For serious beer drinkers indulging in the beverage to get just the right flavors can be a real challenge. Understanding what a beer might taste like just from the name can be a daunting exercise. If you are new to beer you may be lost and confused while trying to make a choice. There is regular beer, light beer, ales, and lagers.
Even though ingredients may be close to the same – wheat, Weizen and Wit beer, styles have specific histories and characteristics. These are defined by tweaking the ingredients, choosing different vessels (the container in which the brew is stored), and varying the aging process. There are certain clues that can tell you what a beer might taste like.
- Origin – A beer style’s region will give you a clue as to what the beer is going to taste like. You won’t get a German beer out of Germany or a Belgium beer out of Belgium.
- Color – You eat with your eyes and you drink with them also. You can often recognize a good malt by its color when in a glass.
- Ingredients – Over the centuries beers have been enhanced with a variety of ingredients from fruit to coffee to herbs and spices.
- Yeasts – Today’s breweries have access to a variety of yeasts
- Vessels – The type of containers in which the beer is aged will also have a determination of its flavor. Although most beers are enjoyed fresh, there are some where aging is necessary to achieve the flavor.
It is with these conditions in mind that Trappist Monks began brewing the finest beer in the world as early as 1838 at the St. Sixtus monastery Westvleteren in Belgium. The brewery began to serve only guests and visitors and it wasn’t until 1931 that the abbey began selling beer to the general public. And then and even to this day the monks only brew and sell enough to cover the expenses of the monastery. Income from the sales must be used to support the monastic community with the residual going to support charities.
An interesting fact that during World War I and II they were the only Trappist brewery allowed to keep their large copper vessels as the Germans had requisitioned all the copper from the other breweries for the wars.
Today, because the brewery is so small it only takes a handful of about ten people to brew and bottle the beer. Five monks run the brewery and five others assist in the bottling process. The beer is sold in small quantities weekly directly from the monastery and also to individual buyers on an advance order basis.
Today the monastery is one of eleven Trappist breweries in the world – six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one each in Austria, Italy and the United States. All breweries must produce their beer to strict standards. Once the rules are met and the beer meets the strict criteria only then will it carry the label of “Authentic Trappist Product”.
- The beer is brewed by Monks and must be brewed on or near where the monks live.
- The monastic community must be involved in all aspects of brewing the beer including providing the product that creates the beer and managing them. They then must brew the beer using centuries old recipes.
- Income from the sales must be used to support the monastic community with the residual going to support charities.
But at the Westvleteren brewery the bottles have been sold without labels since the end of World War II with all legal requirements printed on the crown tops. These are the only Trappist beers that do not have the official Trappist logo on the bottle. On all other Trappist beers, the labels are required to be an official Trappist brew. This is so customers are guaranteed they are getting the legitimate article.
At last check the Westvleteren Monastery was only brewing three beers:
- Westvleteren Blonde (green cap) introduced on 10 June 1999.
- Westvleteren 8 (blue cap)
- Westvleteren 12 (yellow cap) introduced in 1940.
Each cap color has a different Alcohol content. The Westvleteren Blond (green cap) contains 5.8%, the Westvleteren 8 has 8% and the Westvleteren 12 has the highest content at 10.2% alcohol.
Up until 1999 the monastery also produced ad dark beer and a lighter beer containing less alcohol which was replaced that year with the Blonde now being sold. As mentioned earlier some beers actually improve with age like good wine and the 8 and 12 are two such beers. The longer the shelf life the better.
But this beer is for serious beer drinkers only. For instance, the Westvleteren Blonde and Westvleteren 8 will cost in the neighborhood of 89 Euros ($99.68) which breaks down to 14 Euros ($16.66) a bottle. The higher octane Westvleteren 12 runs few Euros more. Westvleteren online shop where you can find Westvleteren 12 for sale.
So it is really the Monks who brought the beer industry into Belgium as early as the 1600’s and Belgium has been known for its great beers around the world since then. There is a common Trappist beer called Chimay which happens to be the most common Trappist brew and also comes in a variety of strength and tastes. It is one of the favorites in the UK.
Trappist beers, like all Belgium beers, are traditionally made to enjoy with a specific type of glass. The Chimay glass is actually a goblet shaped to ensure the head is not too large which then allows the beer to breathe easily.
There are over 125 breweries in Belgium today that produce over 500 different kinds of beer. The alcohol content is typically higher than other varieties of beer available in Europe and the US with an alcohol level between 6 to 8 per cent. But there is more to Belgium beer than just the alcohol content. There is the flavor. So what is the process in making a good beer?
First, it is the ingredients. In a Beer guide for Dummies it will tell you the main ingredients are grain, hops, yeast and water. Water accounts for 95% of the brew. But it gets far more complicated than that. The grain provides five things to the beer.
- Color – The color of the grain used will directly affect the color of the beer itself.
- Flavor – The flavor of the beer comes mostly from the malted barley with hops and yeast playing a secondary role.
- Maltose – These are the fermented sugars that come from malted grains.
- Yeast – This converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide.
- Proteins – Proteins are what is responsible for putting a head on the beer.
- Dextrins – This is what is responsible for adding viscosity making you feel full when drinking beer.
Hops provide beer with four attributes:
- Bitterness: Bitterness is essential to the flavor balance of the beer; it offsets the sweetness of the malt.
- Flavor: Hops have flavor that’s distinctly different from bitterness, and it adds to the overall complexity of the beer.
- Aroma: The piquant aroma of hops, which mirrors their flavor, is derived from essential oils in the hops.
- Stability: Hops help provide the beer with stability and shelf life; their beta acids stave off bacterial contamination.
Brewers choose yeast strains based on which style of beer is being made. The two main classifications are:
- Ale Yeast
- Lager Yeast
The process used by the monks is to mash and boil the ingredients, the secret ingredient in the Westvleteren beer being Candi Syrup, Inc. Other ingredients are yeast, hops, malt, sugar, caramel and water.
They allow the concoction to ferment between 8 and 12 weeks using a variety of sub processes. Then bottle at 80% temperature for three weeks and finally add to chiller at 55% for between six months and a year or longer.
As you can see from the many variables the Monks have gotten it right over the last 350 years. And the best part? You can purchase your favorite Trappist brew online!