Chimay and Oranges That Come all the way From Curacao

In my previous post, I set out strong evidence that in 1969 the mash for Chimay beers, the Red and the Blue in particular, was all-barley malt, essentially.

Today, the mash is estimated at 15-20% grain adjunct-plus-sugar, the rest barley malt. That is high enough to have a lightening effect on the beer.

Many high alcohol beers in Belgium use adjunct and make the argument the beers would be too heavy without it. Although, craft brewing has made all-malt beers of similar strength for many years that are well-appreciated.

Another explanation is that wheat flour is used (not wheat starch despite what some labels say) and its gluten assists to give the beer a lasting, foamy head.

This got me thinking again about the Chimay palate; having had considerable experience with all-malt beers for decades, I often feel I can tell an all-malt beer from an adjunct or “sugar” beer, even where the beer is fermented to a high level of dryness.

So I got out a bottle of Chimay Blue. I poured one ounce at room temperature to study it.

The dominant smell and taste, the top-note, is one I find hard to describe. It isn’t really a high-temperature estery effect although Chimay is fermented at a notably high temperature by Anglo-American standards, and was in 1969 by the way.

It isn’t a malt smell, it isn’t a hop smell. It’s not a smell such as one would associate with a fruit or spice, although I think almost certainly Chimay Blue is flavoured with bitter orange peel (see further below).

I think this keynote is the distinctive house yeast, the one Father Théodore famously isolated in the late 1940s after obtaining help to improve the fermentation regimen from Jean de Clerck, a noted Belgian brewing scientist.

This smell reminds me of aromas encountered when walking through a distillery fermenting room. Also, of certain wine yeasts, Champagne in particular. It has a similarity to many Belgian beer yeasts, a point I feel contributes more to the uniformity of Belgian beer than its diversity, at least today, but that is another matter.

All other flavours in the beer are subordinate to this taste. Barley sweetness there is, some hop notes too, but this camphor, almost sage-like yeast note is dominant. It’s not a single-note but the influence is strong.

What else is there? Many reviews and commentaries speak of stone fruit, or apple. I think I do taste that. What is it from? Many think the warmish, top-fermentation used at Scourmont creates it, the esters.

It appears in fact Chimay Blue, and Red, are flavoured with bitter orange peel, probably the Curacao orange. An orange in Curacao, descended from the Spanish Seville type, provides flavouring for the famous liqueur of the same name.

Some Belgian beers use it, La Binchoise Blonde Tradition in the Hainaut is one – Hainaut is the same province in which Chimay is located.

Consider the language on this site, VenteVin.com, a high-end French retailer of groceries and wines, spirits, and beers, viz. Chimay Blue:

Notre recette reste inchangée depuis sa création par le Père Théodore et nous souhaitons être transparents quant aux ingrédients qui composent nos bières. Nous les indiquons clairement sur nos étiquettes. Eau, malt d’orge, sucre, amidon de blé, houblon, levure et écorce d’orange amère.

It refers to “our recipe” (so clearly, the brewery is talking) and that the ingredients are stated on the label – for France clearly this is so. Further, the ingredients are listed as water, barley malt, sugar, wheat starch, hops, yeast, and écorce d’orange amère, which means, bitter orange peel.

On the same website, the description reads the same for Chimay Red. It doesn’t read the same for Chimay White Label (the Tripel), also on the website, so I don’t think the brewery devised one description that might apply to all beers of its range even though not all ingredients applied to each.

Chimay Gold, the lower abv beer of Chimay and not mentioned on the VenteVin site, is known to be spiced with coriander and Curacao (the orange peel, presumably). If the brewery supplied one comprehensive ingredient description for its French retailers, one would think coriander would be mentioned too, but it is not.

Also, my understanding is the Gold is all-malt except for the two flavourings noted – no wheat starch or flour, at any rate. See discussion on Chimay’s website, here. So, wheat starch, mentioned in the ingredient list for the Blue and Red, would not apply to it.

Philippe Mercier’s 1969 article on Trappist beer composition, which took in Chimay and two other Trappist breweries, does not mention orange peel or any other flavouring. However, Mercier does state that the Trappist brewers each have their secret methods and not all are disclosed to those who inquire.

It is well possible that orange peel has been used in Chimay Blue and Red from the beginning. Why would it be disclosed now to French retailers? I don’t know.

Is there any other evidence that orange is added to these beers? There is. Read the full account here, from the late John White who visited the brewery in 2003 with Roger Protz.

White states that Jef van den Steen visited the brewery and was told by then-brewer Father Omer that the Red and Blue contain Curaçao. Father Omer was not present when White and Protz visited. Yet, White was told otherwise when he visited.

Again, I think it is likely the brewery does not maintain a consistent narrative to all comers out of a justifiable concern to keep confidential certain matters viewed as trade secrets.

Tasting Chimay Blue today, I can’t say I detect an orange note but the palate, under the yeast smack mentioned, is quite well-integrated. It may be there, it is hard to tell. Orange peel isn’t listed on any French Chimay label to my knowledge, but that could mean simply this isn’t required by French/EU labelling laws.

I must say for a 9% beer, even a relatively dry one as the Blue is, the body is quite light: this is probably the effect of the wheat starch/flour. There seems a slight flatness in the finish, characteristic in my experience of an adjunct mash, but I can’t really tell. The adjunct is used well here, put it that way.

