About a year ago (at the time of writing) I was fortunate enough to visit Brussels on a business trip and wrote a number of articles for The Brew Club about Belgian Ales. At the time I noted that there are six Trappist breweries in Belgium (Achel, Chimay, Westmalle, Westvleteren, Orval and Rochefort ) and one (De Koningshoeven) in Holland.
This is an omission I will seek to redress, starting with Westmalle for no other reason than it was my best mate’s favourite beer and the day I’m writing this review would have been his birthday, so cheers mate!
So, the abbey at Westmalle – actually “Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van het Heilig Hart” – was founded in 1794, as a Priory. It’s situated in Flanders which has for many years been the subject of territorial dispute. Much of the first World War was fought in Flanders Fields and indeed as a result of military incursions by the French under Napoleon Bonaparte (who closed all Trappist monasteries in France) the Priory at Westmalle wasn’t really up and praying until 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo.
The monks adopted the regulations of Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé – the founder of the Cistercian order – which allowed the monks to drink (besides water) the most popular local beverage with their meals. In Flanders the most popular local beverage is beer, and rather than have to buy their beer the monks constructed a small brewery and served their first Trappist beer with lunch on 10th December 1836, the same year that the Priory became an Abbey.
Larger breweries were built in 1897 and 1934 and while the abbey was damaged during World War One, it survived World War Two relatively unscathed.
Westmalle is considered to be the birthplace of the accepted Trappist style brews ‘Dubbel’ and ‘Tripel’ (they can’t spell in Belgium) and Westmalle Tripel is sometimes called “mother of all tripels”.
The first Westmalle Dubbel was brewed in 1856 and while the recipe was modified in 1926 it remains a classic reddish-brown, dark beer brewed to 7% ABV.
Westmalle Tripel was first brewed in 1934 with the completion of the new beer hall. It’s brewed to 9.5% ABV and is a much paler beer than the Dubbel, a golden staw colour yellow.
Both Dubbel and Tripel are bottle conditioned, allowing for secondary fermentation.
There is a third Westmalle Beer – ‘Extra’ but this is brewed only twice a year for consumption by the monks and their guests. Friends who have tasted it (such as Rob the landlord of ‘The Prince of Wales‘ near where I live) report it to be light, with a fruity nose, brewed to 5% ABV. If you ever see a bottle, get your Mastercard ready!
That’s the history, where’s my bottle opener?
Whoah! That’s really lively, that’s the secondary fermentation confirmed.
I now have two thirds of a glass of Westmalle Dubbel, and a rich, spicy, beery smelling kitchen – and a slightly irate wife!
The nose tells you what to expect from the flavour, rich, dark, spicy fruit with a hint of malt. Do you guys in the US get malt-loaf?
It’s full bodied, but not too chewy, and the flavour, well as expected there’s a rich, dark maltiness suffused with spicy fruit and nuts – imagine a Christmas cake made with rum and malt. A good balance of sweet and sour. There are rich dried fruit flavours, with orange and banana and caramel lurking in the shadows, and maybe just a hint of saltiness.
Of course that’s when the hops kick in and remind you that you’re drinking a beer!
Four and a half stars – as I said when I reviewed La Trappe in January 2009 – “These Belgian Beers are just so darn good you have to start differentiating the merely good from the great!”
In this case I’m trying to differentiate the great from the awesome.
Despite being opened with immense care this too frothed into my recently cleaned kitchen. Never mind, the two thirds of a glass looks and smells wonderfully inviting.
The nose is complex, fruity with more than a hint of apple, no make that spiced apple. Maybe not cinnamon and apple, but there are spices at play here.
The flavour? Well the beer has a fuller mouth feel than the colour would lead you to expect, not chewy, but you know you’re drinking something substantial. The first flavours that hit you are fruits, mainly apple, and a hint of banana and orange peel, these flavours reluctantly cede to the spiciness that again belies the pale colour of the beer, there are hints of clove and pepper and of course a reassuring bite of hops.
There’s a long finish, quite an aftertaste and, of course there’s a full 9.5% ABV hiding in that innocent looking bottle.
This is a really complex beer, maybe not quite as complex as Aventinus but immensely satisfying.
I know this was my mate Jon’s favourite beer, but after consideration I’ll give this another four and a half stars.
A great beer, but not quite the greatest – in my opinion!
As I mentioned in my review of the Abbey Style ‘Leffe’ range, “There is an apocryphal tale that the Belgian Government cracked down on the sale of spirits after the first world war, which is why Belgian beers tend to be brewed for strength as well as flavour.” Whether true or not their honest potency is a pleasant change in a world where commercial brewers seem to be reducing the strength of their brews, either by rebranding “Stella 4%” (down from 5.2%) or by stealth – Shepherd Neame Masterbrew down from 4.5% to 4.2% with nary a whisper.
Long may the politically incorrect Belgians continue to brew these superb, full strength ales.
Bob the Brit