A Beer Fan Compares Westmalle Trappist To Other Belgian Beers – In 1853


In Essai sur la Campine Anversoise, 1853, by George Podesta, which I referred to yesterday, Podesta described Westmalle Abbey’s beer as “the best in Belgium”. He also made further comments, which I will discuss here, which illuminate what Westmalle’s beer was.

He wrote (my translation), at pp. 64-65:

I have said the good fathers brew the best beer in the kingdom. Taste it, and you will prefer it by far to the rich faro of the capital, to the barley beer of the region which is always somewhat vinegary, to the bland and insipid beer of Louvain, and even to the beer of Diest which advised drinkers consider equal to the heady lambic of the capital.

This 163-year-old taste note, written by someone who was evidently a discriminating beer drinker, helps us to understand what Westmalle’s beer was like. We can deduce a number of things: first, it wasn’t sour. Podesta tells us squarely that the area’s barley beer – Antwerp and region’s brown barley malt style – was always somewhat sour. Numerous other sources of the mid-1800s confirm this. His reference to faro being rich or sumptuous is probably a reference to its sugary quality. Faro was and is a wild-fermented, malted barley-and-raw wheat beer, mid-gravity, 4% abv, approximately. Numerous sources say it was sour too but the sugar took the edge off.

Louvain had two types of beer (at least) and the one Podesta mentioned was clearly the “blanche” – a wheated style not dissimilar probably to the Hoegaarden type you can buy at many bars around the world today. I agree with Podesta that a blanche can be bland – it was considered mostly a summer refresher in the 1800s, not a cold weather drink. Louvain white may have tasted like Blanche de Chambly in Quebec, or Anchor Brewery’s wheated beer.

Podesta places Diest beer higher on the scale, with Brussels lambic, and the reason is evidently strength. These could attain 6% abv, maybe a bit more. Diest beer was rich-tasting – one source says “thick and sweet”, and could be sweet-sour as well. Diest used a lot of wheat in the mash, which probably gave it a sharp edge. A modern dark weizen of Germany, if you added a dollop of sugar, might approximate what Diest was.

So what more can we reasonably infer about Westmalle’s beer? It was not notably sweet like faro and Diest. It wasn’t bland like white beer. And it was reasonably strong, “heady” (“capiteux”), like lambic was and Diest too.

I would think Westmalle beer in 1853 – three years before the brown dubbel was produced – was either an all-barley beer – even though the abbey appears not to have grown barley in the 1850s – or a mixed-grain type, but in either case about 6% abv. And again, not sour, not sugary, not bland like a wheat beer. It was probably dark in colour, but this is unknown.

The fact that Podesta found Westmalle’s beer so good is notable given the generally poor reputation Belgian beer had internationally. This early Baedeker travel guide to Belgium mentions, see pg. 68, numerous of the beers mentioned above except for Trappist. It states Belgian beer will generally be “unpalatable” to visitors. The reason is, as many other observers noted, the sourness of most Belgian beer. It was therefore noteworthy that Westmalle’s beer was not sour. No other Trappist or monastic beer I have read of, so far, was sour.

Since monastics, especially Cistercians, were expert brewers and formed an international community with links to eminent brewing nations such as England and Germany, it is reasonable to infer that their beer was never sour and perhaps all-barley malt or reliant on barley for its quality. The strain of Trappist brewing in France and environs influenced by England would have favoured, at least from the 1600s onward, barley malt and no sourness. And we know there was significant English brewing expertise deployed in France in the 1600s-1800s, notably at the Dieulouard and Melleray abbeys.

I’ve said it before, but monks setting up brewing in Belgium were unlikely to borrow expertise and recipes from the next village. That is not how monastic endeavour worked. In many ways, Cistercian and Trappist communities functioned like a modern international corporation. Knowledge and techniques developed by the older abbeys, based on the primal text of St. Benedict and elaborated by his followers, were applied to set up and run the newer, albeit self-governing, monasteries.

As Jane Grigson whom I quoted not long ago wrote in relation to the network of Cistercian abbeys in Britain, the fathers came in with a well-defined plan to establish farming, other industry, and monastic life. This reflected a good measure of central planning and execution. Quentin Skrabec, Jr.’s remarks, in his book on Benedictine business success, are illuminating in this regard. By the 1400s, he says the abbeys were dominant in Europe, not just in brewing, but in many other industries, everything from forging to textiles to coal-mining.

We know cheese-making followed this plan – the Port Salut model is still “the” Trappist type of cheese. Why would brewing have been any different? Belgian Trappist and abbey beers today are strong, malty, not sour, well-hopped. Village beers, in contrast, often were weak, used grains other than barley, and were sour, sweet, or both. Trappist ale was never local and even today there are only really two styles amongst them: dubbel and tripel.  (Or if you will, top-fermented, barley-based blonde and brown beers in different strengths). Orval is something of an outlier, but even then is not a wheat beer, not sour, reliant on barley malt, well-hopped. Close enough.

A pattern emerges…

I will take the point that grains produced by a particular farm in a Trappist community may have influenced the mash-bill for its beer. Somewhere, a text must exist which guided the expansion of monastic brewing in Europe, maybe in Latin. One day it will emerge to public view and it will be interesting to read what it says.

