Chimay Trappist Beer Today

I have written about Chimay numerous times, including for its strength in the 19th century, and all-malt character c. 1970.

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.

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Chimay Trappist Beer Today”

  1. Interesting to consider that the beer Jackson was praising was likely completely different from modern Belgian beers, with their high phenolic and estery flavor profile.

    Blackcurrent note sounds like some English beers to me–Greene King Abbot Ale in particular. Also worth noting, per your post on Chimay All-Malt, the beer used a lot of amber malt, which Abbot Ale also uses.

    I wonder how much love of Belgian beers is more about tradition than about the actual flavor profile.

    Reply
    • Well, I drank it in 1979, 1980 and this was the beer Jackson knew. The current line is clearly related, imo. I think probably by then it had some adjunct, vs when the Wallerstein study was done.

      My issue with Belgian ales, as I’ve often said, is too uniform in yeast background. I just had a Duvel 666 and there it is again, big clovey taste yet no spice is added AFAIK.

      For such a famously idiosyncratic national brewing tradition, one would think the palette of yeasts would be broader. So yes to some degree it is, or in any case, a respect for the general tradition. The romance of monastic brewing surely too played a role (to an outside, craft audience).

      It’s funny you mention Greene King as some of their beers especially on cask always struck me as Belgian-like, perhaps a similar yeast background again.

      Reply
      • From my experience brewing with Belgian yeasts, the same strain can have wildly different characteristics depending on fermenting temperature, from clean to apple to pepper to that familiar clove quality.

        I would not be surprised if a lot of that sameness across brands and styles is related to scale and standardization. It’s possible running multiple large vessels at the same time with an eye toward maximizing output with faster ferments at higher temps is connected to that quality.

        And it is also possible that increased competition has pushed brewers to swing the pendulum back to more careful modulation of temps in order to differentiate their product. It may also be related to things like a new generation of brewers more attuned to what they’re doing, or tech advances that make it more practical to run more complicated temperature ranges for different fermenters in the same facility.

        Reply
        • Thanks Clark. Perhaps it is more accurate (for me) to say there is a small family of characteristic Belgian yeast flavours, but still they form a signature to much top-fermentation brewing (not all, and the sour styles tend to stand apart). I tasted many beers on my last Belgian trip, and many in northern France that share similar traits. It was hard to find one that stood outside this circle. To me, this characteristic flavour tends to dominate the taste even though of course hops and malts and perhaps spicing will vary. In the last Chimay Red I had, this trait seemed de-emphasized and I thought the quality improved as a result.

          I will buy soon the blue and white to see how they fare.

          These are all good beers, and I’m sure locally due to being accustomed people don’t even notice it, but I find a commonality in the beers that tends to define, pretty much, the palate.

          The kind of industrial considerations you mention probably have accentuated this factor. One can argue similarly for much IPA but here due to uniform (in effect) hop character, although the recent tropical, peach-apricot, and more orange-tasting hops are carving out a new space I think.

          This is why I found Tynt Meadow so interesting, as it does not have a Belgian yeast background. I always ask myself, why doesn’t a Belgian Trappist brewery use an English yeast, say, for its next line extension? I think if it did, it would create more interest in the range.

          Reply
          • I’m awfully curious if some of what is happening in Belgium is similar to what’s happening with more craft beer in the US — multiple names for essentially the same beers brewed on contract by a central brewery. I know several brew pubs which maybe have only one or two they actually brew on premises, and every other tap is technically a house brand name but in reality the same as what you’ll get in other places, or close to it.

            I think it’s unfair to say it’s bad beer, but it’s a process which encourages similarity across outlets. I’ve seen references to it existing in Belgium, but I don’t know how extensive it is.

          • Possibly so, or something occurring that is similar in effect.

            Perhaps too yeast characteristics, of the types associated with the beer styles in question, are becoming more uniform. Although, I cannot be certain.

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