There should always be a spot reserved in the cellar for abbey and Trappist beers. Though the brewers of these beers may be considered idiosyncratic, it would be fair to say that they have largely settled on a few loose styles. North American microbrewers have long been disciples of the abbey/Trappist doctrine, but homebrewers also have access to all of the same ingredients as the European artisans. By following these few simplified guidelines, authentic abbey and Trappist brews of high quality can become a transcendent addition to your domain.
Brewing With Style
The styles popularized by Belgian (and one Dutch) Trappist breweries and the secular abbey breweries are single/blonde, dubbel, tripel and quadrupel/strong dark. They may be identified by the old Belgian numerical degree system (Rochefort 8), style (Westmalle Tripel) or unique brand (Chimay Grande Réserve). Single/blonde (5 to 6.5 percent ABV) and tripel (8 to 9.5 percent) are gold to dark gold in color. Dubbel (6 to 7 percent) and quadrupel/strong dark (10 to 12 percent ) are deep copper to brownish-red. Pale beers will be grouped together, as will the dark, as they can be crafted with similar ingredients.
The similarities among them include raw materials, as well as technique and brewing philosophy. Abbey/Trappist beers are highly attenuated and never heavy or cloying, but retain a touch of sweetness. Adjuncts are universally used, usually sugar, but sometimes also wheat or maize. The beers are almost exclusively presented as bottle-conditioned products and often are rambunctiously effervescent. Forced carbonation is convenient, but it is dismissive of the nuance that the yeasts impart over time. Both Wyeast and White Labs offer strains culled from abbey and Trappist breweries. They are indispensable.
The favored base malt is the delicately flavored pilsner variety. It lends the high fermentability and lean body common to these beers. Pale brews will need very little augmentation with specialty malts, if any. I prefer a simple grist of pilsner and Vienna, in a 3:1 ratio. Munich malt at 10 to 20 percent will add a backdrop of maltiness. If you feel the need to add specialty malts, stick with Carapils, light crystal or Caravienne, at 5 percent or less to minimize caramel character. Malted wheat could be used to add some creaminess and heading. Mash at 148 to 150 degrees F.
For dubbels, quads and strong darks, the grain bill is a bit more complicated, but also more malleable. Because the beers are still quite light in body in spite of the color, the selection of malt is even more critical. The necessary specialty malts should be used judiciously to get maximum color and flavor characteristics without bogging down the beer. Combinations of pilsner, Vienna and Munich malts as a base are an excellent starting point. I have used 100 percent Vienna malt or a 3:1 ratio of pilsner to Munich with great results.
Sticking with the dark brews, Continental European specialty malts, used at 10 to 15 percent of the grist, will contribute loads of the signature flavors and aromas. The “Cara” family is very diverse, ranging from 5 to 120 degrees Lovibond, imparting sweet caramel, toasted malt, toffee, rum, raisin and fig flavors and aromas, depending on the color. Aromatic malts offer intense malty character. Small amounts of special B (very dark crystal) and chocolate malt add plenty of color, but also extra depth. For proper attenuation, mash at 146 to 149 degrees F.
Most homebrew shops stock French and/or Belgian malts, designed specifically for abbey and Trappist beers. As German malt is very similar to French or Belgian in variety and specifications, it is essentially interchangeable. Adjunct grains such as flaked wheat or maize are commonly used in Belgium, and very traditional.
Extract brewers have at their disposal all the ingredients needed to make these heavenly brews. Extra light and light extracts made from pilsner malt provide the same foundation as grain brewers. Munich malt and wheat malt extracts can be used in place of up to 20 percent of the light malt extract. Avoid adjunct grains unless you do partial mashes, and then ensure that there is enough diastatic power included in the grist (See the Homebrewing column in the March 2013 issue for details). The inclusion of specialty grains and sugars is no different from that of all-grain brewers. And it goes without saying that hop schedules and yeast performance are also identical to more-advanced brewing techniques.
Sugar is a critical component of abbey and Trappist beer. It serves to boost gravity and fermentables, but, more importantly, keeps body relatively light without compromising complexity and richness.
Homebrew shops stock Belgian candi sugar in three forms: syrup, soft (similar to brown sugar) and rock. They come in several color grades, from virtually transparent (no color contribution) to very dark (180 degrees L). With color comes more pronounced and complex flavor and aroma. The lightest will be mostly neutral, with increasing caramel, raisin, date, toffee, vanilla, molasses and chocolate notes as the color deepens. The darkest one available includes some date sugar in the formulation. Some syrups are even laced with spices, botanicals and flavorings. Different forms will contribute to gravity differently due to moisture content. My rule of thumb is to start with a pound per 5 gallons of wort, added during the boil.
Unrefined sugars, such as demerara, turbinado, jaggery, piloncillo and date sugar, are superb choices. Plain dextrose (corn sugar) and glucose (table or cane sugar) can be used, but will only contribute gravity and little more.
Varietal honey can be matched impeccably with a personalized recipe. Try buckwheat honey in a dubbel or quad, clover or orange blossom in a tripel, and sourwood or tupelo in a blonde. Remember that the aromatics in honey are quite volatile, so add it at knockout or at the end of the boil.
Hops and Spices
None of these styles particularly feature hops but, of course, warrant some bitterness for balance, with IBU-to-gravity ratio between 0.35 and 0.5. Flavor and aroma additions are also reserved, but blondes and tripels support late additions well. Styrian Goldings, Kent Goldings, Saaz and German nobles are the more traditional cultivars used, but Perle, Strisselspalt, Challenger and Target also fit the bill. I like the earthy, floral and subtle citrus notes of Styrian and Kent Goldings and Czech Saaz for flavor and aroma, especially in pale brews. Perle and Goldings are my choice for dark brews.
Spices are used as an accent by some brewers. Coriander or grains of paradise in very reserved amounts would enhance any of the styles, and spices such as star anise would fit well with a darker brew. Add them late in the boil and keep the measure to a minimum, under an ounce per 5 gallons.
Belgian beers are immediately recognizable and often defined by the conspicuous yeast contribution. There are enough different strains from Trappist and secular abbey breweries (Rochefort, Westmalle, Orval, Achouffe and Chimay) available to fit any personal preference. Most ferment without adverse effect into the mid- and upper-70 degrees Fahrenheit or beyond.
In fact, yeast expression will change from the low to high end of the fermentation range. Westmalle yeast is used by three Trappist breweries, each of which uses different conditions and schedules to get its desired, unique product. Orval uses two strains of Brettanomyces in addition to its house yeast, which used alone will still make an excellent blonde. As always, investigate the specs of your chosen yeast carefully before brewing.
Belgian strains tend to attenuate slightly more on average, but grain selection, mash temperature and sugar additions are equally important to achieving the proper mouthfeel and attenuation, often as high as 80 to 90 percent. They are pretty determined rascals and will stand up to extended bottle-conditioning and cellaring. Selected for this very characteristic, they will metamorphose and dry out significantly over time.
The yeasts are famous for their aromatic and flavor contributions, lending clove and phenolics, fruity notes (apple, cherry, pear and peach), spiciness (vanilla, cinnamon and pepper), and even banana and bubblegum depending on the strain. Fermentation temperature will determine which of these are suppressed or accented.