Cloudy with particulate matter—mostly yeast, but it’s tempting to think it also includes fragments of frayed medieval manuscripts. The abbey was founded in the 11th century by repentant brigands, but the venerable beer is now brewed in Opwijk and is part of the Heineken portfolio. Immediate flavors as intense and luscious as biting into a perfectly ripe peach, but the nectar-like presence on the tongue slowly reveals further depths of bacon fat, horehound and white chocolate. The citrus-bitter finish is perfection. Among the world’s greatest beer.
STAR BRAND IMPORTS
In the 1960s the Trappist monks at Bornem licensed the brewing of their abbey ales to the Van Steenberge brewery. The almost sticky malt-and-maple nose reminds me of steaming bowls of Maypo and the stuff seems unquestionably nourishing—a drinkable meal that satisfies and cures the soul. Perfect for fasting.
Chimay Grande Réserve
The planet’s most celebrated abbey ale is a pilgrimage stop for any beer lover. The Grande Réserve (blue label) version boasts 9 percent alcohol and shows opaque, unfiltered mahogany color and rich, vinous yet tangy flavors and an angelic touch of sherry-esque rancio. Heavenly stuff.
In 1963 the Benedictine monks at Maredsous entrusted the brewing of their beer to Duvel Moortgat, who also own Upstate New York brewery Ommegang (see featurette). Gorgeously burnished and deeper in color than the Tripel, the Maredsous Dubbel is surprisingly nimble and playful on the palate, with dry chocolate-spice-caramel tones and a teeth-clinching finish.
Trappistes Rochefort 6
Rochefort 6 is the 7.5 percent version of this authentic Wallonian Trappist beer, from one of just six Trappist breweries left in Belgium. By regulation, it’s brewed within the abbey compound and the proceeds benefit only the monastic community and its charities. The flavors are medicinal—there’s a distinct whiff of peaty Islay Scotch—and haunting, with notes of Dutch cocoa, cola and wild herbs. Proof that God loves beer.
MERCHANT DU VIN
Westmalle is a relative latecomer to the abbey ale scene, the Dubbel having first been brewed only in 1836. Murky and unfiltered, with an estery nose full of spice and some tar overtones. Similarly dark and mysterious on the palate, its rather solemn flavors sing plainchant in unison rather than going for showy harmonies.
MERCHANT DU VIN
Ommegang Ten Years On
It’s hard to believe it was only ten years ago that Don Feinberg, a American importer of Belgian beers, broke ground for a new and very special craft brewery in Upstate New York. Ommegang—named for a Belgain religious festival—was located, appropriately enough, on a former hop farm just a few miles south of Cooperstown, New York, birthplace of baseball. The imposing 9000-square-foot brewhouse was modeled after traditional Belgian farm architecture and the setting is spectacular, especially in autumn, when the hillsides are ablaze with color.
In just one short decade, the Ommegang brews have become by-words for Belgian-style beer in the United States. Like the great Belgian beers that inspired them, they have a timeless quality and seem like they’ve been around forever. In 2003, Ommegang was purchased by Belgian brewery Duvel Moortgat, who had been original silent investors in the project. (Feinburg continues to run his successful import company, Vanberg & DeWulf, stateside supplier of Scaldis and Dupont beers, among others.)
Brewmaster Randy Thiel has at Ommegang since the beginning and lucked into his current position when the brewery’s original Belgian-born brewmaster “got homesick for his girlfriend and moved back home.” Thiel says he learned a lot about Belgian brews from Feinberg. “Don had a gastronomic approach to what Belgian beer should taste like,” notes Theil, “and how it should sit on the palate.” The rock-solid lineup includes the signature Ommegang Abbey Ale, a classic-style double; Hennepin Farmhouse Saison; Rare Vos Amber Ale; Ommegang Witte; and Three Philosophers, a quadruple abbey-style ale laced with authentic Belgian kriek.
When the brewery threw itself a tenth birthday bash on October 13, twice the number of people expected showed up. Ommegang appears to be poised for many more decades of great Belgian-style brewing.