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.