Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Classics Revisited: Westmalle

For fear of sounding like a naysayer, one of my main issues with the craft beer scene at the moment is its constant, incessant, pursuit of the new. Many of the breweries I follow on various social media outlets are forever promoting new IPAs beers, weekly IPA beer releases, or their IPA latest collaborations. To quote "The Liberty of Norton Folgate" by Madness, it's become a
"perpetual steady echo of the passing beat
A continual dark river of people
In their transience and in its permanence"
Being something of a contrarian, I decided recently that I wanted to revisit classic beers and breweries that existed long before the current boom in craft beer, kind of making 2020 have a little hindsight.

You really don't get much more originalist than monastic brewing, and when we talk about beer being made to nourish takers of vows and pay for their work in the world, there is nothing more iconic than Trappist Ale. At some point throughout this year I plan to revisit as many of the classic Trappist beers as possible, but first up is Westmalle.

Located in the Belgian province of Antwerp, Westmalle Abbey was established as a priory in 1794 before becoming a full Trappist abbey in 1836, in which year the monks under the guidance of the first abbot, Martinus Dom also established a brewery. At first the monks brewed only for their own consumption, but started selling to the local area in 1856. Westmalle produces three beers, Extra, Dubbel, and Tripel, but here in central Virginia only the latter pair appear to be easily available.


The dubbel, the recipe for which apparently dates back to 1926, pours a deep mahogany, with garnet glints shining through at the edges. The head is light tan and dissipates pretty quickly to a patchiness on top of the beer, giving the glass a swirl though rouses it nicely. The aroma is dominated by fruity esters, raisins, cherries, and dried figs. Floating around in there as well were traces of toffee, brown sugar, and bread. The fruit dominates the drinking as well, but in a fruitcake kind of way, when the fruit has been liberally soaked in booze, my mind leapt to rum in particular for some reason. With a scrape of effervescent carbonation, the medium full body avoids being cloying. The dry finish was a little unexpected, perhaps a product of US dubbels that I tend to find overly sweet, even sickly.


Moving on the 9% behemoth that is the world's original Tripel, this one pours a slightly cloudy gold with orange highlights. The head this time is pure white, though it too dissipated to patchiness and roused nicely when swirled. The big player in the aroma department is bananas, but not in the same sense as you get with many a hefeweizen, these bananas have been lightly caramelised in butter, perhaps with a couple of slices of apple chucked in as well.  Other than the fruit, there is a spicy note as well as a reasonable hint of the booze hit to come. While the booze is present in tasting, mostly I was getting some nice toasted malt, a bit of grass and lemons, and even a light syrup flavour, it does not dominate. The body on this one is fuller than the dubbel, but that same effervescent carbonation does its thing and makes it anything but a sticky beer.

One thing that was clear from drinking this pair Westmalle beers is that I honestly don't think that tripel will ever be my thing. That's not to say that it was a 'bad' beer, that is clearly not the case, but that is just not the kind of beer I enjoy drinking on a regular basis, even when chilling at home and without the need to drive. The dubbel on the other hand I can see becoming a vaguely regular visitor to the fridge, one that I kind of wish we were having an actual winter to enjoy with it,

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