Note re image: The image of a painting of St. Benedict giving his Rule to his followers is in the public domain and was sourced here. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Westmalle Abbey’s Beer – Famous By 1853


An extraordinary picture comes down to us from an 1872 article describing a visit to Westmalle Abbey. By the second part of the 19th century, a small genre of travel literature was visits to a Trappist monastery. Numerous examples can be found in English and French magazine and book publishing of the period. They are most revealing of the way the monks lived and did their physical and spiritual work then.

One such report from 1872, by John Macdonald in his Monks of La Trappe, is particularly perceptive, and candid. It describes a scene at Westmalle Abbey where beer is enjoyed as part of the meal:

In spite of their black gowns and blue-collars, they are as jolly over their ale as if they were a company of English farmers at an inn…. The brew of which the hospitable father is so lavish, is inferior to none other in King Leopold’s dominions … one considerately shows one’s appreciation by grave laudatory remarks and repeated raids among the bottles, of which there stand a whole regiment in loose order on the table.

Usually references to beer at monasteries, then and certainly now, are made in a restrained fashion. One almost never reads that good enjoyment was taken in the drink, as the suggestion of it would seem at odds with the spirit of privation and other-worldliness which characterizes religious retreats. Yet in reality life was not so simple, at least not at all brewing monasteries. John Macdonald was prepared to be honest with his readers on the point, although his essay makes amply clear too that monastic life at Westmalle was highly spiritual and also well-organized in the physical and intellectual labours which supported the community. These included farming, brewing, wine-making, shoe-making, laundering, teaching.

Michael Jackson, in his own courteous way, once hinted at something of this nature, he was referring to an abbey’s beer which was only drunk at special occasions, but was told one monk liked to take a glass each morning at 10:00 a.m. The host imparting the information was non-judgmental. Even in the hyper-idealistic environment of the monastery, humanity is always present. Macdonald for his part surely was aware of the popular image of the monk in England, the “merrie monk”, and perhaps was playing up to that, but his account has the ring of truth read in the context of the full account.

Macdonald also describes Westmalle’s hothouses where grapes were grown for wine. The grapes were grey-green in colour, he said. He likened the wine to sauternes. This wine was obviously made from the Muscat variety, indeed this is still grown in Belgium and sometimes added to beer for some extra fermentable sugar and flavour. (It occurs to me now that Westmalle’s early cultivation of grapes and cereals perhaps led to experiments which led to this interesting wine-beer hybrid). Macdonald gives a lyrical description of the abbey wine vaults and pictures himself in “shirt-sleeves”, with chair up against the wall enjoying a “sparkling” drink from the “casks and casklets” and “bird’s-eye”, a form of pipe tobacco. One form of muscatel is sparkling, the “d’asti”, so it all ties in. However, he makes it clear the monks did not take Bacchic pleasures. The wine was reserved for guests and sold to buyers outside.

duck-1What grains was Westmalle’s beer made from in this period? No information is available to my knowledge. In “Essai sur la Campine Anversoise“, 1853, by George Podesta, the writer calls (at pg. 64) the abbey’s beer “the best beer in Belgium”. This was three years before its dubbel was inaugurated, yet already its beer had renown. Podesta stated that the fields of the abbey grew “wheat, rye and oats”.  There is no mention of barley. Barley beers of various kinds were brewed commercially throughout Belgium, and in particular “bière d’orge” (barley beer) was a well-known type of Antwerp and its hinterlands, of which Westmalle’s domains form a part.  This beer was fairly weak, brown, and usually sour according to a number of contemporary accounts. De Koninck, the famous beer of Antwerp, is a descendant of this beer, albeit it lost the sourness on the way – not a bad thing, IMO.

Trappist beer, from my historical researches, was not sour, and in fact there is specific evidence to this effect regarding Westmalle which I will discuss in another post. But albeit not sour, if not made from barley, it might have resembled one of the saison beers of today which aren’t sour. If made from barley, which evidently was available to those who wanted to brew from it, it may have resembled De Koninck of today except that Westmalle’s dubbel, from 1856was stronger.

The achievements of the Westmalle monks are described vividly by Macdonald – his essay is every bit like a modern travel documentary except that words substitute for the images. The success of Westmalle is all the more remarkable given what the fathers had to work with: thin, sandy soil in one of the least productive parts of Belgium, the Campine. When monks were given land by state or nobility to work it, it wasn’t always fecund; the reverse was more usually the case. But monks were looked to for their knowledge, resourcefulness, and dedication to make unforgiving land productive. They often succeeded where secular farming didn’t. Westmalle’s venture began in 1796, faltered with the convulsions of war and displacement, resumed in 1815 and grew steadily from that time with brewing commencing in 1836. Westmalle is today the very picture and image of monastic brewing.

Note re images: The first image, a painting from 1910 by Frans van Leemputten entitled Market Day In The Campine, is in the public domain and was sourced here. The second image, of a glass of De Koninck beer with accompanying illustration, is from the brewery’s website, which I linked in the text above. Both are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Some Recent Tasting Notes

Just some beers I’ve liked in the past weeks:


Above is Molson Coors Hops ‘n Bolts, via its Creemore unit (it’s brewed up there, I believe). It’s an India Pale Lager. This one was first-rate because no sulphur notes. Sometimes it has it, sometimes it doesn’t. The beer is much better without it, where the hops and malt have their full say without that boiled eggy thing hanging over the taste. I hope the brewery will work on this as I believe it will sell much more of it in this perfect form.


