Sorry to kill the romance, but there is nothing inherently magical or spiritual about “abbey beers”—those beers that imitate or get inspiration from the Trappist archetypes. For that matter, there’s nothing inherently special about Trappist beers either, beyond the fact that they’re brewed within the walls of real working abbeys.
Once we blow away the mists of mystique and marketing, the rest is recipe. Then we can really mess with things—just as brewers in Belgium have been doing for years. They have done so beyond the mainstream, which lately threatens to change course and follow the oddities in the international flood of variety.
If there are few rules, there are at least traditions. Thus these examples are based on the structure we know—singles, dubbels, tripels, and … strong dark ales. (Cool Belgophiles don’t use the word “quadrupel” since the Belgians don’t—not counting the few Belgian brewers who started doing it recently for the U.S. market.)
For their part, American brewers have been borrowing names and ideas and yeasts and doing freaky things with them from the start. Because that’s what we do. But Belgian brewers are more conservative, so when they start to play, the results are instructive.
One of the simplest ways to get weird on abbey beers is to crank up the hops character.
However, one could argue that there’s nothing weird about this at all. Fresh Westmalle Tripel—the archetype—has more hops flavor and bitterness than many people realize. Once aged a few months—for example, while it’s being imported to the States—the beer develops a rounder, sweeter malt character, with more esters and alcohol coming to the fore. But a fresh Westmalle Tripel is surprisingly hops-forward.
Hard-to-get Westvleteren Blond—we might call it a “single” even if the locals call it a “lager”—also is a hoppy one. While not as famous as its bigger brown brothers, it’s robustly bitter at 5.8 percent ABV and has a distinctly herbal hops flavor and aroma.
But some of the Belgian abbey ales go further, especially when it comes to tripels. Most are fairly sweet, but some follow a hoppier path, increasing the bitterness and hops flavor and aroma.
Guldenberg from De Ranke in Dottignies—on a narrow strip of far western Hainaut, saison country, between Flanders and France—gets its boost from Hallertauer, with additional aroma through dry hopping. Meanwhile in Brussels, the Jambe de Bois from Senne gets Hallertauer and Spalt to the tune of about 50 IBUs. The result is a clean, spicy snap of bitterness that checks the malt sweetness and fruity esters.
Juicier hops work, too. In the Belgian Ardennes, Houblon Chouffe was one of the first tripels inspired by the American West Coast—waaayyyy back in 2006—throwing Tomahawk and Amarillo in with spicy Saaz. Achouffe Cofounder Chris Bauweraerts tells a story of Duvel CEO Michel Moortgat drinking plenty of Houblon while in negotiations to buy the brewery—and it was the likely inspiration for Duvel Tripel Hop.
About forty miles south of Achouffe, Gregory Verhelst at Rulles has always used American hops simply because he likes them best. La Rulles Triple gets bittering from Warrior and flavor and aroma from Amarillo; the subtle spicy character comes not from spices but from the Orval yeast used by many breweries in the region.
Meanwhile, in the East Flanders town of Herzele, the De Ryck family brewery celebrated its 125th birthday in 2011. Fourth-generation Brewmaster An De Ryck included fruity American hops in her Gouden Arend beer to get more citrus character and bitterness than the traditional Arend Tripel. Initially a one-off, the Gouden Arend was popular enough to become a mainstay.
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Another way to get weird on abbey beers is to add a new twist, although some new twists are really old ones, with added flavor.
How far back in time do you want to travel? We shouldn’t have to go back too far to see monks keeping their ale in casks, opening spigots to fill bottles or flagons for guests. Maybe the casks were repurposed from wine, or not, but flavor wasn’t the point. The point was to have a safe place to put all that beer.
Lately, Belgian brewers have jumped on the oak-aging bandwagon, inspired by clever brewers abroad as well as by their own history. Today the point is not only to add flavor, but also to add a special (and often pricey) product to please drinkers thirsty for variety.
