When I first heard someone use the word “trap” and they weren’t referring to a door or a catching device I assumed they were talking about Trappist beers. After all they are delicious and dripping in history. However, my beer brain was incorrect as the person was talking about some type of music sub-genre. Music aside lets jump into this beer style and get to know both Trappist and Abbey Ales.
Belgium is a small country in Europe that is surrounded by Germany, France and the Netherlands. Due to their location they have been through numerous wars and other upheavals but have never lost their niche for producing unique and complex beer styles. Some of the earliest mention of these beer drinking northerners comes from Caesar himself. This was around 2800 BCE and these northerners consisted of Celts and Germans who were called collectively the Belgae. Monasteries became brewing centers in the eighth and ninth centuries as a way to support the monks (they were required to work to support themselves) and make sure things functioned smoothly. Moving forward to 1067 the writings of abbess Hildergard of Bingen stated that beer was mainly made from oats and she liked her nuns to drink beer as it gave them “rosy cheeks”. As we reach the thirteenth century documents show that beer was being created using barley, spelt, and most likely rye. Hops were not on the scene yet and the use of gruit (5 pounds per barrel of beer) was common. Religious or political powers held the rights to sell the gruit and the Gruithuis building is still standing as an ode to the big business of this mixture. By the mid 1300’s hops were introduced and the first taxation on hopped beers was recorded. Brewing during the 17th century moved beyond the monastery walls and there were numerous public breweries producing local beers. There was a series of wars (Spanish Succession, Austrian Succession, and French Revolution) that dramatically diminished the production of beer, and, finally in 1831, Belgium gained independence under King Leopold. This once again allowed Belgians to start brewing and beer was one thing that had remained fairly untouched by foreign outsiders and invaders.
The Belgian beers we know today start taking shape around the mid 1800’s. Monasteries started making beer again after rebuilding from the French Revolution and we see now well know brands such as Chimay starting up. In the early 1900’s we see massive amounts of imports coming into the country due to low import costs, and they dominate local beer sales. World War one was a huge blow for brewing as the Germans raided breweries for copper equipment. Belgian beer struggled to survive until 1919 when the sale of gin was banned and breweries started to create stronger beers to fulfill the needs of those looking for a gin replacement. At this point some historical Belgian beer styles were gone, others had survived or been slightly altered from their original versions and a new set of styles were being developed. World War two was another blow to the Belgian brewing industry, but the recovery was much quicker than in the past.
One thing I love about Belgian beers is that they treat brewing as an artisanal trade and give the artists (brewers) the support needed to create their own unique variations of traditional styles. This may be the top reason I am dying to get over to Belgium and explore the huge array of styles, tastes and brewers creations. Belgium wasn’t forced to abide by the German Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) so the use of herbs, syrups, microorganisms, unmalted grains and a host of other non-traditional materials has been helping to shape the unique beers of the region. Yeast is a big player in most Belgian beers and that is a unique trait of the region. When talking about Belgian beers it is important to know what esters and phenols are as they are both players in the taste and aroma of Belgian beers. Esters are generated by yeast and usually provide a fruity aroma to beers. These include banana, pear, honey, apple, roses and can even be solvent-like in some cases. Phenols are sometimes called “phenolic” and caused by the aroma of volatile phenols. They tend to have aromas scubas clove, smokey or or medicinal.
Classic Popular Beer Styles:
Appearance: SRM 10-17 (deep reddish-copper), generally clear, large, dense and long-lasting creamy off-white head.
Aroma: complex; rich-sweet malty (caramel, chocolate, toast; but never burnt), moderate fruity esters (raisins, plums, cherries), can include banana or apple, spicy phenols and higher alcohol (rose, light clove, peppery), low to no spicy, herbal or floral hop aromas, malt most prominent with esters and a touch of alcohol
Flavors: rich sweet malt flavor, finishes dry, medium to low bitterness, ester and phenol with some alcohol and malt interplay, low spicy, herbal or floral hop flavor is optional but not usually present
Mouthfeel: medium-full bodied, medium-high carbonation, low alcohol warmth, smooth
Other info: originated in monasteries in middle ages, revived in mid-1800’s, 6.5-7% ABV, traditionally bottle conditioned,
Appearance: deep yellow to deep gold, good clarity, long-lasting creamy, rocky, white head resulting in Belgian lace on the glass as it fades
Aroma: complex bouquet, spiciness, fruity esters (citrus fruits), low hop and alcohol aromas (perfumy, spicy, floral), alcohols are soft, spicy, and low intensity, malt character is light, grainy-sweet, or slight honey like
Flavors: combo of spicy, fruity, and alcohol flavors supported by soft, rounded grainy-sweet malt impression, very light honey notes, low to moderate phenols are peppery in character, esters citrus fruit low to moderate, bitterness is medium to high from combo of hops and yeast produced phenolics, substantial carbonation, lends to dry finish with moderate bitterness after taste with substantial spicy-fruity yeast character, grainy sweet malt does not imply residual sweetness
Mouthfeel: medium to medium-light body, highly carbonated, little to no alcohol warming sensation, effervescent
Other info: high in alcohol but doesn’t taste it, high attenuation, dry finish, traditionally bottle conditioned
Belgian Dark Strong Ale:
Appearance: deep amber to deep copper, more deeply colored than golden, dense and huge persistent cream-to light tan colored head, can be clear to somewhat hazy
Aroma: complex, rich-sweet malt presence, significant esters and alcohol, malt is rich and strong; can have bready-toast quality with deep caramel qualities, fruity esters strong to moderately low (raisin, plum, dried cherry, fig, prune), phenols (peppery, maybe light vanilla), no dark roast malt aroma, no hot alcohol to solvency aromas
Flavors: similar to aroma, malty rich on palate, can have sweet impression if bitterness is low, moderate dry to dry finish and can be moderately sweet, medium-low to moderate bitterness, alcohol provides some balance to malt, complete and varied flavors should blend smoothly and harmoniously, should not have a heavy or syrupy finish
Mouthfeel: highly carbonated but not sharp, smooth but with alcohol warmth, body can be from medium light to medium full and creamy. Most are medium bodied.
Other info: Trappist versions tend to be more drier than Abbey versions, traditionally bottle conditioned, sometimes know as Trappist Quadruple, most are simply known by their strength or color designation. Like a larger Dubbel
Also check out Bitchin’ Brewers (a sub-company of mine) post on Flander’s Red and Oud Bruin for a deeper look into other styles of Belgian beers