A Year of Beer #5 - Trappist Ales & the Lenten Fast
Another part of our (hopefully) year-long video project, A Year of Beer. looking at the idea of beer and seasonality - how different styles of beer are more appropriate to different seasons, weathers, festivals and so on. There will also be a bit of beer and food matching thrown in because, hell, we love to to eat as much as we love to drink.
This week: Trappist Ales and the Lenten Fast.
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Trappist Beers and the Lenten Fast.
Answers to a few common questions first: Yes, they really are brewed by monks. Yes, they mostly are quite strong. No, they don't taste "funny", but like anything held in high regard by connoisseurs, you might need to do a bit of research in order to fully appreciate them.
The period of Lent is a good point around which to anchor Trappist beers. Lent is the period between Shrove Tuesday and Easter, traditionally a time of fasting and reflection for followers of the Christian faith. A fast might take many forms; not eating from dawn to dusk was quite a common choice, although if one was employed in any sort of labour, one's energy would soon flag. So beer was a nice way of taking on some energy without breaking the fast - eating is prohibited, but drinking is permitted.
The label "Trappist" is a form of controlled appellation. There are seven monastic breweries permitted to brew and label their beers as Trappist in origin; Chimay, Westmalle, Orval, Rochefort, Achel, La Trappe and Westvletern. Classically, Trappist ales are split into dubbels and tripels, this being, in a time of low literacy, the number of X's used to indicate the relative strength of the beer. Dubbels(XX) tend to be dark and fruity, tripels (XXX) drier and hoppier. The "single" (X)designation may be used to refer to a relatively pale, modest table beer, only drunk by the brothers in a monastery. Additionally, a quadrupel might be brewed for special celebrations. Trappist monks clearly couldn't give a XXXX for any low-strength, low-quality beers; the quadrupel style is always big, strong and sweet. Like all rules of thumb, these designations don't work; not every brewery's output strictly conforms to these styles, but it will have to do as a generalisation.
Trappist beers have a long and traceable history, which may explain why they are held in such high regard by beer-lovers; authenticity of product is always an important factor to an afficionado. Given the relative seclusion under which these beers are brewed, it is unsurprising that they have changed little over the decades. They are, truly, unspoilt by progress.