Since I’ve been writing so much about Trappist and abbey beers, I thought I would try one, or rather one in their style, brewed in Quebec. This one, which has some kind of connection to the Oka Trappist Monastery, is full-tasted, sweeter than many Belgian examples and all to the good with a sweet gale-like herbal note. The Belgian yeast is there but it doesn’t overpower the drink as it does in many Belgian examples. A textbook golden ale in the Belgian way.


Above is Palm Ale, the “spéciale”  which is derived from an English pale ale model c. 1900 and became a popular beer in Belgium as an alternative to lager. It’s good, and flowery English hops are there (O when will a craft brewer use them in the quantity they were meant for vs. another “terrific” grapefruit bomb?). However, the body is light and there is evidently adjunct there. It would be better all-malt and with more of those hops. I still liked it though, served very fresh at Biermarkt, Don Mills Shops branch.


I’ve mentioned this a few times but it deserves reiteration: this beer is first league all the way. Rich, malty, fresh, natural. Virtually a perfect dunkel, short of Ron showing me something better in Franconia. Also tasted at Biermarkt recently.

Chimay’s Original Trappist Beer: Was It From Wheat or Spelt?

spelt__15577.1366129174.1280.1280Today, Chimay’s beers are mashed from malted barley, with sugar and wheat flour added as additional fermentable material.

Other BelgianTrappist breweries and abbey beers also use malt and sugar, generally, but some may be all-malt or all-grain at any rate.

In the 1800s, as monasteries and brewing were being restored or newly established in the wake of the French Revolution, it is unclear what grains were used for Trappist beers in Belgium. As I have explained, there is an English strain in Trappist brewing, via e.g., English procedures applying at Melleray in Brittany (early 1800s) and at Dieulouard abbey (early 1600s-c. 1790). This might suggest barley malt was the basis of the beers brewed there and perhaps 100% of the mash. Bear in mind too that when Dieulouard was operating there were few brewing abbeys (if any others) left in France on the eve of the Revolution, so the English influence would have been stronger when abbeys and brewing re-started after 1815 in France and in what became Belgium.

Still, as scholar Richard Unger and others have documented, mixed grain bills were often used in Middle Ages brewing in England and France. Second, brewing would often depend on what a monastery had available to it and in particular what crops it produced. There was probably a variety of grain bills used in French, Flemish and Walloon monastic brewing from 1300, say, until the French Revolution. German abbeys in Bavaria would have used all-malt from the time of the Pure Beer Law – at least one supposes this, but then they had or could obtain malt by virtue of being in an area known for brewing which used this material as a matter of course.

Bioland Bayern Dinkel, Juli 2002, Kloster Plankstetten, ökologischer Landbau ,Getreideanbau

In my recent post describing a visit to a brewing monastery in France in the 1890s by E. Harrison Barker, I noted he called the brew there, “monastic barley brew”. This implies that barley figured in the recipe, but we don’t know for sure. Barker may have reflexively called the beer “barley brew” because of his English background and knowledge that beer was made from barley. Also, the beer’s taste seemed rather foreign to Barker, and one reason for that may have been its non-barley malt grain bill.

What did Chimay, for its part, use in brewing after its founding on land ceded the Trappists by the Prince of Chimay at Scourmont in 1850? The monastery probably knows from its own records, but if it does, I don’t think this information has ever been disclosed.

We have a way to infer what was used from an account of its farm operations written in 1869. In that year, a book was published containing a description of the monastery, called “Histoire de l’Abbé de Rancé”, written by Abbé Louis Dubois. He stated in detail the crops grown: wheat (2/3ds of the field), rye (1/3rd), but with spelt (a form of wheat) and oats also produced. Perhaps proportions varied with crop rotation. No mention is made of barley, and indeed other sources suggest barley did not grow well in Belgian Hainaut at least in this period.

We know, too, from Georges Lacambre’s French-language brewing manual of the same period, that saison beers in Hainaut used barley malt and spelt but often only spelt. The spelt was always malted. Other grains if used, such as rye or oats, were not malted, he said.

This leads me to think that Chimay, including the 7.2% abv one I discussed recently from 1877, was a wheat or spelt beer, or possibly a mix of grains I have mentioned known to have been grown at the abbey then. In this regard, the beers would taste, all things equal, lighter than a barley malt beer and be fairly frothy, as modern wheat beers are.

If in 1877 Chimay was a wheat or spelt or mixed grain beer, it might resemble certain modern saisons; in fact this seems likely to me.

Of course, possibly Chimay in the decades after its founding did grow some barley for brewing and other purposes. Perhaps the fathers obtained it by trading or otherwise from outside the abbey’s domain, as well. But I incline to think they used what was typically grown by them.

The modern use of sugar and wheat flour in connection with barley malt makes sense to me as a way to lighten the body of a beer which, in its formative years, may have been notably light-bodied due to a substantial malted spelt or wheat content. The monks may have, probably did, know the earlier history of farming and brewing onsite. Once barley malt was fixed on as the base material, they may have decided to leaven it, so to speak, with other materials. Purpose: to achieve a profile similar to the beers originally made on the estate.

I still feel English brewing influence contributed to the dubbel style and strength, but the knowledge now of what Chimay actually grew between 1850 and 1870 suggests to me some early Trappist beer, or at least Chimay’s, was not all-barley malt and may have used none in the mash.

Note re images shown: the first image shown is from this homebrewing supplies website. The second is from this organic farming website of the German government. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

An English Visitor Reports on Trappist Beer – in 1893.


