One of the tasks I set myself when visiting Belgium last month was to become better acquainted with the country's Trappist beers. I remember on my early trips to Belgium going systematically through the Trappists and deciding that Westmalle was, on balance, the brand for me. I've had my share of Chimay in the meantime, but mostly the Cistercian brothers at Westmalle do for me very nicely.
Mainly to have something written here on the various Belgian Trappist beers, I revisited as many as I could get my hands on. In general, they retail for about a third of the price they do at home, so as labours of love go, this was one of the less taxing ones.
I'll start with the only Scourmont beer I drank, a Chimay Bleu in Brussels' puppet theatre theme bar, Toone. Despite a powerful 9% ABV, this is quite a light and fruity brown-red ale, with just a bitter kick at the end. It's unquestionably a good beer, but fairly unchallenging. My Trappist benchmark, you might say.
Falling below the standard it sets is Achel Bruin. I was surprised at how understated the flavours in this beer were. Having served it chilled, I let it sit and warm up for ages, waiting for the taste to come through, but as it approached room temperature there were only the vaguest hints of fruit. A Trappist beer can taste bland. Achel Blond is rather better, with a nicely balanced mouthfeel: prickly yet fluffy. 8% ABV gives it a satisfying weight, but it remains smooth and uncloying. The flavours are aromatic and floral: sweet, but not too sweet. A class act.
I experienced a similar contrast with the two Westvleteren beers I brought home. Westvleteren Blond is a light orange colour with a full fruity nose. The foretaste is fruity and bitter, with an ashen dryness at the end. This beer comes in like a tripel, and goes out like a French wheat beer. At only 5.8% ABV, proof that you can get Trappist complexity without high levels of alcohol.
My first whiff of Westvleteren 8 gave me vinegar, and lots of it, like sticking one's nose into a bag of salt and vinegar crisps. This was borne out in the intense vinegary foretaste, and only a faint hint of malt and dates at the back, along with the opaque brown colour, indicated that this was a Trappist ale at all. It's possible that I may have bought a dud. I'll arrange a rematch at the earliest opportunity.
My Chimay benchmark was rendered useless by Orval. This powerful, heavy beer is often described as tasting "horsey", which is perfectly understandable. The malty flavours have an added sour funk which, though not unpleasant, takes a bit of getting used to.
Coming back to Westmalle Dubbel, I took the time to work out why I like it so much. The conclusion I reached is: balance. Yes, the plummy flavour is rich and sumptuous, offering a luxuriousness that is entirely inappropriate to the lifestyle of its brewers, but it is also perfectly balanced between fruit sweetness and hops bitterness. The way the flavours bounce off each other in a choreographed complexity is what keeps me coming back. I decided I wasn't about to go changing my opinions of the best Trappist beer...
... until I came to the last of the Belgian brewing abbeys. Rochefort 10 features elements of all the above. It is a very dark hue and offers up little by way of aroma. The flavour, however, is a workout. Up front there are plums and strawberries, followed by a bittersweet spiciness and a bready character, reminiscent of fruitcake. In my opinion, however, it is upstaged by its little brother Rochefort 8. This one isn't quite so intense, but is certainly complex. There are notes of caramel and smoke in here, and a dose of rich chicory. It adds up to a beer that starts at the benchmark but goes that extra mile.
I don't think I'm ready for Westmalle to hand over the trophy just yet, but I was enormously impressed with the Rocheforts. Consider this a play-off, with two contenders left for the final...