As a kid growing up in the 1970s my idea of beer was Pabst Blue Ribbon, Coors, Budweiser, and Miller. I also remember Hamm’s (“From the land of sky blue water…”) because they were a corporate sponsor of the Kansas City Royals and they advertised heavily during Royals radio and television broadcasts. And that’s it, really. That was the beer landscape that I remember as a kid: beer produced by big conglomerations that smelled nasty when freshly opened and smelled 100 times nastier when you collected beer cans by the side of the road.
Today we live in a bona fide golden age of wonderfully crafted American beers. We have an embarrassment of beer riches all around us to the point that, if you regularly drink “big conglomeration beer,” you just aren’t trying very hard. What has happened to American beer in the past 15 years is nothing short of miraculous and I thank God for it regularly.
But not all great beer is American beer. In fact, if you gave me truth serum, waited an hour, and then asked me what my favorite beer country would be, I would most certainly answer Belgium. Author Randy Mosher eloquently describes why Belgian beer is captivating to so many when he writes, “Although there are specific styles, the Belgians favor an artisanal approach to brewing, meaning the brewer is considered an artist and has no sense of duty to conform to preexisting styles.” Each Belgian brewery has a slightly different take on existing styles and it is a delight to discover what those differences entail from brewery to brewery.
Therefore, if you are going to take any sort of dive into the dizzying world of actual Belgian beer, prepare to go in with an open mind and an urge for adventurousness.
My favorite of all of the Belgian beers are those brewed by the official Trappist breweries (not all of which are located in Belgium, by the way). Products that are created by “officially licensed Trappist monasteries” receive a special symbol like this one:
Trappist monasteries are given the “officially licensed” appellation by The International Trappist Association, which is located in Belgium. The International Trappist Association oversees products that bear their label in order to ensure quality and to make sure the money raised by the products is used properly. At this time, there are only ten monasteries in the world that have received the “authentic Trappist product” seal of approval. A list of those ten monasteries can be found here.
Jargon alert: What is a “Trappist?” Trappists are monks or nuns belonging to a religious order of the Roman Catholic church that follows the Rule of St. Benedict. The word “Trappist” comes from the La Trappe Abbey located in France. The motto of the Trappists is ora et labora, which is a Latin phrase meaning “pray and work.” The members of the religious order have set times every day for manual labor and for prayer. The fruit of the work of their hands is used to provide for their own living expenses and to help others in need.
Having given you all of the at background and history, let me just say that the beer under consideration here is not an “authentic Trappist product.” St. Bernardus used to be the contract brewer for the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren. The working arrangement between the two parties ended in 1992 when Westvleteren began doing all of their own brewing in-house. Beers from Westvleteren are notoriously difficult to come by as the brewery only produces enough beer to support their living needs and their philanthropic endeavors. Westvleteren has repeatedly asserted that they will not increase production to meet the insanely high demand for their beer. Westvleteren are by far the most difficult Trappist beers come by. If you have a chance to try one, you should not miss out. For the rest of us, we have to settle for St. Bernardus, as they brew using the same recipes they used when they were the contract brewer for Westvleteren.
In this case, “settling” for a St. Bernardus beer is just fine as they produce some of the finest non-Trappist/Trappist beers around. Simply put, anything with the St. Bernardus label on it is a world-class beer and their tripel is worthy of any beer lover’s attention. This beer, which is brewed at the St. Bernardus Brouwerij Abbey, is a unique, idiosyncratic beer that stretches the boundaries of adjectives. It isn’t bold, brash, and malty like an imperial stout. It isn’t overly-hoppy like an IPA. It isn’t overly grassy like a wheat beer. It isn’t immediately clear which food I would pair with it. It almost demands to stand on its own and for the taster to approach it on its own terms.
The smell of Belgian yeast is immediately apparent when you open the bottle. Once you develop a nose for that yeast, you’ll recognize it immediately. However, the taste is not overly yeasty. It is more fruity with a slight nod toward sour. Perhaps citrus or oranges is the best description. The ABV is 8% so it is a bit higher, but not exorbitantly so.
One other tip. If you are going to delve into the world of Trappist beers, you will want to invest in a Trappist glass. They are readily available online. My glass bears the Duvel logo, but you can find other Trappist glasses in gift packs at your local bottle shop. La Trappe makes a very nice gift pack with a glass, as does St. Bernardus.
Jargon alert: What is with the word “tripel?” It is a name used to describe a strong ale. There are also dubbel and quadruple ales. The dubbel has a lower ABV than a tripel, whereas a quadruple (usually just called a “quad”) has a higher ABV than a tripel. The word tripel doesn’t mean that anything has been “tripled” in the beer. It is merely a designation that it is a stronger beer than a dubbel but not quite as strong as a quad.
It is highly likely that your local beer bottle shop has a Belgian/Trappist section. You’ll know you are in that section when you start seeing names like Ovral, Chimay, Rochefort, and La Trappe. In that section of your local store are some of the finest beers in the world. Give them a try. And if you are confused about where to start, you might consider starting with a 12 oz. or bomber sized bottle of the St. Bernardus Tripel.
My Untappd rating for the St. Bernardus Tripel is 5/5.