Belgian beers have been around for centuries, but can they survive the IPA era?
In Belgium, monks and nuns have been brewing beer for centuries. Their traditions have repeatedly survived the brutalities of war and even resisted Roman emperors who scorned beer, preferring wine instead.
But can these ancient beers handle the contemporary craft beer community’s obsession with hops and all things India Pale Ale (IPA)? With their nuanced sweetness, Belgian monastic beers are a decidedly antithesis of the Old World to modern styles and daringly hopped.
The Trappist brewing tradition dates back to the 6th century, when the Rule of Saint Benedict established the basis of ascetic life – essentially all prayer and work – for monks and nuns. This took place in the region which now includes present-day Belgium.
Part of this job was brewing beer to fund and support the monastery. At the time, there were few standards for sanitary conditions, and beer fermentation was largely a haphazard proposition. The dedication of the monks in a pinch, however, ensured that their beer would be free of the bacteria that frequently ruined the products of other brewers. Through their careful brewing process, beer has become a safe drink before water purification.
The monks’ attention to detail and care helped elevate brewing to the level of art, and their meticulous process was reflected in the complex and deliciously nuanced flavors of their beers.
Today, IPAs dominate the craft beer world. According to Brewers Association, this style of beer accounts for nearly 40% of all craft beer sales.
“It’s sad that the types of beers made in monasteries don’t find as many followers as hop-forward beers, but it’s great that Americans can drink most of those made in Belgian monasteries – the originals, so to speak, “said Stan hieronymus, the author of Brew like a monk and various other books on beer.
“I would also suggest that their influence is felt even in some IPAs – the use of sugar to increase the alcohol without making the beers too ‘thick’ and the finishes dry,” he adds.
Before American craft beer broke out in recent decades, Belgian beers held a special place in the world of beer lovers. Some are still a bit difficult to find.
Travis Rupp, who recently founded The Archaeologist of Beer LLC and is professor of classical letters, art history, anthropology and mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, believes that a limited quantity still serves them well.
“Trappist beers have always maintained a level of rarity,” explains Rupp. “There are special beers that can only be purchased in Belgium, such as some Westvleteren beers.”
“Even the essentials of the Trappist world like Orval, Westmalle Where Chimay at a higher price, and their purchase is an intentional and deliberate decision on the part of the consumer. You’re not buying for volume, best value, or for a Friday afternoon session. These beers are special and buying them is special.
Today there are only a handful of Trappist breweries.
The use of the term is governed by the International Association of Trappists, which specifies that the monks must either brew the beer or supervise the brewing; that it is of secondary importance for monastic life and that the profits are invested in the overhead costs of the monastery and its community work.
Breweries like Cooperstown, based in New York Ommegang, which previously focused on traditional Belgian beer styles, are not themselves Trappist but have been made famous by the monastic brewing tradition, and have chosen to expand their stylistic offerings to reach a wider audience.
“We know there is a core of Belgian-style beer lovers out there,” says Brian Reames, vice president of marketing at Duvel Moortgat United States, the parent company of Ommegang. “But Belgian beers have taken precedence over IPAs over the past decade. This gave our brewery the opportunity to expand into other styles of beer.
He cites Neon Rainbows, Ommegang’s New England-style IPA, as an example. It was released in 2018.
Some lovers of modern beers find their way to traditional Belgian beers through American productions of traditional Belgian styles.
M&A tax advisor Kevin Wong got hooked on lambics, a Belgian style brewed with wild yeast, after a visit to Jester king, an Austin, Texas brewery specializing in this style.
“I had to find out how beers could smell and taste like this, so I researched and tried a lot more tart beers,” says Wong. “It didn’t take long for me to discover that all roads lead to lambic beers as a source of inspiration for wild beers.
He then traveled to Belgium to meet producers and visit bars specializing in the style, many with vintage bottles.
“The funk, depth and complexity you get in the aroma and taste of lambic is like nothing else, and each bottle develops more with age,” says Wong. “Even bottles from the same lot / bottling can each be unexpectedly different.”
Perry Rajnovic, a software engineer who also traveled to Belgium to investigate his beers, said his roots were humble: he drank Victory golden monkey, a triple, and even Blue Moon Belgian style wheat beer as a student. Attracted by acidity and what he calls “vinegar flavors,” he quickly found his way to deeper and richer Belgian beers.
“For the ‘traditional’ Belgian styles, it was mainly because the beers had a rich amount of flavor, often expressions of yeast, which tended to be pungent, or candy sugar sweet,” he says. “As a young drinker, it also didn’t hurt that they were generally on the stronger side.”
Several bars, including Monks cafe in Philadelphia and dba in New York, have promoted the Belgian tradition by sponsoring trips to the country for employees and customers to sample the wide range of flavors and drink beers only available there.
Perhaps the biggest gateway to Belgian tradition is Zwanze Day. Since 2008, this unofficial Oktoberfest marks the annual release of an experimental brew (named Zwanze each year) from Cantillon Brewery. The 120-year-old Brussels brewery specializes in lambics and blended lambics called gueuze.
It is a highly anticipated event. A handful of select bars around the world offer it, making it one of the rarest beers in existence. Monk’s Café in Philadelphia has been hosting a Zwanze Day event since its inception in 2019.
In 2020, Zwanze Day was limited to a handful of European venues. But in 2021, up to 85 sites in the United States, Austria, China, South Korea and beyond participated. Some locations, Monk’s Café included, will also offer 2020 beer.
“In some ways, Zwanze Day gave this unique Belgian style the FOMO appeal that has made many American IPAs so popular,” says Tom Peters, co-owner of Monk’s.