New Information on Trappist Brewing and Mashing in 1969
In 1969, Philippe Mercier, an employee of Rapidase in France, authored an article (not available online), Trappist Beer Production in the Monastery. It was published in Wallerstein Laboratory Communications, a technical publication of Wallerstein Laboratories, an American consultancy.
I previously gave some history on Wallerstein, a firm which serviced the fermentation and food technology sectors. See here. Two brothers started the business in about 1900 in New York. Some time in the 1950s or 60s they were acquired by another company. The house journal continued at least to 1969, clearly.
The Mercier article, running some seven pages, is of significant historical value. It has never been previously cited in a consumer beer publication, to my knowledge. It is a valuable aid to understanding Trappist brewing before beer sage Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer (1977), which first drew international attention to modern Trappist brewing.
The article starts by sketching Trappist brewing history in a way not unworthy of Jackson himself. It next outlines brewing equipment and processes, maturation, and marketing (sample: “there has been no advertising and the beer is not widely known”). Fairly detailed analytical data is presented, some quite sophisticated, e.g., gas chromatographic data on bottle head space at different years’ aging.
A number of tables report technical data for three breweries, identified as Brewery A, Brewery B, and Brewery C. It covers things like IBU (a bitterness measurement), and colour on the SRM and EBC scales.
From my analysis the breweries are clearly Chimay, Rochefort, and Westmalle, indeed respectively. One reason is that an acknowledgement:
… thanks the directors of the breweries of R.P. Trappistes de Chimay, Rochefort and Westmalle for their help and for the data necessary for preparation of this paper.
Photographs are included with a legend referring to the brewery, for example, the exterior of Westmalle is shown, and a goblet of its beer.
Under “brewing process”, Mercier addresses the mash for Trappist beer:
There are a number of characteristic features in the brewing of Trappist beer. The grist is usually composed of about 95% amber malt representing an equal mixture of two varieties, both two-rowed, and the monasteries use whatever malt is available. In some cases they grow their own barley and malt it, but in most cases the monks rely on commercial maltsters.
Typical malt analyses are shown in Table 1. A high nitrogen content is preferred as this is associated with high diastatic power. To obtain the characteristic dark hue desired, two varieties of amber malt are used, one considerably darker than the other, together with up to 5% caramel or roast malt. In some cases, a very small amount of glucose syrup may replace some of the caramel malt, usually not more than 1 or 2%. …. When glucose syrup is used it is customarily added at the wort boiling stage.
This tells us the three breweries were essentially all-malt in 1969, with a grist of two forms of “amber malt”, up to 5% black malt or caramel malt, and up to 2% glucose. The glucose was probably used to adjust original gravity to the required level, as needed.
About 20 years ago there occurred a lively discussion in beer circles on the purpose and origins of the “wheat flour” or “wheat starch” used in Chimay’s mashing system.
This followed in the wake of Chimay’s labels being changed around 1997 to state that both “starch” and sugar were ingredients together with barley malt. Today, Chimay’s labels refer to “barley” and perhaps also “wheat” but to my knowledge not starch except, one presumes, where a law may require it. The current website of Chimay refers to “ground barley” and other “ingredients”, not starch but a previous version of the website did refer to starch.
So, late-1990s beer writers started asking questions about the starch. Many had assumed the beers were all-malt except for possible use of some sugar, a longstanding practice of many Belgian breweries.
A good summary of the controversy, and the brewery’s reaction, are set out in a 2005 article by U.K. beer writer Roger Protz, which you can read here.
Michael Jackson’s 1977 book did not discuss the mash composition of Trappist beer although mash composition was frequently addressed for other nations’ beers, especially where a cereal adjunct was used.
Wheat flour and wheat starch are both malt adjuncts. One contains gluten, one does not. Either way, with up to 5% glucose used in the boil stage, it seems that from the 1990s or earlier – but some time after Mercier’s article appeared in 1969 – Chimay has used 15-20% non-malt in the Red and Blue labels.
Protz’ article refers to another, contemporary, article in a CAMRA magazine that suggested a process change of some kind occurred at Chimay in 1969. Despite various efforts I have not been able to locate that article. Present knowledge suggests the fathers were not pressed by CAMRA on what that change was. Perhaps the matter even then seemed too distant, or was assumed not to relate to mash composition.
But in light of the Mercier article, I think it plausible that wheat flour/wheat starch was first used at Chimay in 1969 after Mercier’s article appeared, or perhaps in 1970 or some time at any rate before Jackson’s World Guide to Beer appeared.
I’m wondering now if Jackson perhaps knew in 1977 that cereal adjunct was used but chose not to mention it. On the other hand, if Mercier’s description of the mash applied no less in 1977, then the process change to adjunct mashing occurred later.
Mercier himself does not mention any use, even occasional, of grain adjunct. To be sure he writes, “The grist is usually composed…” (my emphasis). Perhaps Chimay’s practice varied occasionally, or that of Westmalle or Rochefort, to include cereal adjunct before 1969, but I think this unlikely.
Mercier’s article states that he worked for Rapidase. Based on my further research, in the 1960s Rapidase, based in Seclin, France in the north, manufactured industrial enzyme made from plant and other natural sources. The product line still exists, owned today by a different company.
American-based Wallerstein had patented various enzyme products which Rapidase commercialized in France and Belgium. European two-row barley sometimes then did not produce sufficient diastase to convert adjunct starches in brewing mashes to fermentable sugar; enter Wallerstein’s enzymes, among other products available in the market.
It seems reasonable Mercier was marketing Rapidase – think “rapid-diastase” – to breweries that used adjunct mashes, including Trappist brewers. Probably Mercier became intrigued with Trappist brewing traditions and decided to memorialize this in an article.
Whether any palate change, or a significant one, occurred in Chimay beer between 1969 and today, or for Westmalle or Rochefort, I cannot say. The situation is complicated by the fact that in the 1990s Chimay changed its fermentation equipment.
Some observers, including Michael Jackson in his later pocket guides, speculated the yeast adapted differently in the new vessels and the taste evolved for that reason. Perhaps adjunct brewing was brought in when the new fermenters were installed although I incline that its use started earlier.
Certainly Chimay and the other Trappist beers remain legends of the brewing world. The beers are certainly distinctive in taste and in general “Trappist” still denotes a style, a general approach to brewing shown by a similar yeast signature, bottle-conditioning, top-fermentation, and an emphasis on strong beers.
No brewery stays still in terms of process; one should not consider the Trappists any different.
Still, it is significant that in 1969 Chimay, Rochefort, and Westmalle were brewing from all-malt (or virtually so as 1-2% glucose could have no practical effect on the sensory result). It seems clear that the recipes have not remained static in regard to mashing details at any rate.
For now, Philippe Mercier should have the last word:
A particularly striking feature of Trappist breweries is the curious mixture of the industrial and the religious. One is in an up-to-date brewery and at the same time in the serene and timeless atmosphere of the monastery. … One Trappist brewery has a conveyor belt for handling wooden cases, the modern apparatus contrasting sharply with a very old building where the original beams still support a slate roof. …. All the equipment reflects the wish to adopt any means of producing a beer with all the qualities indispensable in our modern age but at the same time maintaining its traditional organoleptic properties.
N.B. See also my next blogpost, here, on a plausible use of orange peel in some of Chimay’s current range. I make further observations there that bring in Mercier’s article again.