Belgian brewing: a tradition of breaking rules for the Lord

When I originally planned this week’s article, I imagined myself writing a cunning and patriotic diatribe about the centrality of hops to American brewing culture — and why that was awesome. However, I took my nose out of my glass and realized — through ethanol-stung eyes and a destroyed palate — that while my own tastes lean toward hop-centric styles, there are countless equally deserving beers in which our favorite vine plays only a supporting role. Many brewers who are most well-known for putting out some of the most bitter and enamel-stripping Imperial IPAs also craft delicate, sweet, and understated brews that can give the most seasoned drinker whiplash. While IPA is by leaps and bounds the most popular category of beer styles at the moment, in my personal drinking experiences it is rivaled, and maybe even surpassed, by a citrusy-sweet beer out of Belgium whose own history is defined by the absence of hops – witbier.

This week will focus on a drinking nation that has received more reverence, imitation and import than any other, despite its minuscule size. Belgium is the land of many brews, and American consumers are better off for it.

Wedged between France and Netherlands, Belgians fall largely into two geo-linguistic categories — the Dutch-speaking Flemish and the French Walloons — in addition to a much smaller German population in the east. The capital city, Brussels, is a microcosm of this larger linguistic tension because, while located in Flanders, a majority of its inhabitants are French-speaking. However, while political tensions may be deep-seated and volatile, Belgian beer seems unaffected by these same divisions and brewers have long taken pride in a unified, distinct and uniquely Belgian brewing tradition.

Without a doubt, Benedictine monks have had one of the most profound and probably most well-known influences on the larger Belgian brewing tradition. While monastic brewing is often synonymous with Belgian brewing, it is important to note here that many other very important secular brewers exist, but for the purpose of writing a clear but brief summary of an entire nation, this article will focus only on the former.

Though it may sound counter-intuitive to suggest that men of the cloth could be parties in the making of the Demon Drink, this relationship has less to do with morality and more with economics. The Order of Cistercians of the Strict, or Trappists, is a Roman Catholic religious order of cloistered contemplative monks who follow the Rule of St. Benedict. The Cistercians were a reform group that sought to relax some aspects of monastic life under these rules while retaining its important traditions and foundations — including the stipulation that monasteries should be self-sufficient.

In order to not place undue financial burden on the Order, the Vatican, or local communities for funding, Trappist monks produce high-quality artisanal foods for resale. This includes chocolate, cheeses, and obviously beer.While Christianity, especially in the American context, has had a problematic and confused relationship with alcohol, booze is not anathema to good Christian living. Monks have traditionally seen beer, due to its hearty and cereal-based composition, as a nutritious and healthy addition to the sparse monastic diet. During religious celebrations and periods of fasting, beer was often the only thing consumed by Brothers for the entire day. Caveat: this beer, known by the style designation of “pater” and usually not available in stores, is often under 3% ABV. Monks rarely overindulge.

Though the term “Trappist” does bring with it certain flavor and stylistic expectations when applied to beer, it is not a brewing designation. Like Bordeaux wines or tequila, Trappist products are appellations of origin protected under US and EU trade law, and any beer wishing to use that terminology must meet specific qualifications. In this context, a “Trappist beer” is authentic only when brewing is directly overseen or done by members of the Order and production is on a not-for profit basis. Anything otherwise is bananas.

Of the seven breweries that meet such criteria, six are located in Belgium and the seventh, La Trappe of the Netherlands, had its official status recently restored in 2005. Included are three Walloon monasteries: Rochefort, Chimay and Orval, and three Flemish: Westvleteren, Achel, and Westmalle. At any beer bar worth their salt in the US, at least one of these names should be on any bottle list, except for Westvleteren which does not normally sell beer outside of the monastery. Though not all these offerings are the same in style or taste, they do share many similarities, especially the fact that they are all ales that are conditioned in the bottle.

An entire article could be written about bottle conditioning, also often referred to as secondary fermentation, but the process is rather simple. Normally, one strain of yeast is used for the “primary” fermentation of beer, which is what consumes sugars and produces ethanol. In all Trappist and many other Belgian beers a second strain of yeast is often added to the completed beer, along with additional unfermented sugar, during the bottling stage. The yeast restarts fermentation while in the bottle, which creates carbonation naturally, adds dryness to the beer, and often imparts additional flavors.

Belgian yeast strains, many of which are closely guarded secrets, add an incredibly distinct “spiciness” to the beer. When adding American hops to any beer style the “American” prefix is usually added to what was normally ”pale ale;” similarly, attaching “Belgian” to “India Pale Ale” usually means it uses this distinct yeast profile.

Chimay, Rochefort and Westmalle all produce a similarly limited line-up of beers, which includes two of the most famous Belgian styles — dubbel and trippel. Though their names correspond beautifully to the Roman Catholic Trinity (pater being the “singel”), etymology most likely comes from the multi-stage mashing process used by brewmasters to produce strong, rich beer. A tripel, for example, might use three “runs” through a single mash in order to extract as much sugar and alcohol as possible. Though this style designation is contested, Chimay and Rochefort both produce “Quads” or “Belgian Strong Dark Ales,” which as their names suggest, are darker and stronger than other offerings.

Belgian beers are known for their strength — during the Dark Ages of Beer (that is to say, the 1970s) these import selections were notorious for drinking American swill under the table. This is the result of both tradition and law. Unlike in England, where beer was taxed to both consumer and producer based on alcohol strength, Belgian brewers had no such constraints. Instead, a batch of beer was taxed based on the size of the brewing kettle; consequently, in order to minimize costs brewers would try and pack as many ingredients into a single mash, which explains the multi-staged brewing mentioned above. Moreover, Belgium did not chaff under any purity laws regulating ingredients like Germany had since the 1500s, opening up flavor possibilities of which Bohemians could only dream. In order to complement the spiciness of yeast, actual spices are added to the brew kettle as well as what Trappists refer to as “candi sugar.” Though the name implies rock candy, it is actually a caramelized syrup that, when added to fermentation, increases alcohol strength without adding too much cloying malt-sweetness to the body.

Because this article barely scratches the surface of what Belgium brewing means to Americans, it must necessarily end on a cliff-hanger. Cheers!

Brad is a junior. He can be reached at

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

The Phoenix

Discover more from The Phoenix

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading