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About Brew Like a Monk

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From the introduction of Brew Like a Monk.

Could you brew like a monk? Should you? Would you?

In an interview a few years ago, Brother Pierre of Rochefort indicated you certainly could. He said:

“Every brewer with some experience is able to copy our beers perfectly. After the bottling, the yeast cells still keep living for about six months. Anyone wanting our yeast can remove it from the bottom and cultivate it. We use the same culture for the main and second fermentation. Even the malts and hops we use are no secret. Anyone who is determined … can do so easily. Some brewers do not want to reveal the spices they use for brewing. Well, we only use a dash of coriander.”

He does allow it might not be quite that simple. “You know, if there were a secret, it is to be found in our attitude towards life, in our relation with God and with nature. We believe that everything growing on the field or in nature?and what you brew out of it?is not merchandise but a gift. That is no laughing matter. We make our beers as natural as possible without too much profit seeking. The Trappists are not dealing with compromises regarding price or quality.”

So should you?

For many commercial brewers, the challenge presents good enough reason. “When we finally brewed it, we were interested in doing it as a fun thing and as an academic exercise as brewers,” said North Coast Brewing Company brewmaster Mark Ruedrich, talking about PranQster. The beer turned into a profitable regular for the California brewery, and the market for such beers continues to grow. For instance, at Victory Brewing Company in Pennsylvania, Golden Monkey (a tripel) became the brewery’s second-best-selling beer, and The Reverend (a quadrupel) outsells every other beer Avery Brewing Company in Colorado packages in 22-ounce bottles.

For amateur brewers, dealing with the challenge may be reward enough. Is there anything comparable to the commercial profit some microbrewers enjoy? I don’t brew to save money, but given that the cheapest 330ml bottle of Trappist beer sells for nearly $4 in New Mexico, it is easy to justify the extra time and expense involved in brewing these beers.

How would you? Will this book tell you?

Understand that I had spent at least a few years suggesting to Ray Daniels that he write Designing Great Belgian Beers. This isn’t that book — it became apparent early on that it would take more than one book (which is why this is the third in a series) to chronicle beers inspired by Belgian brewers. I particularly like that Designing Great Beers laid out how brewers historical and current, commercial and amateur, brew various styles, then left it up to you to decide who you want to “brew like.” Brewing should always be about choices, but never more so than when brewing in the spirit of Belgium.

I set out to ask as many brewers as possible how they make the sorts of beers in this book, about the choices they make along the way, and why they make those choices. I mailed questionnaires to more than a hundred breweries in Belgium, the Netherlands, the United States, and Canada. I built an Internet site where homebrewers could contribute information about how they brew, submit recipes, and suggest questions they would like to have answered.

The hunt for answers to those questions begins in Belgium by considering the history of monastic brewing and the environment in which Trappist breweries first operated. It would be fun to know what the beers they made in the 1800s drank like, but while today’s Trappist beers may be offspring, they taste very different. LikeDesigning Great Beers, this book examines how the pioneers brew, and also how other brewers in Belgium make similar beers. After American brewers producing Belgian-style ales answer the same questions put to the Belgians, the book details the ingredients available to American brewers and how to use them. The goal, of course, remains to brew these beers successfully. Thus, the last chapters deal specifically with the concept of styles, offer tips for professional and amateur brewers, provide specific information about what works, and conclude with recipes and the thinking behind them.

Before considering the journey in more detail, here are four things to pay particular attention to along the way:

Attenuation. Belgian brewers talk often about making sure a beer is “digestible.” Laurent Demuynck, a Belgian native who heads Duvel Moortgat USA, wasn’t kidding when he said: “For breakfast, I put Duvel in my waffle batter … Lightens it up.” Duvel or Orval or Rochefort 8 perfectly complement and compliment a Belgian waffle loaded with whipped cream and strawberries. These beers are strong and full of flavor without being cloying. Mashing regimen, sugar, yeast, and fermentation management hold the secret.

There’s no “i” in sugar. Historical references to the use of “candi sugar” in Trappist breweries beginning in the 1920s don’t describe the crystal rocks Americans call “Belgian candi sugar,” but most often a dark caramel syrup. This creates confusion to the extent that we might be better off avoiding the term throughout this book. Common usage by American brewers makes that impossible, so when you see “candi sugar” in the following pages, it will usually refer to the rocklike hunks used by Americans rather than an ingredient found in Belgian recipes. When we discuss “candi sugar” in historical terms, meaning caramel syrup or a similar product, the difference should be clear.
Refermentation in the bottle. Only two Trappist beers are even sold on draft, all get fresh yeast when bottled, and most are carbonated at higher levels than previously has been assumed as typical for Belgian-style ales. Good bottle-conditioning depends on, you guessed it, proper attenuation.

Trappist is not a style, but an appellation. Trappist-brewed beers may be very strong or not so strong, light in color or dark. Set aside preconceptions about style when reading about how monastery brewers make beer. We’ll get to “style” later.
In Part I of the book, we’ll look specifically at how Belgian brewers make these beers.

A visit to seven essential breweries (Chapters 2 & 3). Because only six Trappist monasteries brew, and they package but fifteen beers for sale, we can focus on the breweries and each of those beers, then consider the others they inspired. No Trappist, however, produces the closely linked type of beer Michael Jackson dubbed “strong golden.” That style was born at the Moortgat Brewery and connected to monastery beers through influential brewing scientist Jean De Clerck. Jackson wrote that the beer known as Duvel “is also a good example of a Belgian beer that is a style in itself, and widely imitated.”

