Brewing in monasteries is a practice that dates back to the Middle Ages. As noted before, some monks brewed to produce a beverage to sustain themselves while abstaining from solid food during fasting. Some brewed to produce a safe beverage, as unsanitary water was common in those times. Another reason comes from a rule laid down by St. Benedict of Nursia, which states that a true monk is one who “lives by the work of his own hands.” Some religious orders, such as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.), more commonly known as Trappists, put this rule into practice by producing and selling such goods as cheese, bread, clothing, and—most famously—beer. The revenues are then used for living expenses and maintaining monastery buildings and grounds. Today, there are eleven Trappist breweries in the world, over half of which are located in Belgium, including today’s feature—Chimay Brewery. In keeping with the above precept, one of many from the Rule of Saint Benedict, Chimay donates all surplus revenues to charity. Chimay has been brewing since 1862, just over ten years after a group of monks settled the land where the monastery would be erected. While the monastery today is still located on Scourmont plateau in the province of Hainaut, Belgium, the brewery itself was moved off-site to a larger facility in 1988 in order to handle the increase in worldwide demand for Chimay products, as well as to preserve the calm and quiet atmosphere needed for a monastic way of life. Chimay produces four ales: Chimay Red, a Belgian dubbel with 7% ABV; Chimay Cinq Cents, a Belgian tripel with 8% ABV; Chimay Blue—today’s featured beer—a Belgian dark strong with 9% ABV; and Chimay Dorée, a patersbier with 4.8% ABV. Although patersbier is traditionally reserved for the monastic community, Chimay has broken with that tradition and made it available to the public.
Belgian dubbel originated in the mid-1800s as a stronger version of a brown ale made by the Trappist Abbey of Westmalle. In a similar fashion, Belgian tripel emerged as an even stronger ale a century later. The style of today’s featured beer, Belgian strong dark ale, varies a little more from brewery to brewery but likely appeared toward the end of the 20th century. As monastery beers gained fame for their quality, beers labeled as “abbey beers” began to grow in number, not all of which were produced in monasteries. In response, Trappist monks from eight breweries banded together and formed the International Trappist Association in 1997, which then created the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo. The association now regulates the use of the logo and has laid down three criteria which must be met for the label to be applied: products must be produced in or near a monastery, sales and production must support and be in keeping with the monastic way of life, and any profits must be used to help those in need. These guidelines are applied so strictly that when the Trappist brewer of La Trappe beer in the Netherlands relegated production to a subsidiary of a large commercial brewer, the association felt that the new arrangement failed to adhere to the guidelines and instructed the brewery to remove the label.
All Trappist beers are ales that usually undergo a secondary fermentation after bottling, which is induced by the addition of sugar and live yeast. Such bottle conditioning has the effect of locking in the CO2 produced by the yeast and giving the beer its fizz. With regard to dubbel, tripel, and dark strong, the yeast strains, malt varieties, and malt cooking process typically yield a dark amber to dark coppery brown color and peppery, dried fruit-like flavors and aromas. Chimay has received criticism for switching from whole hops to hop extract, due to the perception of extract as an inferior ingredient. But the process of using liquid CO2 as a solvent yields a high-quality product with a long shelf life even at room temperature (unlike whole hops, which must be refrigerated). Hops processed in this fashion are used by over half of the brewing industry worldwide. Chimay’s recipes have reportedly not changed since shortly after World War II.
Upon pouring, the foamy, off-white head both forms and collapses at a moderate pace. Up first in the aroma is bready, toasted grain, shortly followed by subtle lime and grapefruit. Soon some caramel-like sweetness emerges, and then the aroma settles into bread, prune, and oxidized apple. At first, the flavor is very sweet and toffee-like alongside some bread, spice, and fruit reminiscent of prune and old apples. The alcohol is noticeable but integrates well to form a dry, spicy undertone. Wheat and pale malted barley are apparent in the aftertaste.
Overall, Chimay Blue is sweet, complex, and easy to drink despite its 9% ABV. The most intriguing aspect is the transition of flavors and aromas over time. While high carbonation is traditional, Chimay Blue’s borders on excessive, like drinking a light, fizzy soda. It has the effect of lightening the body and keeping it from settling on the tongue as other heavy but less carbonated beers might do. The alcohol is fairly strong but works well with the spicy and bitter flavors.
Today’s beer was purchased at a Marché grocery store located in Ota, Japan. Of late, Chimay’s products have become increasingly easy to find in Japan.