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Can America Embrace the Modern Trappist Ale?

In "I'd Tap That," Aaron Goldfarb and a panel of tasters pit "whales" against "shelf turds" in an effort to understand everything from Imperial IPA to coffee beer. This round: Belgian, Dutch and American trappist ales.

Trappist Ale Beer

In the Belgian countryside, in places like Gaume and Vleteren, sit centuries-old monasteries with names like Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval and Saint-Sixtus Abbey. There, honest-to-god monks exist. They pray, take walks in the garden, make cheeses and jams. Some even produce beer, often just enough to fund their life of solitude. I try and remind myself of this every time I’m at my crummy local bodega and spot neglected bottles of Chimay.

Trappist beer is ubiquitous—as available to most drinkers as a Heineken or Sam Adams. Yet it’s highly regarded too; in the mid-aughts you couldn’t find many beers more respected. But of late its reputation has gone stale—too old-world, too malty, not juicy enough.

In fact, this may be hard for NEIPA-crushing, 20-something “hazebros” to believe, but in the recent past, trappist-made quadruples dominated best-beers lists and online trading forums. Westvleteren 12, a beer supposedly only available from Saint-Sixtus (though, in actuality, bootlegged at many bars across Europe), was, for nine years, Beer Advocate’s No. 1 beer in the world. Today, while still a respectable No. 32, it’s rarely sold in this country—considered passé in our double dry-hopped world.

Trappist ales do not represent one style of beer, per se, nor are there any defined parameters (aside from the fact that trappist monks must oversee their production). But there are usually a few hallmarks. These beers are simple yet hearty, heavy on dark European malts like Vienna and Munich, boozy (generally between 7 and 12 percent ABV) with a very subtle hop profile, and typically marked by sweetness due to the addition of Belgian candi sugar (sort of like rock candy). And while the monks usually don’t label their own beers by style, beer lovers have helped create a taxonomy for them. There are the dark fruit-like dubbels, the pale and ester-y tripels, and the high-alcohol quadrupels which, for the longest time, represented the pinnacle of well-crafted beer.

Today, however, these centuries-old styles are going through a radical reconstruction—one best described as “Americanization.” Chimay now offers a Grande Réserve, aged in rum barrels, while La Trappe is now on their 29th batch of experimental beer, having aged their quadrupel in everything from Kirsch to Bruichladdich single-malt barrels. Likewise, trappist breweries have started to expand beyond Belgium’s borders into Holland, Austria and Italy.

In 2013, America’s first trappist brewery opened at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts. Their Spencer Brewery started with a fairly standard Belgian-style pale ale, but today makes an imperial stout, a pilsner and, yes, an IPA. These new-fangled trappist beers are giving their Belgian brethren a run for their money, as we learned from our recent blind tasting of 18 bottles. Somewhere, there’s a perturbed Belgian monk wishing he hadn’t taken that vow of silence.

For the tasting, I was joined by PUNCH’s Editor in Chief, Talia Baiocchi; Assistant Editor, Chloe Frechette; and George Flickinger of B. United International, a top beer importer. While trappist beer still mostly exists on the dubbel/tripel/quadrupel spectrum, our tasting also included a few lighter offerings, as well as some “nouveau” trappist beers from around the world. Here are our top picks.

Orval Trappist Ale

This one-of-a-kind Belgian trappist beer has the unusual addition of both dry hops and Brettanomyces lambicus, a wild yeast strain. This means that it is constantly evolving in the bottle, and no two ever quite taste the same. With that quality immediately evident in our tasting due to the “horsey” aroma on the nose, the palate counters the funk with notes of grass, pears and a mild bitter finish.

  • ABV: 6.9 percent

Spencer Trappist Ale

We found the only American trappist brewery’s “American” offerings to be underwhelming, but were wowed by their more traditional Belgian flagship. This drinkable pale ale has intense aromas of cloves and spruce, which leads into a floral, fruity profile on the palate with complex notes of dried apricot and chamomile.

  • ABV: 6.5 percent

Trappistes Rochefort 6

While all of Rochefort’s offerings were standouts among the panel, its least ballyhooed, lowest-alcohol beer did best. The clay-red ale leads with ester-y notes of banana, bubblegum and vanilla on the nose, backed by tart cherry and banana bread on the palate. Hints of spice and asphalt add another layer of complexity to what one taster dubbed the “quintessential dubbel.”

  • ABV: 7.5 percent

Westmalle Tripel

The original template for the style, Westmalle first used the term “tripel” in 1956. It remains a vibrant beer with a creamy white head leading into an aggressively carbonated mouthfeel. Tasters found the latter acted as a welcome “scrubbing” for the potentially overwhelming sweetness inherent to the style. Incredibly fruity with notes of honeydew, pear, white pepper and apple, it’s surprisingly drinkable for the ABV.

  • ABV: 9.5 percent

La Trappe Quadrupel Oak Aged Batch 23

The most envelope-pushing trappist brewery had, no surprise, the most oddball beer in our tasting. Aged mostly in spätburgunder (German pinot noir) barrels as well as new oak and acacia wood, this was all dark fruit—prune, plum and fig—up front. Nearly flat (think of it almost like an English barleywine), some tasters thought a little carbonation would’ve helped balance the syrupy sweetness, while others thought the wood tannins did a mighty fine job of keeping the beer in check.

  • ABV: 11 percent

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