Robed monks toiling over a brew-kettle producing their magical elixir is a potent image that is rooted not only in history, but in the reality of Belgian breweries. Abbey Ales are a diverse collection of beers that often transcend typical style definitions, and shopping for them can be confusing and overwhelming. Here is our guide to the family of Abbey Ales available from Belgium and American craft breweries.
The Abbey Ale name is more of a broad characterization than a single style; there are several styles encompassed by the term, and Abbey Ale is often used as a generic description by American Craft breweries.
The Trappist Monasteries
While not all Abbey ales are brewed by monks, the Trappist Ales of Belgium are some of the finest beers in the world. Founded in the mid-19th Century, there are only seven remaining beer-producing Trappist monasteries (six in Belgium, and one in the Netherlands), though there are other monasteries that produce beer, and there are secular breweries that use the church, monks, and monasteries as marketing or simply as stylistic reference.
The remaining beer-producing Trappist Monasteries are:
- Bières de Chimay
- Brasserie d’Orval
- Brasserie de Rochefort
- Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle
- Brouwerij Westvleteren/St Sixtus
- Brouwerij der Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis/Achel
- Brouwerij de Koningshoeven/La Trappe
These monasteries have formed the International Trappist Association to oversee the production of Trappist beers, and to govern the use of the “Authentic Trappist Product” term and seal that can be used on their beers, cheeses, and other products produced by the monks.
While the Trappists produce a range of ales, a few styles have become synonymous with Abbey beers.
Abbey Ale Styles
“Abbey Ale” can refer to beers produced by Trappists, beers brewed at other monasteries, or beers that are brewed to approximate the beers actually created in an abbey. The most common varieties are covered below as well as a few recommendations for beers to look for that represent the styles both from Belgium and from American craft breweries.
The dubbel or brune (Brown) ales are one of the most common types of Abbey-style ales. They were originally brewed to twice the strength of the “standard” abbey beer (or single), they are typically between 6% and 7.5%ABV. They have a malt-forward flavor, often with hints of dark fruits. They have a medium-to-heavy body and a very lively carbonation and thick, dense head. They can range from mildly hopped to having a more assertive nobel-hop character
- Westvleteren 8 – Considered the very first dubbel, this import is still considered one of the best beers produced anywhere.
- Chimay Première (Red) – While you can’t go wrong with any of the official Trappist dubbels, the Chimay might be the easiest to find. More malty than fruity, the flavors produced by the Belgian yeast in this beer tend to be more spice-like.
- Corsendonk Pater / Abbey Brown Ale – This is an example of a beer marketed as Abbey Ale but produced by a commercial Belgian brewery. Extremely lively carbonation and a toasty, cocoa-rich flavor make this one of our favorite dubbels, and affordable at around $10 for a 750ml bottle.
- Ommegang Abbey Ale
- New Belgium Abbey
Another style first popularized by Westvleteren, Tripels are strong and hoppy pale ales. Usually a pale golden color. The body is lightened and the alcohol boosted with the addition of candi sugar, and the beer is heavily hopped for balance. Also displaying some fruit and spice notes Tripels are highly effervescent, and often have a dry finish.
- St. Bernardus Tripel
- Westmalle Trappist Tripel
- Chimay Tripel (White)
- Maudite La Fin Du Mon - Technically Canadian, this Tripel is heavy on the spice and yeasty-phenols that mask the beer’s 9%ABV. Widely available, this beer makes a great introduction to Tripels and to Abbey Ales in general.
- Allagash Curieux – Upstate New York’s Allagash makes a standard Tripel, but the bourbon-barrel aged Curieux is an intense and unique treat. One of our favorite examples of barrel aging, the beer retains it intense yeast character and displays strong notes of bourbon, oak, and a subtle sweetness.
Quadrupel / Dark Strong Ale
A less-defined style, these beers are even higher in alcohol than the Tripels and share the Dubbel’s heavy body and darker color. Occasionally called “Gran Cru,” these dark, complex beers vary greatly between brewers and can be malty, hoppy, fruity, or spicy.
- Trappist Westvleteren 12 - Considered by many to be the very best beer in the world, until very recently it was only available by special order from the monastery. We’ve never had the opportunity to try this holy grail beer, but if you do get the chance, don’t pass it up!
- Chimay Grande Réserve (Blue) – Chimay’s darkest and most complex offering, this beer doesn’t get the rave reviews of some of the other Trappist beers, but you can find it just about everywhere, including many grocery stores!
- Gulden Draak - A highly regarded non-Trappist “Quad” the Goulden Draak showcases the potency and balance that the Strong Dark Ales can achieve.
American Strong Dark Ales
- North Coast Brother Thelonious
- Sierra Nevada Ovila Quad
- Russian River Salvation
Outside the Abbey
Of course these beers are just a small fraction of the beer brewed in Belgium. From traditional Pilsners to the Belgian Wit beers there is huge range of styles and variations produced in the country, and even more American examples of beers brewed to Belgian styles. While developing a taste for the fruity/spicy/funky characteristics of tradional Belgian yeasts is a challenge from some beer drinkers, it is an effort that is greatly rewarded with countless superlative beers.