Abbeys, blondes, and independent spirits (Chapters 4 & 5). A surge in popularity in Trappist beers led scores of breweries to produce abbey beers (abdijbier or bière d’abbaye in Flemish and French, respectively). In some cases, monasteries commissioned commercial brewers to make beers for them; in others, commercial breweries staked out the use of an abbey’s name, although the monastery is no longer active. Adding to the confusion, even more beers put dubbel and tripel on their labels.

Part II begins by visiting a cross-section of American breweries that produce Belgian-inspired beers. Then we’ll review ingredients and processes used by both Belgian and American brewers, giving particular attention to yeast and fermentation.

American beers, Belgian roots (Chapter 6). Distributors sometimes approach New Belgium Brewing Company founder Jeff Lebesch with questions about esoteric beers such as La Folie or the abbey styles Abbey and Trippel. “They ask, ‘Why do you keep making these?’ ” Lebesch said. “I tell them, ‘because that’s who we are.’ ” Brewing styles with roots in Belgium can be commercially viable, but talk to American brewer after American brewer about making such beers, and their passion for the beers becomes obvious. They are still learning themselves and are eager to share information.

From grain to bottle (Chapters 7-9). Before tackling the new and exciting, brewing with sugar and taming exotic yeasts, we’ll review the basics. The overview includes Trappist water profiles, their malt choices, and mashing regimens. We’ll pay particular attention to fermentation management. We know Westmalle and Westvleteren use the exact same yeast. Westmalle restrains the fermentation temperature throughout, holding it to 68° F (20° C). Fermentation at Westvleteren usually rises to 80° to 84° F (28° to 29° C). Before you pitch, understand what you expect of your yeast.

In Part III, we turn to brewing. Whether you plan to brew “in style” or brew to inspiration, you should be armed for better brewing.

The “S” word (Chapter 10). Yvan De Baets puts it succinctly when it comes to discussing beer styles: “Making categories helps the human brain, but it also limits it. Descriptions don’t necessarily take into account complexity.” We’ll visit the debate-make no mistake, we’re talking about an in-your-face debate-about using the words “Belgian” and “style” in the same sentence. To understand Trappist, abbey, and other beers of this family, it helps to think about where in Belgium they originated, rather than that they were born in monasteries.
Style categories particularly help define what this book covers:

– Category 18 in the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines ( Beers called Belgian Strong Ales include blonde, dubbel, tripel, golden strong ale, and dark strong ale. Beers that would be entered in Category 16E, Belgian Specialty, are also included, but not every Belgian specialty beer.

– Belgian-style dubbel, tripel, pale strong ale, dark strong ale, and other Belgian-style ales according to the Brewers Association Beer Style Guidelines. The Association uses these categories for the World Beer Cup. At the Great American Beer Festival, dubbel, tripel, and other Belgian-style abbey ales are judged as Belgian-style abbey ales, while pale strong ales, dark strong ales, and other strong specialty ales compete as Belgian-style strong specialty ales.

What works: Recipes (Chapter 11). You shouldn’t consider this a recipe book (more on that momentarily), but this is where you’ll find recipes created by both professional and amateur brewers, and they explain their thoughts about recipe formulation and making the recipes work. We’ll look, one more time, at numbers from commercial brewers, at guidelines, and at how some homebrewers successfully brew these styles.
So, what’s not in the book? For starters, a primer on brewing beer or a glossary of brewing terms. If you recently drank your first dubbel at your local brewpub, ran out and bought bottles of New Belgium Abbey and Westmalle Dubbel, then decided you wanted to take up homebrewing to make something similar, you had better back up. You need to know something about brewing before you use this book to make beer. Plenty of excellent basic brewing books explain the basics of step-infusion mashing, or how to adjust your brewing water. More technical publications are available should you decide to dive into challenges like culturing yeast strains.

I haven’t attempted to put together a complete list of commercial producers on either side of the ocean?there are simply too many. Sorry, but some elegant beers don’t even get a mention.

As noted, you won’t find a lot of recipes. Instead, I’ve tried to list ingredients and processes for a cross-section of beers within each style. Other tables reveal measurable differences between beers within a style (such as Chimay White and Affligem Tripel), illustrate in aggregate what sort of ingredients homebrewers use, or contrast homebrewed beers with commercial examples.

Why not more recipes? Homebrewer Gordon Strong (you’ll read more from him in Chapter 10) points out just how many celebrity chefs write recipe books inviting readers to clone their popular restaurant dishes. We have shelves of such books in our house, as well as many homebrewing books with recipes. However, Designing Great Beersvincludes no recipes, and another book I keep close to my brew kettle, Randy Mosher’s The Brewer’s Companion, also doesn’t offer recipes. On the other hand, I find Mosher’s most recent effort, Radical Brewing, inspiring, and that book bleeds recipes.

He and I discussed this via e-mail. He wrote: “I too am scornful of recipes, although it seems to be the main thing people want out of brewing (as well as cooking) books. I’d much rather empower people, but they’ve had all the artistic confidence pounded out of them.”
Strong views recipes as a way of comparing approaches. Mosher agrees with that idea. “One way of looking at them is as examples of principles of formulation, kind of explain the parts and pieces,” he wrote. Such has been my goal, with brewers not only providing recipes but the how and why behind them.

Oregon homebrewer Noel Blake, who was inspired by Westvleteren 12 to brew a beer that won second prize in the National Homebrew Competition, contributes one of the recipes. His “dream beer” description, also inspired by Westvleteren 12, took another turn when Brewery Ommegang used the narrative in creating Three Philosophers Ale. You might say he has a way with words, and he’s free with advice.
“Think like a Belgian, brew like a monk,” he said. “That is, make a distinctive beer that is expressive rather than imitative, and dedicate yourself to it as if there is nothing else in life.”

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