E. (Edward) Harrison Barker was an English professional travel writer. His active period was the last 25 years of the 1800s and into the Edwardian period. It appears he was the son of Thomas Jones Barker of Bath, a well-known artist who specialized in equestrian and military subjects. One of the “Charge of the Light Brigade” paintings is his.

E. Harrison Barker specialized in France among other countries. He lived there for at least ten years before authoring, among many other books, France of the French. It was well-received for its perspicacity and, as one reviewer put it, the writer’s independence of mind.

In particular, Barker had an interest in southwest France: he sought out areas then still viewed as retrograde in the Belle Epoque. Poverty and backwardness could be pronounced there. In one book he describes an area where little other than bread sustained the people, who had to sleep on hard wooden benches.

Once he described a French clergyman (not monastic) who doted on his library of learned tomes. The priest subsisted on nothing more than bread and oranges but glowed with delight when describing a collection to Barker that included Milton and Shakespeare…

There are other illuminating moments, and wry ones. In one, a sharp-witted peasant-woman says to him, I paraphrase, “Why do you tramp hundreds of miles into desolate areas like this only to encounter poverty and imbeciles?”. She adds, “If I was you, I’d go to Paris and London and be enlightened by the best minds”.

The book review which recounted this thought her overly practical and modern; I think it missed the point, which is not to take away from the value of Barker’s work.

In 1893 Barker, in typically wide-screen style, described a visit to a Trappist monastery, the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Bonne-Espérance, in Echourgnac, France. The piece is called A Night With The Trappists. Echourgnac is in a still-remote pays west of Limoges in Acquitane’s northern Dordogne. At the time it was marshy, fever-ridden, impoverished. Older people still often did not know French, as against the patois they grew up with.

Barker specialized in introducing such regions to a public more familiar with France as a destination for gentlemen to finish their education, or for holidaying. But even then some people wanted the exotic, the less-travelled, proverbially, and he gave it to them.

chimay_3x3in_shelftalker_cropped_doreeThe fathers had come to the marshlands in 1868 from the noted Port-du-Salut abbey in Mayenne to improve agriculture in the area, drain the swamps, make cheese (in the Port Salut way, naturally), and help the people. The particular area they went to was, and is, called, “the Double”, oddly to our ears.

The priests built a brickworks first, to fashion and cure the bricks from which the abbey was later built. Barker’s description of his stay is absorbing, not least because of repeated references to the abbey’s beer. He speaks often of the food too, which was certainly rude: bread and cheese, which he enjoyed, thin soup, and “black macaroni”(?).

No meat was eaten, following spartan Trappist ways, and fish is not mentioned. Still, the monks seemed to thrive on the diet – and their beer.  Indeed, as Barker noted pointedly, “There is no escaping malt liquor here”.

He was greeted with a glass of it by the porter, poured from a stone jug. It was also served in bottles on numerous occasions during his stay, including with each meal. While Barker seems to have liked beer, one senses he was taken aback to be given beer so often, “monastic barley-brew”, he called it.

At one point he intimates some of his hosts had an ulterior motive, their own refreshment, of course. Barker didn’t like the brew initially, describing it as “yellow” and in another passage, looking like pea soup. He also called it “thick and slab”, a phrase in Shakespeare. “Make the gruel thick and slab” is from Macbeth). Slab meant gluey.

However, he states he became accustomed to the beer. I’d like to think it tasted like Chimay Gold, made today by Trappist monks at Scourmont, Belgium.

No doubt Barker’s beer wasn’t fermented highly, which makes sense for a drink serving as a daily standby: it was surely low in alcohol, that is. One of his hosts stated the beer was “new”. It was probably yeasty and turbid, like some beers which are toast of the town today. Plus ça change.

The brewing here shows too that it was not only monasteries in northern France, Belgium, and other northern climes who brewed; brewing took place, in line with old monastic practice, all over Europe where monks did their work, even in some southern parts. It’s a reminder too that most grain-growing areas had a beer of some kind at one time or another.

Why would a “yellow” beer strike Barker as unusual? This is hard to say. He was probably used to pale ale, mild ale, and porter, beers that ranged from orange-amber to black. But who knows… Barker noted that the abbey made both wine and beer. He pined for the wine, a white was made but only served in winter. Barker was there at the wrong time, the bane of any traveller.trappe-echourgnac-31193_w500

When he departed, the monk seeing him off offered him a last glass of monastic barley brew – which he refused. Not so sporting I think. He comes off as a combination of prig and practiced traveller, almost stereotypically English by which I mean, the image the English had then in foreign parts. (Do they still? I don’t know, my sense is things have changed).

But the account is withal very interesting and a sure guide no doubt to place and time.

What happened to the Trappist projet at Notre-Dame de Bonne-Espérance? By 1910 the profound anti-clerical legislation of 1903-1905 did it in. The monks left, inventaire was taken of the goods, and they were sold off. But the story ends well from a Trappist standpoint. In 1923, a community of sisters established a permanent presence, also of the reformed Cistercian (Trappist) order. They had come from another part of the southwest, spent time in Spain under exile, and finally were given refuge in Echourgnac in the relative détente of State and clergy that followed the convulsions of WW I.

The nuns are there still today and make the Port Salut-type cheese that Barker ate. Indeed in 1999 a second cheese was added. It is matured in a walnut liqueur fetched not too distant, and became a hit. No beer or wine is made as far as I know.

