Trappist beer tasting
Last Updated : 10/06/07
t can sometimes seem as if my views on just about everything in beer run contrary to the widely held ones espoused by CAMRA and the so-called “elite beer writers” which us lesser mortals are supposed to blindly subscribe to. For example, I think regional brewers are generally crap whereas Roger Protz seems to love them, I don't like the way CAMRA conducts itself with regards to Greede Kerching but few other people seems to mind and then I love citrussy, hoppy beers which many people don’t seem to. There are many other examples of my thinking being at odds with commonly-held views but few are as controversial as my opinions of Belgian Trappist beers, as some outraged comments on the Belgian e-group confirmed a few months back!
Put simply I think that most Trappist brews are technically (and flavour-wise) poor beers full of hop extract plus other time-saving ingredients/processes and with short conditioning times resulting in, to use a quaint American term, a “half-assed” finished product. Now most beer writers think the sun shines out of the arse of monasteries such as Chimay, Orval and Westmalle – almost certainly on the strength of their much better beer quality ten years back and more - to the extent that I’m beginning to think they are trying to secure their passage through the pearly gates by not slagging off God's own brews! Not so me and I’ve been involved in several heated discussions on e-groups on this very subject.
My biggest issue is that, in my opinion at least, most Trappist beers just aren't as good as they used to be for a variety of reasons, but mainly the desire of the monks to maximize their profit by squeezing ever increasing amounts of supposed blessed beer from breweries not designed to produce anywhere near the amounts being made; this happens in a variety of ways from the questionable, such as using hop extract and/or wheat flour/other cheap sources of extract, to the downright dodgy where as, at Chimay, the conditioning and bottling has been moved off-site and so only the actual brewing occurs there now! Add to this the ever-increasing use of conical fermenters which, despite speeding up the brewing, dumb down the flavour and remove much of the character acquired by open-topped vessels and you may start to see where I’m coming from.
We’d been acquiring as many Trappist beers as possible for a big tasting session, but I had no idea we’d manage to acquire all of the standard Belgian examples (with the exception of Westvleteren Blonde) and also one from La Trappe just to throw a bit of interest into the mix. Sue sorted the tasting out into a logical order although she didn’t tell me which beers we had (I’d already forgotten some of them) and in what order we’d be drinking them in order to prevent me guessing which was Chimay and giving it nul points out of spite! So, the running order of the tasting was as follows, although remember I didn’t know anything about this at the time…
That’s some tasting, and one which required a long evening and plenty of decent music to accompany it (as well as lots of cheese to nibble on) and so, when a weekend with little to do presented itself, we decided to go for it! With the cheese and water ready to soak up as much of the alcohol as possible – Trappist beers aren’t noted for their weakness, after all – the bottles were retrieved from the cellar, my orange book was ready, and the tasting began!
Sue was pouring the beers in the kitchen and so I had no idea what any of them were or even what beers were on the list throughout the entire procedure so I wouldn’t be biased against beers which, had I seen the label, I may have been intensely prejudiced against! I just thought I’d say that again to reassure anyone who thinks I knew all along what was going on that I didn’t and the results weren’t as clear-cut as I had expected with one or two surprises…
My first beer lurked in the glass with an attractive reddy amber colour and smelt of syrup, chocolate and a hint of alcohol. My first sip of the evening wasn’t particularly pleasant, however, and I pulled a face as the thin, chocolatey, wheat-flour flavour washed over my tongue with hints of cardboard and a strange flowery note, but overall it was a reasonably unattractive beer and quite bland; I’d certainly not drink this through choice I grimaced as I supped away at the disappointing fluid in my glass which scored an embarrassing 1; not a great start, then!
Next up was a similarly-coloured reddy/copper brew with a toffee-malt aroma but the palate was dry, caustically bitter and harsh, with a hint of sweetness with cereal notes in the thin toffee-tasting aftertaste; at first I wasn’t sure if this was the same beer thrown in twice just to test me, but I decided, after a bit of thought, that it was a different one – albeit another crappy one – which makes the Trappist “brand” look ridiculous by being so poorly brewed.
The third brew was darker red, more of a pleasing garnet colour, and a lot better than the previous two excuses for beers. Smooth and full of treacle toffee flavours, it had hints of syrup and bitterness in the flavour before a rather dull, malty, slightly musty finish which kind of let down all the good work done in the taste. Sue asked me what I thought it was and I had to admit I’d not a clue; it certainly didn’t fit any of the memories I had of Trappist beers and by this point I was becoming slightly confused as to which beers I was drinking!
