[Beer Lecture] Chapter 25. Gradus ad Parnassum
The gradual development of the Trappist beer, interrupted by the Second World War, continued after it had ended. The new milestone was associated with two other monasteries: the Scourmont Abbey in Chimay and the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy in Rochefort. While Chimay was founded by Westvleteren monks in 1854, the Rochefort history is comparable in its grandeur to Orval only: it started in 1230, when Gilles de Walcourt, count of Rochefort, established a Cistercian nunnery in his lands. Like Orval, the Rochefort Abbey was plundered several times over the years and taken apart in the Napoleon era. The monastery was reconstructed by monks from Achel in 1887.
Both abbeys started to brew beer shortly after they were restored, and their products even enjoyed some limited popularity (see the ‘Not Brewers’ chapter). However, the true success came after the War.
This is Chapter 25 of my free book on history of beer and historical beers.
At that time, monks from Chimay, who had their brewery destroyed by Germans, decided to rebuild it in a state-of-the-art fashion. To do so, Father Theodor went to Leuven to study with a famous professor Jean De Clerck (getting ahead, their cooperation lasted for more than four decades). After returning to the convent in 1948, the Father enthusiastically proceeded to enhancing the monastic brews. With De Clerck’s help, he isolated pure yeast strains and employed the dubbel-like bottle-conditioning technique. The beer with the red label from Chimay (‘Chimay Rouge’) had quickly won customers’ appreciation, and at the end of 1948 Father Theodor prepared an even stronger winter brew — with a blue label, ‘Chimay Bleue’.
At the same time, Rochefort was also increasing production, starting to sell their special strong beer that was initially created for the sick and wounded in the war times. In 1949, the monks even bought a truck to deliver the beer to nearby villages.
At this point, the heroes of our story knocked their foreheads together: the growing popularity of high-quality (and stronger) Chimay beer caused Rochefort’s sales to slump down. Bet let us remind you that both of them were monks, not brewers, and as Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy’s representatives had arrived in Chimay to ask for ceasing sales in the Rochefort vicinity, the Scourmont brothers proposed another solution: to help in enhancing beer quality. With the help of the monks and again De Clerck’s, the brewery was modernized and in 1952 a new beer was prepared in Rochefort that was named ‘Merveille’ (‘The Miracle’). Later, the product range broadened, the ‘Rochefort 6’ and ‘Rochefort 8’ beers were added, and ‘Merveille’ was renamed into ‘Rochefort 10’ (the number stood for a duration of bottle-conditioning in weeks). At this point, the ‘blue’ Chimay ceased to be a ‘winter special’ brew and began to be sold as a regular product from 1954 on. A bit later, ‘St. Bernardus 12’ joined the lineup (and ‘Westvleteren XII’ as well, after the St. Sixtus’ Abbey reverted to brewing on-premises).
That’s how at the beginning of the 50s, a new type of Trappist beer was conceived: the extra-strong dark. Chimay Bleue has 9% ABV, while Rochefort 10 reaches imposing 11.3%. Unlike in less thick dubbel, this strength required numerous technological advancements: selecting suitable yeasts, increasing gravities, and adding more syrup. The resulting beer is extraordinarily easy-drinkable for such gravity, featuring a rich and well-balanced taste.
When the La Trappe brewers (who were always much more market-oriented — to the extent that they were once temporarily expelled from the Trappist association) started to make analogous beer in 1991, they named it ‘quadrupel’ (sometimes shortened to quad) by analogy with dubbel and tripel, thus creating some confusion as it’s not exactly clear at which point an ‘extra-strong dark ale’ becomes a ‘quadrupel’. Chimay Bleue is usually considered the former, while Rochefort 10 is the latter.
What is more important, this beer has a firmly established reputation as the best beer in the world. When Ratebeer started to bestow its ‘Best Beer’ award back in 2001, Westvleteren, Rochefort, and Chimay were ranked 1st, 2nd, and 4th respectively. Though the focus had shifted to craft beers since then, Westvleteren XII and Rochefort 10 still solidly occupy their place in almost every rating top.
How to taste
Of course, the original Trappists are the most authentic extra-strong darks/quads:
- Westvleteren XII (which, let us remind you, is supposed to be sold on-premise only, and it’s rather hard to find one);
- Rochefort 10;
- Chimay Bleue;
- and St. Bernardus 12, though it’s now a secular brew.
A bit less famous are the beers made by the Association members who joined it a bit later:
- La Trappe Quadrupel;
- Stift Engelszell Gregorius;
- Achel Extra Bruin;
- Zundert 10.
And, of course, a throng of commercial brewers are making quadrupel. To name a few: Belgian Gouden Carolus, Straffe Hendrik, and De Struise; craft ones including Three Philosophers by Ommegang and Terrible by Unibroue.
- 1 Hieronymus, S. (2005), pp. 48, 62–63
- 2 https://www.ratebeer.com/ratebeerbest/default_2002.asp