Michael Jackson, the great beer writer, introduced modern Trappist beer to the secular sphere. He once described an overnight visit to a monastic brewery in Belgium. But he wasn’t the first to do so, and who took note of its beer.

Note re images: the first image is of the subject abbey in Echourgnac, France and was taken from the website of Service des Moniales, a site devoted to the sisters of all orders who inhabit convents and serve their communities. The second image is from the website of a marketing agency for Chimay beer, here.  The third image is from the French tourism site, France-Voyage, here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.



Trappist Dubbel vs. Belgium’s Traditional Styles


Dubbel – Not From Terroir, It Reflects A Higher Authority

No one will ever agree on a list of Belgian beer styles, and it has been said the beer culture is too anarchic and creative to admit of one.

Still, accepted categories do exist. You can find them in various books, including Michael Jackson’s iconic early studies. You can find them online, e.g., Beer Advocate’s useful list.

When you look at these materials as well as 19th century sources such as this 1862 National Magazine article and this French-language industrial survey (undated) by Louis Guillaume Figuier, a fuller, consistent pattern emerges.

There are the sour beers of the Brussels area, based on lambic; white beers with wheat from Louvain and Hoegaarden; spelt-based beer from Liège, now generally called saison; brown beer from Malines/Mechelen; Trappist beers and the “abbey” group with the brown dubbel as their core; the Louvain peeterman, which was a deep yellow, often honey-infused, dextrinous beer. There are today English pale ale-types, e.g., Palm Ale, which have an early 1900s British inspiration. There are a few porters such as, ironically, Monk’s Stout, also of British inspiration, and the Scotch of ditto inspiration. Also Bush beer (Scaldis in some markets), the Burton-type, extra-strong ale developed in the 1930s. And to be sure the oude bruin (old brown) and red ales of Flanders.

I view the strong dark ales of the Trappist and abbey breweries as a sub-set of dubbel: it’s strong brown beer, not heavily hopped. Martin Lodahl, who wrote one of the best short treatments of the Trappist and abbey group, would agree.

I exclude beers which seem clearly to have disappeared including those based on maize, potato or rice, and those which use a hop no longer grown.

This is not exhaustive but sets out the main categories. And today also, there are American-hopped beers or others showing U.S. influence, strong ales such as Delerium Tremens which are hard to classify, and all kinds of fruit beers, some of which are traditional.

Delirium_nocturnumOf the 19th century group, none can clearly be pointed to as predecessor of the Trappist dubbel style. Ostensibly closest is the brown beer of Malines, which in the 1862 magazine article above, see pg. 30, is even called a double brown beer. But look at how Louis Figuier described it in the French account mentioned above. He said it was “cut” one-quarter to one-third with beer that had matured 12-18 months to give an old beer taste to the blend. That is not dubbel.

All dubbel I’ve had is clean and non-lactic. Certainly this is so from the Trappists but also for the abbey beers I’ve had: Leffe, Grimbergen, St. Sixtus, St. Feuillen, Brunehaut’s, etc.

Ditto for North American emulations.  An “abbey” isn’t sour. Or if it is, it isn’t a traditional dubbel.

The brown beer of Malines, in Second Empire and Third Republic France, was surely similar to the modern Flanders beers which have a decided sour tang: Liefmans Goudenband, say, also Rodenbach’s family of beers. The flagship Mechelen beer today, Gouden Carolus, is sometimes called a dubbel. Whether it falls in the dubbel category may depend whether you feel you can detect a sour tang in it. Some online taste reports suggest there is one, and many don’t mention it. I haven’t had the beer in some years, so can’t say.

My point is, when Westmalle first brewed brown beer 1856 and Chimay commercialized a similar beer in the 1860s, they could not have followed local, secular precedent of any kind. The same thing for Westvleteren’s brown beer first sold 1931. Achel, brewing in modern times from 1999, offers a typical dubbel. Rochefort’s beers have always been in this veinOnly Orval went a different direction in the 1930s with its old-fashioned but English pale ale style, perhaps reflecting the particular influence British brewing had in secular Belgian brewing then.

Another point: if dubbel was really a takeoff on a local, long-established style, the beers from the monasteries in the French part should be saison and/or another Walloon type of the 1800s. The monasteries in Flanders should all have sour red or brown beers, or something like peeterman, or a potato beer. They don’t. This is judging by what they have all made since the 1970s, but given their traditional focus I doubt they would change anything important like a lactic character or a colour. They may ensure their yeast is reliable; they may update their equipment, or tinker with abv or a hop; they will not change the fundamental style of a signature product.

They might add a new beer though, which appears to be the case for tripel. And it’s not done that often!

The phoenix that Belgian monasteries were in the 1800s made their best beer, and the one first sold to the public, in line with an intramural, Benedictine, international tradition. Dieulouard’s Saint-Laurent Abbey, which I discussed in recent posts, was a major part of that heritage. It was one of the last monastic breweries in the two centuries preceding the French Revolution, but a very successful one.

I very much doubt any of Dieulouard’s beer, Westmalle’s 1856 brown beer, Chimay’s 7.2% beer of 1877, or Westvleteren’s beer sold from 1931, was sour. Dieulouard’s beer was inspired by English brewing tradition and the English, generally, did not appreciate sour beers – I said generally. Sourness had a place in some porter, for a time, and it was part of the profile of some old ale. It may have prevailed in isolated regions, e.g., Bristol and environs. It wasn’t the “taste” of the nation as a whole.

