Monky Business
Thursday, 20 November 2008 10:26

Very few breweries have a mission statement of any description. Certainly none that I know of have something nearly as spiritual as

Here, in this heaven of peace and silence where since 1850 Trappist monks have dedicated their life to God, beer and cheeses are made which in themselves gladden the heart of man.

Those words are the guiding philosophy of the brewery known around the world as Chimay. The semi-silent order of Trappist monks there started brewing in 1862 but has only been commercially selling their marvellous beers to the outside world since 1925. Though people often think brewing and religion are opposed, monks in Europe have been making beer and cheese for centuries to support themselves.

Just seven breweries in the world are legally allowed to be called Trappist breweries. This prestigious appellation is fiercely protected. True Trappist beer has to be made by the brothers in a Trappist monastery. Secular brews made in similar styles are often called “abbey” style beers. While Chimay is probably the best known of the Trappist breweries, Westmalle actually produces more beer each year.

Extensive research has unveiled exactly one joke about the monks at Chimay. Actually, it is not really a joke, merely a witty quote which may or may not have actually happened. As semi-silent monks in The Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (which is understandably shortened to Trappist) there probably isn’t a lot of opportunity for verbal comedy and word play.

The legendary Father Theodore was reputed to be sipping a chalice of Chimay after a large meal. Visitors are rarely allowed in the monastery but there was one at the table that night. The visitor, probably a pushy beer writer, had the audacity to ask the reverend father if it was really a good idea for him to be drinking so much beer. Father Theodore apparently fixed the cheeky chap with a glare and quipped “of course I will have another. I am not driving home.” That is easily the best Trappist monks gag around.

All of this is simply an introduction to the strongest beer on tap at the Malthouse, Chimay White (8%). This monastic brew pours a handsome cloudy gold with a pillowed white head. The nose is dry, hoppy and yeasty – unmistakably Belgian. It is full bodied with hints of orange, juniper, spices and hops. Like all Trappist beers Chimay White is top-fermented, unfiltered and unpasteurised – just as God intended. Finally, there is a lingering dry finish which actually makes this strong beer dangerously drinkable. It is also known as Chimay Blanc and Chimay Triple.

The beer is served in the proper Chimay goblet which comes in two sizes. Belgian’s are so fanatical about their glassware that this glass was apparently designed by the same architect who drew up the plans for the Chimay brew house.

On the back of each bottle of Chimay there is a little diagram urging you, the paying punter, to pour the beer into a glass. Now, given the quality and price of these beers that is sound advice indeed. However, the picture takes it a step further by suggesting drinkers should only use official Chimay-branded glasses. You do realise we are not talking about any old monks here right? Their website is pretty flash in five languages too.

In a recent Wellingtonian article I wrote “because it is strong, unpasteurised and bottle conditioned (where some active yeast is left in the beer), Chimay White in the bottle can be aged for many years just like wine. It become noticeably drier as it gets older.” Shockingly, it seems I was wrong. It is hard to claim you were misquoted when you are the author of the article in question.

Peter Wenman from Beer Force, who knows these things because he brings Chimay into the country, found me in a bar (que surprise) and told me that only Chimay Blue should really be cellared. The White is not intended to age and should be drunk as fresh as possible. I have been unable to test whether the White really does get drier as it ages because no bottle of it has lasted more than a month in my cellar.

In addition to making some of the best beers in the world, the monks at Chimay are also noted cheese producers. Trappist cheeses are traditionally a washed-rind, semi-soft cow’s milk cheese. They are simply delicious and it is hard to find a better dessert than a hunk of Trappist cheese on crusty bread washed down with a goblet of Chimay White. A number of New Zealand companies are now making this style of cheese. The easiest to find in Wellington is Kapiti’s tasty Port Nicholson cheese.

Being a semi-silent order means that Trappist monks speak only when strictly necessary. At one beer tasting this observation prompted one person to ask (in all seriousness) “is that why women can’t be monks?” He did not seem understand why the room laughed so long and so hard at him. Anyway, it seems appropriate to give the good brothers at Chimay the final words:

A beer brewed with knowledge is tasted with wisdom.

Neil Miller
Beer Writer
Real Beer New Zealand
Beer and Brewer Magazine

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