Beer four was the first one I had actually enjoyed thus far in the evening; a deep red/brown colour, it possessed lots of attractive fruitiness (something almost completely lacking in the first three) with a nutty, fruity, chewy malt taste which turned vaguely bitter yet with more fruit, malt and a complex chocolate/toast/roast grain aftertaste. I made a quick guess that this was Achel Brune as I drank the very suppable brew and wondered if the next could possibly match up to this one.
It did, and surpassed it. Deep russet in hue with a full-bodied chocolate and grainsack aroma, this was more like it! Rich, full, fruity, caramelly with some chocolate and a decent bitterness summed up the flavour which ended with a lovely nutty hint and a mellow, complex, malty finish. I wore a big smile as I drank this quality beer and I had a vague suspicion it might be Westvleteren 8 if only due to the bitterness it possessed. My glass was empty very quickly and so Sue went off to the kitchen to fetch the next candidate.
Another copper-brown brew, this one didn’t quite reach the standards of the previous beer yet had a very attractive fruity and quite malty aroma which led to a complex flavour of toast, fruit, lots of sweet maltiness and then developed into a toasty, malty finish with a touch of hoppiness but, more strangely, some herby tastes (maybe sage or thyme – something like that) and went down very well indeed. I was beginning to enjoy the beers now and had already mentally adjusted my position that most Trappist beers are crap – on the showing so far, most of them had been pretty decent apart from the rather embarrassing first two!
I could smell the next beer before I even picked the glass up, and knew immediately what it was; Orval! The wild yeast character was billowing out of the glass and I thought that maybe this was a very elderly bottle with the old bitterness still intact…? Sadly not, although the lovely horseblanket and musty blanket character was there in buckets with some flowery hoppiness. The flavour had, surprisingly, even more of a pronounced Brettanomyces taste with a strong maltiness, an average body, and some hoppiness but, sadly, a huge void where the intense bitterness used to be making the beer somewhat unbalanced in the mouth although, to give it it’s due, it was still a very distinctive (the most distinctive of all I had that evening) beer and is still a pleasure to drink; if only the monks would reinstate that huge bitter bite and everything would be great again!
Orval had obviously marked a change from the earlier Dubbels to the Tripels and so I picked up the newly-filled glass for a sniff of the new beer. A candy sugar aroma led to a rich malty taste with bitterness and malt, quite well balanced, with more candy in the finish but little hop character and a hint of fruit; I had no idea what beer this was, as per normal, but it was a decent enough start to the Tripels if not a particularly exciting one.
The next brew was darker and a whack of coriander seed hit me square in the nose; that’ll be Rochefort, then! The flavour was of more coriander, maltiness, a medium body and pronounced alcohol – the first beer thus far to have this – before a spicy dry finish with a indistinct hint of bitterness at the death. I must admit I’m not a fan of the Rochefort spicy taste and I’m also dubious about whether it’s been like that for as many years as some claim, but as we all know our palates change as we experience more beers and we tend to forget aspects of beers we don’t encounter that often, so maybe I’m just talking bollocks here?
Anyway, I digress. My next victim was a golden beer, obviously a Tripel, which was a strange beer all in all; my tasting notes say “well brewed yet not very exciting beer; malty, rich-bodied, bitterish and candied brew” and I think what I was trying to say was that it was alright, but not terribly interesting for the ABV or style. There was nothing physically wrong with it, no brewing faults or divergent tastes, yet it failed to hit the spot and became just another “it’s alright” beer which I’d drink again but not, probably, through choice.
Beer eleven was another amber/gold beer but I knew – or, at least, had an idea – what this one was as a slight cardboardy scent was noticeable and, so I reasoned, the only Trappist beers which had been in our cellar for a long time were the Achel Tripels! Besides the unfortunate aged character it was a decent enough brew with a rich malty taste overlain by candy sugar and gave the impression of being a well-brewed, tasty, malty, very suppable beer for the strength and impressed me more than the previous beer despite being slightly past it’s best. Character and flavour will always win out, with me at least, over blandness and safeness!
My next glass of beer was a darker brown example and, not to put too fine a point on it, it wasn't particularly pleasant. A kind of powdery maltiness was to the fore with lots of adjuncty flavours, maybe wheat, then lots of caramel came in along with a drying, thin body and a very forced, artificial-tasting bitterness; this was almost the first drain-pour of the evening I was so unimpressed but, in the interests of seeing if the stuff improved the more I drank, I stayed with it until the (artificially) bitter end… but wished I hadn’t as the taste didn’t improve at all and actually got worse with the chemically, industrial bitter flavour overtaking everything and requiring me to have a glass of water to wash the taste away as well as four Carr’s water biscuits to cleanse my palate – and that still didn’t work!