One way we know how Belgium was different is that English and French-language observers often noted that Belgium’s beer in the 1800s was typically sour. Average levels of acidity in English beer may have been higher then than now, but had English beer been as sour as Belgium’s, you wouldn’t read such statements. An example, from 1890, is from this Parliamentary hearing at paragraph 4384.

In addition, English and the top grade of monastic ales were always on the strong side, vs. Belgium’s beers typically consumed by the people; the same applies to dubbel and its derivatives.

Trappist and abbey dubbels have no counterpart in traditional, secular Flemish or Wallonian brewing. They also do not derive from whole cloth: they have a separate tradition, elements of which I have described or adverted to.

Note re images: the first image above is Tavern Scene, c.1658, by David Teniers, a Flemish artist. It was sourced from Wikipedia, here. The second image, also from Wikipedia and also in the public domain, was sourced here; it shows a beer from Huyghe Brewery in Belgium. Both are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.

The Session, No. 111 – May 6, 2016 (Posting One Day Ahead)

The Session logoOliver Gray, of the Literature & Libation site, has penned a thoughtful and witty article, here, to set out May’s Beer Blogging Session topic. He indicates some lassitude with the beer scene and his own interest in beer and breweries, and wonders if it may be symptomatic of a broader trend. He asks for input from bloggers whether yea, nay or other. Below is my contribution, which is an edited version of a comment I made on Oliver’s posting the other day.

Sample quote from Oliver: “Maybe it’s the politics of purchasing or selling. Maybe the subculture has peaked. Maybe this is the natural progression of a hobby that has no real tie to the industry behind it”.

I don’t feel the way Oliver indicates. And I’ve been following beer and the beer industry since the mid-1970s.

I think it may come down to a very in-depth appreciation of the beer palate, I mean at its best. That is a continual search, it doesn’t end with the next 100 craft breweries to come to your attention, or the last 500. It goes on because you enjoy the great experiences when they occur and the unpredictability of the search.

For some (and I’m not saying Oliver), it is enough to have tried the major categories, travelled to some beer destinations, and read a lot of books and online sources on beer. But for me, it’s the taste that is really important. Very few beers really have the “right” taste, meaning obviously one I think is nigh perfect. But some do, they can be craft beers, non-craft, imports. I just know when I encounter a particularly fine example of a beer type and that’s probably what keeps it going for me, the search. Indeed it can vary within a brand as the way a beer is handled before you drink it can result, and often does, in different tastes for the same beer.

My suggestion is – to anyone once a certain knowledge is gained – focus on what you really like. One needn’t try everything, or be up on every new brewery. Once past a certain point, we have all tried more than enough to scope the beer palate. While I am interested in all styles of beer especially from a historical point of view, I don’t usually drink more than a small number of styles. Rarely sour beers, for example – but occasionally I’ll find one that shows me how interesting they can be. Rarely smoked ones, unless again I find one particularly good, e.g., Roog BraufactuM, a smoked dark wheat beer from Radeberger (Germany) I had the other day.

I like pale ales, porters, blonde lagers and dark lagers, mostly. Last night I had a Krombacher Dark draft that was virtually perfect – the perfect dunkel style, for me – others are free to dispute.

Also, there are many side-streets in the beer world. There is a huge amount to learn about beer history, for example. About malt. About hops, or yeast – characteristics, history, flavours.

It never really ends, there is always more to learn. The beer palate is the core of it for me, but I find all the aspects really interesting: Heineken’s new Brewlock dispense system, say, which I wrote about recently. I pay no mind to the fact that Heineken may not interest many craft fans. I make my own judgments about what I think is good or interesting, as all readers should.

But there is nothing wrong with not being committed, that’s okay of course. If it’s run its course with anyone, that’s fine, but it is not (I believe) any harbinger of what is in store for the industry. I predict its continued growth and the continued availability of better beer.

Tasting Miscellany


Some beers tasted in the last couple of weeks:

Yuengling Porter

Quite light, I remember it as better than this even five years ago. Good nostalgia factor though given it is the oldest brewery in North America next to Molson.

Wells Young Courage Imperial Russian Stout (2012)

Showing evident maturation after four years, like Father Henriques, the lively (American) wine and spirits writer of the 1970s said, “drink up”.

La Trappe Tripel

Touch of damp paper oxidation, marked Belgian yeast note (that chalky taste some Champagne has). Good, not my favourite.

Stone City IPA

A kind gift of reader Gary H, as were the first two above. Freshly brought in from Kingston, ON in growler. Super-fresh, state of the art American hops. Very good fizzy and iced. As it descends in the jug and loses carbonation, it stands very well though for an American cask ale.

Krombacher Dark (draft at Biermarkt, Don Mills Shops branch).

A super bier, rich full clean flavours, perfect balance of mineral, coffee, malt, and hop. The Germans are so good at this style. HB’s dunkel on draft at Biermarkt when available is as good but a different taste. DAB Dark in cans, same thing. It happened to be very fresh and this always helps a lot too, with a lightly-pasteurized, fresh beer like this you don’t get the tired-old-can effect and the true taste comes through.

Creemore Kolsch 

Austere, like a northern German pils IMO, I don’t really get the kolsch moniker (German top-fermented style from Cologne). Not really what I want in beer, but well-made.

BraufactuM Roog (Smoked Unfiltered Wheat Beer) (draft)

This is really good, pro-made all the way. From Radeberger I believe. Very good taste notes on the menu at Beer Bistro downtown in Toronto, so I needn’t say anything further, go down there and have one.

