Bend’s Monkless Belgian Ales is enjoying a good year. The 3-year-old brewery expanded from a one- to 10-barrel brewery towards the end of 2016, which paved the way for its growth for 2017. So far this year, Monkless has signed with a distributor, expanded its tasting room, and begun releasing select beers in cans.
The brewery traces its roots to a one-barrel basement brewery founded in 2014 by Todd Clement and Kirk Meckem. In 2016, Clement with his wife, Robin, expanded to the northeast Bend industrial space that housed 10 Barrel Brewing’s original location. From the start, they focused exclusively on Belgian styles, particularly those rooted in the monastic brewing traditions and styles (which I explored in April’s Easter column).
Monkless brews with an emphasis on stronger, high gravity ales, including the flagship named Meet Your Maker that weighs in at 9 percent alcohol by volume. So it might come as a surprise that the first beer released in cans was its lightest, a Belgian witbier called Shepplekofeggan.
Or perhaps not so surprising. Belgian wit — also known as “white” — as a style is crisp and refreshing, seasoned with coriander and orange peel, and typically finishes dry with an occasional tart note. It’s an easy-drinking style well suited to warm summer days outdoors — and cans. Brewed with a high percentage of unmalted wheat and left unfiltered, witbier is very pale yellow or straw-colored and hazy. The palest versions appear nearly white in color.
“I love the profile of the beer,” said Clement of Shepplekofeggan. “Citrusy aroma, spicy flavor, easy drinking, with a traditional Witbier creaminess — exactly what it was meant to be. A sessionable, summertime brew of moderate alcohol, but with a nice crisp flavor.”
The origin of the style dates back over 400 years to central Belgium, in particular to the villages of Hoegaarden and Leuven. These historic wheat ales were spontaneously fermented with wild yeasts and were not spiced, which gave them a lactic sour tang.
Due to world wars and industrialization, witbier was one of a number of older Belgian beer styles that died out during the middle of the 20th century. The last witbier brewery, Tomsin, closed its doors in 1957. However, in the mid-1960s, a milkman named Pierre Celis, who had worked at Tomsin, revived the style.
Celis adapted the beer to modern brewing methods — no more wild yeasts — and his innovation was the addition of the spices to evoke the tangy lactic finish of old. Today, all modern versions of Belgian white ales are descended from Celis’ recipe.
Shepplekofeggan is pale gold in color with a slight haze, and offers up a light spicy hint of coriander in the aroma along with a subtle hint of tartness (imagine a whiff of sourdough bread).
It drinks crisp and slightly bready, with a dry and effervescent finish. The coriander contributes a spicy note that offers up some citrus and celery seed flavors.
Clement incorporates fresh orange zest into the recipe in place of dried orange peel, and the brewery has hosted “zesting parties,” inviting their fans to help zest oranges for big batches of the beer.
Monkless’ other witbier offering, also recently released in cans, adds a twist to the traditional style. Peppercorn is used as the spice in addition to coriander, and it’s brewed to a stronger “imperial” alcohol level, on a par with its other high gravity offerings.
“I tend to seek out big beers. So, the more I drank Shepp, the more I thought why not brew an Imperial Wit?” Clement said. “From the recipe perspective we wanted at least 8 percent ABV, and with it being a Witbier and traditionally light bodied, I knew we’d want to balance that level of alcohol. We chose to do that in two ways — increasing the IBUs to 30 (double that of Shepp) and adding a non-traditional Witbier spice, peppercorns.”
Peppercorn Imperial Wit is a slightly darker shade of golden yellow than Shepplekofeggan, with a hazier, yeasty body when I swirled and poured the can. I will confess that the first time I sampled the beer, I had some trepidation about how the pepper would affect it, but I needn’t have worried. Clement has a light hand with the spice, and the beer strikes a pleasant balance between the mild peppery “heat” flavors and the subtle spiciness that comes from the wheat.
The ale’s relative lightness is a pleasant surprise as well. Even though at 8.2 percent alcohol by volume it is nearly 3 percent stronger than Shepplekofeggan, there’s no heat or boozy quality and the beer finishes light and refreshing.
“It’s not your traditional Witbier and certainly has a uniqueness factor that piques curiosity,” Clement said.
Cans of both beers are available for sale at the brewery and at beer stores around town.
— Jon Abernathy is a Bend beer blogger and brew aficionado. His column appears every other week in GO!