“For fuck’s sake, what’s this crap?” I moaned as the next beer was poured; very dark brown, this one wasn’t as artificially bitter as the last one but had a flavour engulfed by caramel sweetness and then a very dry, thin, yet again caustically-harsh and frankly nasty flavour with a very unusual sherbet-like texture and an unpleasant spiciness rounding off the taste. I don’t usually pour beers away, but after soldiering through the last one and finding it only got worse I have to admit the bottom third of this glass went straight down the sink!
Finally, the last beer was in my hand, and this one was much better! A lovely russet brown colour in the glass, this brew had a forceful aroma of fruit, maltiness and toffee and the flavour expanded on this to add layers of caramel, treacle, bitterness, rich fruitiness although overall the mouthfeel was very mellow and integrated with no one flavour rearing it’s head above the others. There was a slight burn of alcohol but nothing too serious (after all, we’re talking 8%+ beers here!) and the aftertaste ended with a superb flurry of honeycomb maltiness, crème caramels, a hefty bitterness and still that dry, bitter twang holding it all together which, I feel, is where most of the other beers went wrong – they didn’t have the balancing hops and bitterness to hold such strong flavours together and they were marked down for it!
The moment of truth had arrived, and I was worried; would I have chosen Chimay Blue to be my favourite beer and Westvleteren my worst? I needn’t have doubted my tastebuds, however, as the results were broadly in line with what I’d have expected in that Westvleteren came out a clear winner, I guessed Orval right, and Chimay/Rochefort did badly although Chimay white did comparitively well. What I didn’t expect was how well the Westmalle beers did, especially the Dubbel, which was actually a very decent drink and something I’d definitely have again without any complaining! (Well, not much…)
The surprise Sue had thrown in to test me was La Trappe Shaapskoi Dubbel and I knew why I hadn’t a clue what it had been during the tasting as the last time I’d drunk it must be ten years ago! Overall this tasting reaffirmed my views that Trappist beers are tremendously overrated and nowhere near as good as they should be, and if they were brewed by some bloke on an industrial estate in Essex then very few people would pay the majority of them any regard, but say that they’re brewed by monks in a romantic old abbey and everyone thinks they’re wonderful… talk about the power of branding, Trappist beers are that power over fact in all it’s glory!
Where they finished.
It’s not quite as simple as comparing the scores as there are four beers with 2 and three with 1, so what I’ve done is go back over my tasting notes and arranged the beers within a score band into the order I feel that my tasting notes give them; there’s been no bias here, just an interpretation of the notes I wrote at the time!
Westvleteren 10 ()
Westvleteren 8 ()
Westmalle Dubbel ()
Achel Brune ()
Achel Blonde (, although it would probably have scored better if fresh)
Westmalle Tripel ()
Chimay White ()
La Trappe Koningshoeven Dubbel ()
Rochefort 8 ()
Rochefort 6 ()
Chimay Red ()
Chimay Blue ()
Rochefort 10 ()
So, to summarise, Westvleteren came a resounding 1st and 2nd with the distinctive yet hollow Orval 3rd. Westmalle dubbel is a surprising 4th but it was a good tasty beer and deserves it! Both Achels are next and, had they both (especially the tripel) beer fresher, we may have seen them challenge Orval for third place. Chimay white comes in at a surprising 8th which sounds bad but, considering my opinion of their beers, is a very respectable score and shows why I try and blind-taste wherever possible! The nice-enough La Trappe follows, then we get to the bottom of the barrel and, unsurprisingly for me, it’s made up of the three Rochefort beers (although I’m surprised the ten scored so lowly) and the other two Chimay beers.
It’s good to have your bias of certain breweries reinforced by a good old blind tasting and this was no exception to that; my opinion of most Trappist beers remains that they are over-rated for what they are and, if they are taken purely on merit, they fare far worse than other similar beers brewed by commercial producers and I’m thinking of St Bernardus in particular here. So, let’s just say I won’t be ordering Chimay or Rochefort in future unless it’s for another marathon Trappist blind tasting somewhere next year to see how the beers fare then!
See an essay I wrote about Trappist beers here...
© Gazza 10/06/07 V1.0