Grimbergen Dubbel (draft at Biermarkt)

Since I wrote so much recently about double bière/dubbel I had to try one, eh? Biermarkt has numerous Trappist and abbey beers, but I can’t recall having had Grimbergen on draft and I think only once in bottle, so I went for it. Superb beer! Lots of interesting flavors, “Belgian” without that heady raisin/fig taste I find objectionable. There was an evident fresh orange note to it, probably coriander.  Kind of like a pink Champagne mimosa with a good beer in it. A fine example of dubbel, made by Carlsberg in France for the export market.

After I had it I saw on the menu Biermarkt has Westmalle Dubbel on draft – yes on draft. Must get back there to try this, and party like it’s 1856. A one-beer party, but that’s cool.








Trappist Dubbel’s Unique Origins




Belgian sources from the 1800s show that bière double, or double beerwas a known expression, as in French brewing. Here is an example (pg. 225) from 1856, from well-known brewing writer Georges Le Cambre. He refers there to bière double de Diest, or the double beer of Diest. He used “double beer”, as did other Belgian writers, to mean strong beer. Sometimes they used the literal French term for that, bière forte.

Usage of the double beer term was erratic and inconsistent. Double beer – dubbel in Flemishwas not a thing in 1800s Belgium when abbey brewing was being revived after Napoleon and the French Revolution. In a word, it was not a style of brewing. It simply meant the strong version of any particular type of beer. So, you might find a bière double de Malines, for example, being strong brown beer from Malines, or Mechelen in Flemish.

Compare this to Paris in the same period. Bière double de Paris was the proper name of a beer made in Paris that was top-fermented, brown, and reasonably strong (although sources are somewhat contradictory on that). It wasn’t a world-beater, but it had a modest identity within the modest world of French brewing. In Belgium, perhaps due to the famous diversity and regional character of its brewing scene, double beer was just a strong beer. It was made like the weaker beer in the brewer’s range, but with more malt to yield more alcohol.

I’m not going to claim strict distinctions here. In Lille, a bière double de Lille was known. I would consider this a Flemish specialty really considering the Flemish regional character of Lille and environs. I think it’s fair to say though, by virtue of its mention in numerous texts, including some English sources, that the double bière de Paris had more identity and recognition than the others, perhaps due to the large conurbation Paris always was.


The ancestor of Westmalle dubbel of today was first made by the fathers in 1856. It was stronger than an earlier, golden beer the fathers made for their use. How strong is not known, perhaps 6% abv. It seems dubbel as a slogan wasn’t used until after 1926, when the beer was reformulated to be yet stronger (now 7% abv). Indeed dubbel as a descriptive term in the market was not in general use until after WW II. Chimay didn’t call its beers dubbel even in the early years of the craft and small brewery revival. But now its Red and Blue labels are regarded as full members of the dubbel family, and properly so having regard to their characteristics.

In this 1890 Flemish-language glossary published in Brussels, see the upper right of the page linked. It is stated in French that the town of Menin had beers called by various names including keute and double bière, but since the 17th century they are called simply brown beer, white beer, small brown beer, and small white beer. The old term double beer, whatever its distant origin, had fallen away in Belgium. The term was still used here or there, but probably had no significant public recognition.

The same thing happened in England. By the 1700s, you don’t read much if anything about double beer, this is a term of the Tudor and William Shakespeare’s time. Even in Georgian England it had a period ring, akin to quaint terms such as huff-cap and hugamatee – and three threads and other multiples, I might add.

Still, in Paris, the term as a name for a defined beer – bière double de Paris – had currency until about 1850. After that you don’t read much about it, no doubt because the new bottom-fermented beers helped push it out. The Paris double beer, like most top-fermented beers of the time, suffered from instability, it tended to go sour. What is admired by some today, tart beer, was disdained by brewing technologists who said the people drank them because they had no choice.

What this suggests is, when monks in Belgium created their new brown beers in the restored or new abbeys of the 1800s, they weren’t taking inspiration from a contemporary Belgian style. Most Belgian beer then was sourish, and fairly weak. Modern Trappist brown beer is neither and likely never was.

No, those monks were looking to monastic tradition for guidance. Monastic brewing had a venerable history in some Christian orders. It was well-developed amongst the Benedictines, in particular. Monks didn’t need to call on Caesar to learn about brewing and good beer. And latterly to inspire them in their own tradition was the notably successful Dieulouard brewery of Saint-Laurent Abbey in Lorraine. What had the Dieulouard brewers made? Brown, strong, well-conditioned beer they called double beer, or bière double, as historian Gustave Clanché confirmed in 1933. The Belgian monks called their new, similar beers the same thing, initially within their own precincts, but finally to the public.

This is underpinned by the fact that the Trappist beer signature, dubbel, has a distinct identity. Adam Lindgreen and Michael Beverland, in their 2009 article Hush, It’s a Secret: How Trappist Breweries Create and Maintain Images of Authenticity Using Customer Experiences, called the unifying elements of Trappist brewing a “tone”. This has changed a bit with the expansion of the number of Trappist breweries, but I am speaking of the Belgian group essentially, the old guard. They share the dubbel style and the tripel style, for the most part. (Orval deviates from the pattern). And most have a father’s beer, pale or brown, of modest gravity. So two main styles, and a weaker pater or father’s beer if one wants to view that as a third style.

