Rochefort 6, 8 and 10
With the help of Abbey Notre-Dame de Scourmont (Chimay), new equipment was installed at Rochefort and beer sales rebounded by 1920. By about 1949, the brewery was the primary source of income for the monks, and a shop was added to sell beer and other products. Up to 1952, there were only two brews: the monks’ table beer (“middel”), which was discontinued in 1973, and the forerunner of today’s Rochefort 6.
Rochefort modernized its brewery in 1952 and soon developed the 6, 8 and 10 degree beers that are so savored by beer lovers today. These world-class beers are ruby red to dark in color, somewhat sweet, with a great malt character, and with fruit flavors such as bananas evident, especially in the 10.
Rochefort 6 (7.5 percent ABV, red cap) was first brewed in 1953, and Rochefort 8 (9.2 percent ABV, green cap) in 1954. Rochefort 10 (11.3 percent ABV, blue cap) required the addition of candi sugar, a technique used by other Trappist breweries.
The current brew house at Rochefort dates from 1960. With its gleaming copper vessels and stained glass windows, it has understandably been called the most beautiful brew house in Belgium.
Brother Pierre, who is very amicable and a perfect host, has now taken charge of the brewery, replacing Brother Antoine, the brewer for many years. The brewery employs eight secular workers and a brewing engineer trained at Louvain-la-Neuve. The production level at Rochefort was about 15,600 hectoliters per year for many years, but is now at 18,000 hl. New 500-hl, cylindro-conical fermenters were installed in 2002.
Hallertauer and Styrian Goldings hops from Slovenia are used. Rochefort also switched to hop pellets recently. Pils malt and Caramalt are used. Dark beet sugar and white candi sugar are added to the beers as well. The same yeast is used for first and second fermentation.
There were reported concerns in the last year or so about a chicken farm located at a higher water level than the Rochefort spring. Brother Pierre told our group that engineers were working on this issue so that water quality would not become a problem for the brewery.
The abbey grounds still feature some impressive sites, such as a 17th-century marble fountain, an early door and entranceway from 1530, and a few small buildings that were not destroyed in the past. The 17th-century cellar is still used. There is a good mix here of late 19th-century buildings and earlier traces of architecture.
In 1794, Trappist monks fleeing the French Revolution settled at this site east of Antwerp. They built a small monastery in 1802 and other rudimentary buildings. Rome elevated the monastery of Westmalle to an abbey, Abdij der Trappisten van Westmalle, in 1834. From that point, the monks had to follow all of the rules of the Trappist order, which included adhering to local customs. Luckily for beer lovers, Belgium was primarily a beer-brewing area; the brothers had to brew beer.
In August 1836, brewing began at Westmalle, with a low-alcohol beer similar to the Extra or “monks’ beer.” The dubbel beer was most likely added in the late 19th century, and the famous tripel—first called “Super Bier”—was created to celebrate the opening of a new brew house in 1934.
In the beginning, the beer was available only to the monks and guests of the abbey; none was sold. In the mid-1860s, the brothers started selling bottles of beer at the abbey gates, but only to friends of the abbey. The first commercial brewing did not occur until about 1920.
Due to increasing demand, a completely new brewing facility was built in 1934, which includes the three beautiful copper brew kettles still in use today. The interior of these kettles was replaced with stainless steel in 1992, during an extensive modernization of the brewery.
Today, Westmalle produces three beers. There is the “Extra,” which is 5 percent ABV and rarely seen outside the abbey; the Dubbel, a dark beer, at 7 percent ABV; and the Tripel, a blonde beer containing 9.5 percent ABV. All three beers are unfiltered, unpasteurized, and bottle conditioned. Candi sugar is added to the Dubbel and Tripel but not the Extra.
The Extra, which is brewed only a few times a year, is a light-colored ale, with a surprising hop note. This is a very flavorful and drinkable brew, which could be a fine “session” beer. Such is not to be, however, as there are no plans to increase its production.
The current production level at Westmalle is 120,000 hectoliters per year, the same level as 20 years ago. “It’s a kind of modesty on the part of the monks, to not grow too big,” said Philippe Van Assche, general manager of the brewery.
Tripel Sets a New Standard
Both the Dubbel and the Tripel have had a profound impact on the Belgian beer world. The fact that tripel beers are now expected to be pale or golden in color, somewhat dry, and typically in the range of 8 to 9 percent alcohol is a trend that spread from Antwerp province, with Westmalle Tripel being a prime influence.
The Tripel we know today took shape almost 50 years ago. “In 1956, Father Thomas, who a few years ago started the new Achel brewery, restyled the beer and gave it its fine bitterness,” said well- respected Belgian beer writer Jef Van Den Steen, author of Trappist: Het Bier en de Monniken (Trappist: The Beer and the Monks). “That way, the complex character of the beer was complete: fruity and malty in the nose, malty and hoppy in the mouth, bitterness in the aftertaste.”
Westmalle uses only whole hop flowers from the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Germany. As to the hop varieties used, “It’s a little secret of the brewery,” said Manu De Landtsheer, Westmalle’ commercial representative who is responsible for exporting the Westmalle beers to the United States.
The malts come from Cargill of France and Dingemans of Belgium. No extracts are used. There is no record of exactly when the monks began to use candi sugar in the Westmalle beers, but it is thought to have been quite a long time ago.
There were 20 monks at Westmalle in 2002. Three oversee the brewery, assisted by a board of three lay persons. Westmalle has 40 secular employees; the monks no longer work in the brewery. As always, the profits earned from sales of the Westmalle brews go to the abbey’s charitable works.
Monasteries once shared a tradition of service and hospitality that stretches back 14 centuries across Europe. Today, the monasteries no longer occupy a role as centers of refuge and worship for the general populace, but are a sanctuary for small communities of monks and guests on a spiritual pilgrimage.
Belgium’s six Trappist brewing abbeys now provide beer lovers with about 15 world-classic brews, most of which are benchmarks in the world of beer.