Drinking Trappist Ale in Belgium…It’s For the Kids
“You don’t have to feel bad drinking this beer. It’s for the kids!” our tour guide told us as we sat in a pub in Brussels. And it’s true…sort of.
My travel buddy and I made a last minute decision to do a beer tasting tour while we were in Brussels. A lot of people claim that Belgium makes some of the best beer in the world and, having already filled ourselves up with waffles and frites, we wanted to see for ourselves.
So that’s how I found myself coaxing a bottle of blonde Westmalle Tripel into the chalice hoping to get a good head on it, while my friend was doing the same with a dark Chimay Double. No head = a bad pour with these beers.
First thing to know, Belgian beers are not for chugging. They are not ice cold thirst quenching brews you put back one after another. You don’t line up dead soldiers on your table like a badge of honour. They are, by and large, not session beers. You sip the beer. You savour it. You appreciate it. Belgian beer is beer you drink like a wine.
But what about German beer?
Many people will claim that Germans make the best beer, but they’re limited in what they can do because of Reinheitsgebot, the German beer purity law that limits the ingredients that can go into German-brewed beer. It certainly does wonders for making a quality product, but an unimaginative one. Belgians aren’t restricted in the same way so can experiment, get inventive, and improve upon recipes.
Unlike American beers like Coors Light that advertise that the colder the bottle, the better, we were actually advised to slightly warm up our bottles of ale by holding them in our hands for a few minutes before pouring. If the beer is too cold it doesn’t release all of its flavours (so this is why you want your Coors icy). Consider it similar to the difference between a room temperature red wine and the same bottle stored in the fridge. The latter is just wrong, right? Same goes for these suds.
While there are exceptions, for the most part, Belgian beers are strong. We’re talking 8% ABV and up. Belgians take great pride in their beer and like to joke about the weak products from other countries. “When you drink a Trappist ale, you piss Heineken,” one joke goes. And here we Canadians thought we had pretty good beer, but I left Belgium a little embarrassed of our mass produced beers.
One good thing about these strong beers is that, since you’re sipping your beer and three is more than enough, it makes it a relatively cheap night out. Full on glowy, giddy buzz for about €10? Yes, please!
So back to the Trappist ales…what are they exactly?
Our tour guide told us that his favourite beer were Trappist ales. They come in different styles, from different breweries but they have three things in common. For a beer to be considered a true, authentic Trappist beer it has to fulfil three criteria:
- It must be brewed on the grounds of a Trappist monastery.
- The brewmaster must be a Trappist monk. Other staff can be laymen but the guy in charge must be a monk.
- Finally, all profits go towards sustaining the monks with the extra going to charity.
See? Drink beer, help the children. ;)
There are only eleven Trappist breweries in the world, six of them located in Belgium. There are two located in the Netherlands, with the remaining three in the USA, Italy, and Austria. Westmalle and Chimay in Belgium, and La Trappe in the Netherlands are the three brands who produce the most.
You’ll find that the majority of Trappist beers are either Dubbels or Tripels. These are just naming conventions and have nothing to do with the brewing process. Dubbels aren’t fermented twice or anything, it’s just the second type of beer that the original Trappist brewed. Tripels are the third type. The original style has fallen off and isn’t made anymore.
No matter what brewery, you can be confident about the type of beer you’ll get when you order a Dubbel: a fairly strong (6%-8%) brown ale, fruity, not too bitter. With a Tripel, you’ll get a strong (8%-10%) blonde, more bitter, not so fruity.
The last thing that sets apart Trappist beers from other beers is that they have their own special glasses: chalices and goblets. Like wine, the shape of the glass is designed to bring out the best flavours in the beer.
Over 2400 beers to choose from
We ended our tasting at the world famous Delirium Cafe, sampling some non-Trappist beers. Not only does Delirium house Mannekin Pis’ female counterpart, Jannekin Pis, outside in the alley, more importantly, they have over 2400 types of beer available. To put it in perspective, you could try three different beer each night for two years, two months before you repeat. And at 9% ABV, that means you’d be pissed the entire time.
By the end of the sampling, we all had that happy, everything is awesome, buzz on the go and decided to keep the party going. I discovered that I really enjoyed sour cherry beer, while my newfound friends screwed up their faces at its sourness. I guess once you learn to like kimchi, it takes more than sour beer to turn you off.
So if you’re looking for a fun evening and a way to meet some new beer loving travellers, book yourself a beer tasting with Sandeman Tours in Brussels and ask for Fraser. ;)
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to my local liquor store to stock up on some Belgian beer. Screw you Coors.
Note: I paid for this activity with my own money and am in no way affiliated with Sandeman Tours. I just had a really good time.