The various dubbels of the Trappists don’t taste identical but in their strength bands they are quite alike in many ways, with a similar estery yeast background and a colour and taste that partly depends on brewing sugars. All are bottled unfiltered and are top-fermented. None feature a big American pine-and-grapefruit aroma, certainly. There are no porters or stouts. No lagers. No “sours”, wild beers, or fruit beers despite their pre-eminence of Belgian terroir.

Dubbel is a thing, again, but why? Because while it emerged within Belgium, it is a product of the insular yet brewing-aware, trans-national character of the Trappist order. Just as Trappist cheese assumed a common identity in Trappist monasteries regardless of country based on the Port Salut model, so has beer.

Tripel, the extra-strong aromatic blonde beer devised by Westmalle in 1934, was the last big innovation. The older dubbel style, common to most of the original Trappist group, stretched back to Dieulouard Abbey’s double beer, which in turn issued from the heyday of English monastic brewing before 1600.

Dieulouard’s beer was brown, strong, well-conditioned, and traveled well – it did not go sour. Trappist dubbel is brown, strong, well-conditioned, and not sour.

Those who might think this an over-estimation of the importance of a long-disappeared abbey brewery in France might ponder this statement of T. Leo Almond in 1895 in the Downside Review, Volume 14. He was a member of Ampleforth Abbey, successor in England to Dieulouard:

Not only were the community the foremost brewers of Lorraine, with a monopoly for the supply of the ducal court, but they were actually the introducers of the hop into Lorraine, thus founding one of its principal industries. This strikes us as a unique episode in monastic history, far more important than the invention of a liqueur [no doubt Benedictine liqueur is meant here], which seems by some fatality to be a monastic privilege … I really think we have established a claim to some monumental recognition by France of the services of our Congregation.

In light of this high regard shown for the achievements of the Dieulouard brewery, it is impossible that monks in Belgium, a mere generation or so after Dieulouard was suppressed by the French Revolution, would not have been aware of its status as a monastic brewing star and sought to emulate its very special double beer.

Note re image above: the first image shown, of old Diest, was sourced from the auction and vending site www.delacampe.net, here. The second, of a secular brewery in Mechelen, was sourced here. Both are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.

Double Beer in France and Its Origins


A follow-up to my last post: Citations for “bière double/double bière” appear regularly in French sources going back to the 1500s at least. A beer at Paris was known by such names according to some writers on French beer in the 1800s. The beer was, typically, brown and reasonably strong, and one gravity table from a French science dictionary, 1823, suggests Paris double beer was equal to English “ale”: thus 6-7% abv, sometimes higher but probably not often. Some reports put the range much lower though, as this one (1856). It is always hard to tell, but in general I believe these beers to have been reasonably strong.

As I said in my last post, it is not unusual that the old English term, double beer, had analogues elsewhere, even in France. There are two issues here: what is the proximate origin of the emerging Belgian dubbels of the 1800s, an era when the beers of the people were often sour and half the strength of Chimay (7.2%) in 1877? And what was the ultimate origin of the term double beer/bière double?  It’s two separate questions. For the first one, unquestionably in my view, the monastic double beer of Dieulouard abbey, 1608-1789, had to influence what Westmalle and Chimay brewed in the 1800s. The geographic, temporal, and cultural factors (Benedictine link, departure of French monks for greener pastures in Belgium after 1789), all coincide.

The fact of strong brown beer having apparently had currency in Paris, called by the same name, may have been a contributing factor. My sense is monastic communities by their very nature tend to rely on their own resources and history, not those of a commercial market, but anyway that is possible.

One interesting source, a 1580 book called “L’Agriculture et La Maison Rustique” by the French physicians and writers on agriculture, Charles Estienne and Jean Liebault, described bière double as of English and Flemish origin – thus not French. (The first letter of “bière” in the link is obscured due to the scan but numerous other editions clearly state “double bière”).

They bracket this term, or double beer in English, with the French terms “alle” and “gutalle“. These were colloquial terms, indeed alternate spellings, meaning ale and good ale. To me, all this suggests an ultimate English origin for double beer and the equivalent French word. But in light of the authors’ suggestion of a possible Flemish connection, I acknowledge that dubbel bier in Flemish, and maybe bière double in Francophone Belgium, may have come first. After all, the Flemings brought hopped beer to England.

I’ll set aside whether Dieulouard’s beer, or Westmalle’s and Chimay’s, was ale or beer in English terms. The distinction was losing significance in England anyway let alone France and Belgium where the history and terminology were different. I will also not discuss, here at any rate, doppelbock beer, although I believe it is likely a monastic version of Trappist dubbel and Dieulouard abbey’s  earlier double beer.

I doubt it will be possible to sort the second question out given the very distant eras being referred to. If dubbel bier/double beer/bière double was originally Flemish, its memory may have lingered on in the Belgian lands. Of course, Rochefort abbey for its part has been brewing since the 1500s with a lapsus of about 100 years after the French Revolution. It now issues beers to the public of this description, since 1952.

But again: the signal success of the Dieulouard brewery to sustain the Saint-Laurent Benedictines there was unique to my knowledge. They used the term double beer, this is known as a fact as I explained earlier.  We cannot ignore the likelihood that this successful application of St. Benedict’s Rule was impressed upon Westmalle, Chimay, Achel and Rochefort when they started brewing in the 1800s.

Note re image: the image is of the Chateau in Dieulouard, Lorraine, France, before WW I. It is in the public domain and was sourced here.