Singel, or single, is the name given to the relatively light types of beer that Trappist monks brew for their own tables. Although Belgium’s Trappist breweries produce some of the world’s most beguiling beers, the monks themselves rarely drink the beers they send out into the secular world. Most Trappist beers are quite strong, and it is possible that the monks have thought that drinking strong beers would interfere with prayer and work. Traditionally, however, beer was a major sustenance within monasteries, so the monks developed lighter beers that they largely kept to themselves. The Trappist versions are rarely seen commercially, but a number of secular breweries make beers in the same vein. They sometimes refer to them as singel, taking after the naming tradition set by the stronger “dubbel” and “tripel”; occasionally they are referred to as “patersbier,” or “father’s beer.”
Although these beers cannot necessarily be said to constitute a style per se, they do have a number of things in common. Most are golden, although light amber is sometimes seen as well, and all are top fermenting and dry. They generally have about 5% alcohol by volume, although some are much lighter. They tend to be relatively hoppy versus their light gravities, and this gives the beers a refreshing quality. All are fermented at warm temperatures by Belgian yeasts, giving the beers their trademark fruity and spicy qualities.
Singels probably originally developed as “small beers,” brewed from further steepings of the mash after the heavier wort has already been collected for stronger beers. The Trappist versions include the golden Chimay Dorée, Westmalle Extra, and Petite Orval, also known as Orval Verte (Green), and Achel “5,” of which there is a blond version and a darker version. Some bottles inevitably escape the walls, but these beers are generally found only at the monasteries and the establishments connected to them. Beer enthusiasts collect, share, and trade them; they are not generally deep or particularly exciting, but they are racy and refreshing, and their rareness gives them a certain caché. The monks, in the meantime, will enjoy these beers daily, saving the stronger beers for holidays. The best known secular commercial example is Witkap Pater Singel, brewed by Brouwerij Slaghmuylder, but a number of American craft breweries have produced their own versions as well.