One final possibility: perhaps the exotic bitter peel was added after 1969, when grain adjunct was first adopted and perhaps more sugar in the kettle used than the 1-2% Mercier reported in 1969. Maybe this was done to “make up” for the reduced barley malt.

I incline though that if there, as appears the case, it was there from day one.

 

9 thoughts on “Chimay and Oranges That Come all the way From Curacao

  1. I am pleased you have used John White’s article as a basis for further discussion, Gary.

    I was lucky enough to accompany John on 2 of his Beer Tours: a summer trip to Bamberg and a winter one to Flanders. I met him a few other times and, (along with Roger Protz), I attended his funeral as a mark of my respect for him as a person and as someone who contributed the most to my evolution into a beer lover.

    I can attest to his extreme attention to both detail and accuracy (his wife remarked to me on more than one occasion he was ‘on the spectrum’), and also his absolute commitment to publicizing ‘life enhancing places to drink and the beers to drink there’.

    So you can be sure to trust his observations – RIP, John.

    • Thanks very much for this Ben, most interesting and a fine tribute. It was only through the Wayback Machine that I found this, which highlights its importance. Putting together what I found with some of the remarks to him from Chimay, I think I did solve when the adjunct was first likely used.

      Gary

  2. A couple of personal experiences on ingredients and taste perception:

    In the early 90s I had a brief conversation with a European born Molson manager. When I claimed that I could taste the presence of adjunct, he replied, “You really think so?” His arched eyebrow and tone of voice betrayed a certain skepticism.

    A couple of years later, I went to work for Magnotta, whose first beers were a lager and cream ale. Both were all malt, but very modestly hopped, around 20 IBU. Both had that flat, starchy, almost sticky quality that I had believed to be the result of adjunct brews. Not for the first (or last) time, I had to confront the fallibility of my own palate. I will also point out that for craft brewers, adjuncts offer no cost savings whatsoever and some of the sugar based products (e.g. Candi sugar) are outrageously expensive.

    A few years ago, at the Olde Stone, I was offered some freshly cropped Belgian yeast from the Publican House’s Eight or Better. I jumped at the chance. The base recipe was a straightforward pale ale, I wanted to see what effect the yeast had. The result was an eye opener. The owner of a highly regarded Belgian cafe, whose opinion I value, said, “Very nice, Doug, what spices did you use? Coriander? Orange peel?” Almost everyone else had the same reaction and had to be persuaded that there was nothing but water, malt, hops and yeast involved.

    I suspect one of the challenges in flavour perception is the extreme attenuation of modern products, including many craft beers. I worry that malt is becoming, if not the invisible, the untasteable ingredient.

    • Very interesting Doug, thanks. IMO, most of the typical Irish-style stouts or porters in Ontario are too dry, and that’s just one example. I think they are based, not intentionally by this time, on modern Guinness’ high-adjunct low-attenuation model – with similar results even though all-malt is often used.

      But it doesn’t work the other way around: high attenuation with adjunct beer often betrays in my experience the adjunct flavour (of rice, corn, etc.). Traditional beer is better off all-malt while certainly an adjunct recipe is sometimes quite drinkable when not too dry, as indeed for this Old Milwaukee Ice.

      Gary

  3. When you read carefully what John White wrote about what Chimay told him, the picture becomes clear, I think. They stated that no subsequent changes occurred to the recipe as adapted by Father Theodore from the 1940s-1960s. That could take in a decision to substitute wheat starch/flour for part of the malt in latter 1969. Perhaps they had already committed to it when Philippe Mercier wrote the article. True, one might have expected him to trumpet the sale of Rapidase enzymes, designed for use with an adjunct mash, but perhaps he described the historical (all-malt) picture of mashing out of deference to the monks and their dignity.

    As well, not all of the three breweries may have agreed to adopt adjunct when one of them did.

    Alternatively, Chimay for its part adopted adjunct sometime later, perhaps in the 1970s. I think it is likely that when Michael Jackson first tasted the beers c. 1977 they already had switched to adjunct and perhaps greater use of sugar than in 1969.

    Gary

  4. I popped open a pilsner from a small Pennsylvania craft producre today, and as soon as I smelled it I thought, “There is corn in this.” The palate confirmed the olfactory observation. It’s probably easier to detect adjunct in this lighter style, but I too believe that adjuncts can be detected if present in adequate quantities.

    P.S. I have nothing against adjuncts in beer, having had a father who worked for a regional adjunct brewery for 35 years and seeing what theuir creative use can do in a craft brewery. I’ve noted for decades how disparaging people can be of sugar being used in mainstream domestic beers, but man is it great in those Belgian beauties!

    I once toured the then-Stroh brewery near Allentown, PA about 20 or so years ago. An attendee asked the tour guide what the large horizontal tank held outside the window.
    His answer? “That is our liquid adjunct tank.” Wanna bet what it contained?

    The reply? “That’s our liquid adjunct storage tank.” Wanna bet what it contained?

    • I don’t really like it Sam. I think the early craft brewers were right about all-malt. If < 20% is used, it can be okay, as in some English classics, but I can taste it often anyway. Eg recently I mixed a typical macro adjunct beer, say using 30-40% adjunct, with an all-malt lager to get a kind of pre-Pro lager taste. It was good but I could still taste the adjunct, that flat, often "starchy" note. Gary

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