This Sunday is Easter, and though many equate the holiday with bunnies, baskets and colored eggs, it is first and foremost a religious observance. One might understandably believe beer has no place on such a day, but quite the opposite: There is a family of beers indelibly linked to a Christian background — those brewed by monks.
Readers may recall from last month’s column about bocks that doppelbock was created by the Paulaner monks of St. Francis, based in Munich. They brewed this fortifying lager as “liquid bread” for consumption during the fasting season of Lent leading up to Easter. This was common practice in monasteries across Europe as early as the Middle Ages. The monks brewed not only for sustenance during fasting, but for daily consumption and to support the community.
While doppelbock is a fine beer to enjoy for the holiday, there is another class of ecclesiastical beers that I associate with Easter: Trappist ales.
Far fewer monasteries brew beer today, and the best-known ones are primarily of the Trappist order. This order dates to 1664, originating from the Cistercian monastery located in La Trappe, France. The local abbot felt the Cistercians had become too liberal and introduced new, stricter rules for the monks to follow — which fortunately did not preclude brewing.
Over the years the Trappists produced a variety of goods to sell to provide income for the monastery, becoming best known for their beer. Today, the Trappist name is legally protected by the International Trappist Association, and there are only 11 active Trappist breweries. Some of the iconic beer styles of Belgium originated with the Trappists, including dubbel, tripel and Belgian dark strong.
Dubbel is defined as an amber, malty, complex ale of moderate strength. Tripel is pale, dry and strong, somewhat resembling a hoppy Pilsner but with a Belgian yeast snap and imperial strength. The dark, strong ales are the barleywines of the Trappist world, typically amber to dark brown in color with a deep complexity of flavor and alcohol as high as 12 percent by volume.
Not all Trappist beers are accessible outside of their respective breweries, requiring a pilgrimage to the monastery for those seeking to drink them. Many are imported, and three that are readily available in Central Oregon are Chimay, Trappistes Rochefort and Orval.
Chimay comes in three varieties: Première, with a red label, is a dubbel; Cinq Cents (white label) is a tripel; and Grande Réserve (blue label) is a Belgian dark strong. The Rochefort ales follow a similar model, with their 6, 8 and 10 distinguished by a red, green or blue bottle cap, respectively. The strength of each beer increases with its ordinal designation: 6 is a dubbel, 8 is a dark strong and 10 is a quadrupel — something of an arbitrary classification for a higher alcohol version of the dark style. Rochefort 10 tops out at 11.3 percent alcohol.
Orval is a specialty that doesn’t quite fit the usual guidelines. The amber-colored ale is a modest 6.2 percent alcohol by volume, though that can vary based on the age of the beer. Resembling a dubbel, the key to the recipe is that the beer undergoes a secondary fermentation with a Brettanomyces wild yeast strain. The beer is not pasteurized when bottled, so over time, this brett yeast will continue to slowly ferment the available sugars. As a result, aged bottles will be drier, with more acidic complexity and slightly more alcohol.
It is the only beer the Orval Brewery bottles, and one of only two it brews. Its other beer, Petite Orval, is only 3.5 percent alcohol by volume and is brewed exclusively for the monks. You would have to visit the monastery to taste this beer.
All of these ales are world-class representations of the Trappist brewing tradition. They will pair well with your Easter meal, or serve as digestif or dessert sippers afterward. Be warned: These are all high gravity, high alcohol ales that can sneak up on you, particularly Chimay and Rochefort.
There are no local Trappist monasteries; only one is located in the United States, in Massachusetts. Central Oregon breweries, however, do offer Trappist-style beers from time to time. Wild Ride Brewing in Redmond brews a seasonal, Dark Dynasty Belgian Dark Ale, while Craft Kitchen & Brewery currently offers C-Dub Belgian Dubbel on tap.
Bend’s Monkless Belgian Ales, on the other hand, focuses exclusively on Belgian-inspired beers, and its core lineup includes the three standard Trappist styles: Dubbel or Nothing, The Trinity Belgian Tripel and Meet Your Maker Belgian Dark Strong. These ales offer a rustic complexity, and all three are brewed to higher alcohol strengths, with 7.2 percent, 8.1 percent and 9 percent respectively — and they hide it well.
You can visit the northeast Bend brewery and tasting room on weekdays starting at 9 a.m. Pick up a growler to accompany your other monastic ales for Easter, and enjoy the Trappist tradition.
— Jon Abernathy is a local beer blogger and brew aficionado. His column appears every other week in GO!