By Tobin Sharp
What are Trappist beers? They are beers that are brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, under the control and responsibility of the community of monks, and whose revenue is devoted to social service. There are only six authentic Trappist breweries, all in Belgium.
What makes them special? Simply put, it’s how they smell and how they taste. To many beer aficionados, these represent the pinnacle of all brewing. So what makes them so good? These monks have been brewing for some time. European monasteries of differing orders have been brewing beer since the Middle Ages, improving their craft; after all, they both drink it and sell it to the public, and presumably want to please themselves and the purchasing public.
These beers also contain residual sugars and living yeast, which means that, as bottle-conditioned beers do, they improve with age. Perhaps it also has to do with the tenets of their faith, earning their way in the world by the work of their hands and doing so in a way that is consistent with the monastic lifestyle they chose and why they did so to begin with. (They make many more products beside beer – look for Trappist cheeses!) I decided to revisit one of my favorite beers in the world, Orval, and provide some tasting notes below.
The six Belgian Trappist breweries, and the year they opened, are: Chimay (1863), Orval (1931), Rochefort (1595), Westmalle (1836), Westvleteren (1838) and Achel (1998).
Orval tasting notes: a rich, malty nose with hints of baking spices and tropical fruits (banana) with further wafts of fresh pear and green apple. Complex! The palate alights with minuscule bubbles of percolation that make for an elegant mouthfeel, while flavors of malt, sea salt and bread dough lead to further ruminations of cellared, dried tree fruits, more spice (cardamom, cinnamon) and a bittered herbal component that’s uplifted by a note of sweetness on the lengthy, tasty finish. Magnificent.
Tobin Sharp is the creative director of Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa.