of a loose pattern of there beer types:

X, Single, Enkle, Petit, Table, Patersbier or Refectory beer – the lowest gravity offering, meant to portray the actual beer monks drink daily (historically) in the abbey. Often with the Trappists this low gravity beer is rarely or never sold. One example is Chimay Dorée. Another, “Petit Orval” is almost legendary in its rarity. Westmalle makes a beer called “Extra” that sort of fits in this category, but Achel’s “Extra” is their strongest – so there’s no rhyme or reason for the naming.

XX, Dubbel – Stronger and usually darker than the single.  The tradition is that this is the more special beer served to guests at the abbey.  These beers can resemble strong brown ales and can sometimes be a sweet glass of liquid candy. (Ours is neither!)

XXX, Tripel/Super/Quadruple/Abt/Prima Melior – The strongest in the classic range is the “Trippel” which was once a dark beer, then made golden in the pre-war- era for marketing purposes.  The old darker version is now usually called a quadruple or “Abt”(Abbot) when it is brewed.  It’s a confusing tangle really, but now it’s fair to say a Quadruple is dark, and a Triple usually golden.

It’s worth noting that at least three of the best Trappist breweries, whilst conforming to the rule of Saint Benedict, do not even pretend to conform to these “styles”: Orval, Rochefort and Westvleteren.  So there: monks are just as non-conformist as us craft brewers.