Tastings School - Achel Trappists

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Achel Trappists

Roger Protz turns his attention to Achel brewery and the ‘famous five' Belgian Trappist breweries

When German troops occupied the monastery of Achel during World War One they observed the conventions of military conflict. As the monastery straddles the border between Belgium and the Netherlands, the Germans seized only the Belgian side, as the Netherlands was neutral. Decency stopped there: the Germans dismantled the copper vessels from the monks’ brewery and took them back to the Fatherland to turn into armaments for the war effort.

Brewing halted at Achel until 1998 when a new brewhouse was built in a former dairy and the monks joined the “Famous Five” Belgian Trappist breweries of Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren. At first the Achel beers were brewed only for consumption in the Auberge, a tavern that dog-legs round the brewery, with a spacious flagstone patio for warm days. The monks – who are a jolly crowd with a robust sense of humour – joked that theirs was the only Trappist brewpub in the world.

While the monastery of St Benedictus is in remote countryside, it is also on popular cycling and walking routes, and visitors quickly spread the news of the Achel beers. As well as the blond and brown beers produced for the tavern, new, stronger brews are now bottled and sold on site as well as in selected shops and bars.

The decision to restart brewing at Achel (pronounced “Arkul”) underlined the problems confronting the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, better known as Trappists from the name of their first monastery at La Trappe in Normandy. All the monasteries find it increasingly difficult to attract recruits to their demanding way of life. At Achel, since the monks lost their brewery during World War One, they concentrated on agriculture and cattle breeding.

But these are hard, unrelenting jobs and the elderly monks needed an easier occupation. They therefore sold off most of their agricultural land for £300,000 and invested the proceeds in a brewery, tavern, guest house, art gallery and shop.

The small brewhouse, which can be seen from the tavern, has bright, compact vessels built by Moeschle, which can produce 3,000 hectolitres a year. The equipment is based on the continental system of mash vessel, lauter or filtration vessel, brew kettle where hops are boiled with the sugary extract, and finally five fermentation vessels. All the beers are matured for a month before being released for draught or bottling.

The design and installation of the brewery was overseen by one of the most revered figures in Trappist brewing, Brother Thomas, the former head brewer at Westmalle. He brought a yeast culture with him. When he was taken ill, an equally revered brewer, Brother Antoine from Rochefort, took his place.

The success of the new enterprises at Achel, which take up much of the monks’ time when they are not at prayer, has forced them to hand over day-tobrewing to a layman. He is Marc Knops, a peripatetic brewer at several plants in Belgium, including the famous Domus brewpub in Leuven, under the nose of mighty Stella Artois. Marc spends two days a week at Achel where he fashions five beers. But he works closely with one of the monks, Brother Jules, who is in charge of brewing in Marc’s absence.

The International Trappist Association, which awards the seal of “authentic Trappist product” to its monasteries and convents, insists that monks and nuns must be involved in the production of beer, bread, cheese and other products that are sold commercially.

While Marc Knops talks of lagering or maturing the Achel beers, they are, in common with all the Trappist beers in Belgium, warm-fermented ales. The blond and brown beers made for the tavern are both 5%, are unfiltered and drawn straight from the brewery tanks.

The Blond is brewed from Pils malt and Saaz and Tradition hop varieties. It has a big peppery hop aroma, with tart fruit and juicy malt in the mouth and a long finish with bitter hops, toasted malt and citrus fruit (26-27 units of bitterness/IBUs). The Brown has an addition of roasted malt that gives a rich grainy note to the aroma and a bittersweet palate, followed by burnt fruit, roast and bitter hops in the finish (same IBUs as Blond).

The bottled beers are all refermented in bottle with a different yeast culture.

There are two 8% beers, one blond and one brown. The Blond is brewed with Pils malt and brewing sugar, Saaz and Tradition hops – the hop varieties are common to all the beers – and 27 IBUs.

It has a pronounced pear fruit nose, juicy malt and spicy hops in the mouth, and a long, quenching finish. Marc describes the Brown as “our Bordeaux”.

Roasted malt and brown sugar are blended with Pils malt. It has a massive fruit bouquet – raisins and sultanas – along with biscuity malt. The long, bittersweet palate and finish have rich, chewy malt, tart hops and burnt fruit (23 IBUs).

The Extra, 10%, is a big, magnificent and intensely complex beer. It’s refermented in bottle with a different yeast strain to the other beers and has more hops (29 IBUs). The grains are Pils and roast malt with brown sugar. It has a roasted grain aroma with juicy malt and tangy fruit in the mouth and a long, bittersweet finish that becomes dry, bitter and fruity.