One of the most respected brewers of abbey ales is St. Bernardus, the Watou brewery that once had the contract to brew for Westvleteren. The recipes have not changed much since then, and it’s rare that St. Bernardus adds anything new to the stable. But it happened in 2015 with St. Bernardus Abt 12 Oak Aged, which tweaks the classic St. Bernardus 12 by putting it into Calvados barrels for six months.
In Bruges, the Halve Maan brewery ages smooth and sweetish Straffe Hendrik Quadrupel—yes, they call it that, but they get a lot of tourists, okay?—for a year in Bordeaux casks to become Straffe Hendrik Heritage.
Just south of there, in the village of Ruddervoorde, hobbyist Luc Vermeersch went pro in 2008 to open his De Leite brewery. He puts its tripel, Enfant Terriple, into Mèdoc casks to become Cuvée Mam’zelle—some of which gets a load of macerated cherries to become Cuvée Soeur’ise. Yes, a wine barrel–aged kriekified tripel.
A bit farther south is the town of Ingelmunster, where the Van Honsebrouck castle brewery puts its Kasteel Tripel into cognac casks to become Trignac XII. (Notably, the same brewery started marketing its Kasteel Winter—a strong dark ale with coffee and chocolate syrup—to the United States as Barista, a “chocolate quad.”)
One brewery known for oak-aging is Dochter van de Korenaar in the Baarle-Hertog enclave northeast of Antwerp. There, Dutch-born Brewer Ronald Mengerink plays in a piece of Belgium surrounded by Dutch territory, giving all his beers French names anyway. Finesse is his unusual multi-grain tripel made from barley, wheat, and rye malts. In the past, Mengerink has left it for months in Irish Connemara whiskey barrels. More recently, he is experimenting with fresh, previously unused oak barrels.
In another throwback to the future, Belgian brewers of abbey-style beers are playing with something that would have been common in the old days: mixed fermentation. In the nineteenth century and before, it would have happened naturally with the use of unusual mashing regimes, coolships, and barrel fermentation. In the twenty-first century, things are more controlled, using mixed-yeast cultures or blending with spontaneously fermented lambic.
At Dilewyns in Dendermonde, northwest of Brussels, the Vicaris Tripel mingles with Boon lambic to become the Vicaris Tripel/Gueuze, providing acidity to balance the base beer’s sweetness. Meanwhile in Diest, about thirty-five miles northeast of Brussels, the Loterbol brewery blends its tripel-ish strong blond with Drie Fonteinen lambic in 37.5 cl corked, caged bottles as Tuverbol.
Despite Orval’s success, Brettanomyces-laced abbey-style beers are still scarce in Belgium. However, the previously mentioned Halve Maan in Bruges bottle conditions its Tripel with Brett to become Straffe Hendrik Wild, keeping it in the cellars for a few months before releasing it to the trade once per year.
Spices are another area for play. Many Belgian abbey beers get a dab—often coriander or anise—ideally with the lightest possible touch. But a few take spicing in stranger directions.
In central Ghent, the Gruut brewpub specializes in ales that use a medieval-style spice mix, gruit, instead of hops. The Gruut Inferno is an unhopped, spicy tripel that gets its mild bitterness from … I don’t know. Mugwort, maybe?
Less mysterious but no less intriguing is the tripel at a small brewery founded in 2011 as Toetëlèr. The name refers to the whistles that old-timers carved from elderberry trees in that part of Limburg. All of the Toetëlèr beers are steeped in elderflowers, including the beguiling, sweetish, and floral Amber Tripel.
So, it would misleading to say that there are Belgian abbey beers that don’t follow the rules. It would be more accurate to say that, in fact, there are no rules.
It’s worth noting that the rules for Trappist breweries—the guidelines for getting to use that designation—say nothing at all about recipe. They only say that monks must supervise the brewing within the monastery walls and that proceeds should go to charity after meeting the monks’ basic needs and providing for the maintenance of the abbey’s grounds and buildings. Westvleteren could make a weak, watery, adjunct-laden pils and still call it a Trappist beer.
For abbey beers, even that minimal bit of legalistic structure falls away entirely. Identify your village’s patron saint, slap a cartoon monk on your label, and you, too, can have an abbey beer.
Given that reality, why shouldn’t we play?