The remarks below were composed a few months ago but I hadn’t gotten around to polishing it for publication, until today.
I am sampling Chimay Rouge, or red cap, still the best-known Trappist beer anywhere. Its fame was launched outside tiny connoisseur circles in Belgium and Holland by Michael Jackson’s 1977 The World Guide to Beer (Briton Jackson, the famous beer writer, 1942-2007).
Chimay, of all the Trappist beers and indeed all the Belgian beers, had an outsize influence in forming attitudes to Belgian beer in craft brewing circles between, say, 1980 and 2000.
The story of cloistered monks and brewing, for Chimay and other monastic brewers, was hard to resist. The beers’ distinctive character helped a lot too.
My history with Chimay started long before this blog inaugurated in 2015. My first Chimay was in a stone-flagged bar in Montreal, Quebec around 1980, served in the stemmed “chalice” long associated with the brand.
I was in Vieux Montréal, the oldest part of the city whose mix of old French and Victorian British architecture contrived to offer a “European” atmosphere (still does).
I still recall the perfumey, sweetish taste, which the beer (all labels) retains to this day. I visited the brewery’s taproom once, a pilgrimage well-worth making even if, as most, you won’t get into the monastery or brewhouse.
The beers were extra-good onsite, of course. The one thing they seemed to have over exported bottles was an extra-hoppy note, but otherwise it was the same Chimay.
Around me was a troop of ruddy, blue-smocked farmers, in from the green paysage surrounding, downing 7% abv beer like nobody’s business. Many preferred the white cap (Triple), I noticed.
A Belgian beer bar can be a hushed experience with classical music accompanying decorous sipping. The Chimay tap was anything but, that day, bustling and loud, monastery aside or no.
I feel, and I don’t think I’m alone, that the three main labels, red, blue, and white, went through a rough patch for quite a few years after the brewhouse was re-designed in the 1990s. Some speculate the yeast behaved differently in the new equipment.
The beers for a long time seemed yeasty with strong banana and phenolic notes – rather harsh in sum. The winey, blackcurrant note Michael Jackson lauded in his early books seemed all but lost. But lately the beers are much improved, to my mind certainly.
The red, in particular, reminds me of that first Chimay in Montreal 40 years ago. It is worthy of the Chimay name. Some readers know later iterations of Chimay: the Blue aged in a rum barrel, the spicy Gold label, maybe even the new Green label released last summer (haven’t tried it yet).
All Chimay is good and its sales do good work for the fathers’ mission. Nowadays when many types of businesses, not just breweries, promote social goals, it is well to remember that Chimay of Scourmont, with other abbey brewers, set the pattern – to the max.
That is a satisfaction that comes along with a taste produced since the 19th century, whether religion is your thing or not.
Pictured below is a handsome presentation of Chimay blue label. I took the photo in 2019 in Boulogne, France.