The monastery started life in 1656 as a simple hermitage and has grown over the centuries into an austere but impressive church that commands the flat landscape and which is surrounded by a complex of mellow brown buildings. Achel’s brewing tradition, after a long gap, has been restored and it’s to be hoped that the monastery’s inscription of Ingredienti Pax – “peace to all who enter here” – will ensure its survival for the future. But, just to be on the safe side, the new brewery is built of stainless steel not copper.

* Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis, B-3930 Hamont-Achel, Belgium. Tel 0032 (0)11 80 07 69; www.achelsekluis.org; abdij@achelsekluis.org. The Auberge is closed on Mondays; open 12-5 Oct- April, 11.30-6 May-Sept.

Accommodation available.

Nearest airport: Eindhoven.

Nearest mainline train station: Neerpelt, from Brussels Midi/Eurostar, change at Herentals; bus from Neerpelt to Hamont-Achel, then 45 minute walk to monastery. Bike hire recommended.

The Famous Five Chimay Best-known and, with Westmalle, biggest of the Trappist breweries. Chimay produces three beers named after their bottle caps: Red (7%), White (8%) and Blue (9%). Confusingly, bigger corked and cradled bottles are labelled Grand Cru, Cinq Cents and Grande Reserve respectively. Red is brewed with Pils and caramalt and hopped with American and German varieties. It is coppercoloured with blackcurrant fruit on the aroma and palate, along with touches of nutmeg and spicy hops. The finish is vinous, spicy with a good underpinning of hop bitterness. White is brewed with Pils malt and a touch of caramalt and hopped with American Galena and German Hallertauer. It has a big citrus fruit aroma and palate, a hint spice and a big dry finish with tart fruit and bitter hops. Blue is made with Pils malt and the same blend of hops and the addition of candy sugar. It has a deep copper colour, with an enormous vinous fruitiness on the aroma and palate, a spicy note and a rich and fruity finish with a good hop base.

Orval The abbey is in beautiful countryside in the Ardennes. It is unique among the Trappist breweries for producing just one beer, 6%. Its gold/bronze colour comes from four or five different malt varieties with a touch of English crystal malt.

Hops are English, German and Slovenian. The beer enjoys three fermentations, one with the addition of a “wild” Brettanomyces strain used in the production of lambic and gueuze beers. Incredibly complex beer with peppery hops, tart fruit, herbs and a touch of lactic sourness.

Rochefort Another monastery in the Ardennes but more remote than Orval. Rochefort proves there is no such thing as a Trappist style as the beers – 7.5%, 9.2% and 11.3% — are notably soft and malty. The former head brewer, Father Antoine, said they adhered to their original use as “liquid bread” during fasting. The copper-red beers are brewed with Pils and Munich malts with candy sugar and hopped with German Hallertauer and Styrian Goldings. More sugar is added to encourage a good bottle fermentation. They are fruity with powerful hints of chocolate, ripe grain and gentle, spicy hops.

Westmalle Tthe abbey is in bleak, flat countryside close to Antwerp.

It produces two beers, Dubbel (7%) and Tripel (9.5%): the terms are now widely used by other brewers to denote beers of that strength. Dubbel is brewed with Pils malt, dark malt and candy sugar and hopped with Tettnanger, Saaz and Styrian Goldings. It is russet coloured, with a chocolaty, fruity and spicy aroma and palate. The finish is complex with hints of guava and other tropical fruits. In sharp contrast, Tripel is brewed with Pils malt only and the same blend of hops. It has a Saaz-inspired aroma of orange fruit with a tangy, fruity palate and big spicy notes, and a long finish with resiny hops and a touch of herbs.

Westvleteren Smallest and most reclusive of the Trappist monasteries, close to Ypres and the hop fields of Poperinge. Almost impossible to get in to but the beers can be sampled in the Cafe Vrede across the road. It’s output is only slightly bigger than Achel’s. The three beers are Blond, Extra and Abt (5.8%, 8% and 11%). Only pale malt is used: the beers have different colours as a result of the sugars used. The hops are Northern Brewer and the yeast culture came from Westmalle. Blond has a herbal, hoppy aroma, a firm malty body balanced by tart hops, and light, fruity, hoppy finish.

Extra has a deep russet colour with an aroma and palate of plummy fruit, ripe malt, fruit and hops, and a complex finish of rich malt, tart hops and bitter fruit. Finally Abt (Abbot) is a rich, dark brown beer with a big attack of vinous fruit, toffee and roasted grain on the nose, chewy malt, dark fruit and hops in the mouth, and a toasted grain and bitter hops finish.