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 speaking) 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.