A Higher Calling

I finally got to meet Stan Hieronymus at the Great American Beer Festival. He was dressed in full monastic regalia to promote his newest book, Brew Like a Monk. Tongue planted firmly in check, I asked him whether he'd hear my confession. He politely declined.

Not to worry. When I came home, final absolution was waiting for me--in the form of a gold medal-winning
trippel from a local micro called Dragonmead. Final Absolution is one of a lengthening list of Belgian-inspired beers turned out by American breweries. And that's where Hieronymus eventually takes us.

First things first, however. Brew Like a Monk starts at the top tier of Belgian beer world, that country's seven Trappist breweries. The Trappists are an ultra-strict order of monks that was originally based in La Trappe, France. The order flourished in Belgium after that predominantly Catholic nation won its independence and rolled out the welcome mat for the monks. By the way, faith and beer combine for an odd but charming part of Belgian culture. Many local ales have names like "Lucifer," "Forbidden Fruit," and "Last Judgment," names that no doubt inspired the folks at Dragonmead.

In beer parlance, "Trappist" is not a style but an appellation, a geographic definition somewhat like Champagne. Only beers brewed inside the walls of a Trappist abbey, under the supervision of monks, can qualify. The Catholic Church also insists that profits from the beer go to worthy causes--as if brewing weren't worthy enough in its own right. The Trappist category includes Chimay, Duvel, and especially, Westvleteren, which started brewing in 1839. Westvleteren 12 (many Belgian beers are denoted by alcoholic strength) is rated one of the world's best; and according to Hieronymus, you can get a big bottle of it for six euros at a cafÈ near the brewery. Try finding world-class wine that inexpensive.

The next lower tier of Belgians is "abbey beers." The standards for this appellation are more generous, the main one being that the beer is brewed in an abbey or former abbey--even one that didn't brew when the monks were around. That loophole leaves plenty of room for licensing deals. The category includes such mainstays as Leffe and Affligem, both of which are more than 1,000 years old, as well as Corsendonk and Grimbergen.

Belgian beers are characterized by high attenuation, the use of candi sugar, and secondary fermentation in the bottle--one reason why so few are served on draft in Belgium. Style guidelines are anything but rigid, but monastic breweries do follow one Golden Rule: don't change anything unless it's absolutely necessary. The monks' conservatism, in turn, opened the door to "independent spirits," breweries that developed their own distinctive beers. They include deKonnick, Kwak, and Duvel. Some years ago, when Michael Jackson was handing out style names, Duvel inspired "strong golden ale." More recently, American beer judges have coined other styles, including Belgian Strong Ale and Belgian-Style Abbey Ale.

Duvel provides a good segue into our country's Belgian-style beers. A few years ago, it acquired the highly-respected Ommegang Brewery in New York. (Its brewer, Randy Thiel, has since been inducted into the Belgium's Order of the Mashing Fork.) Ommegang has plenty of company on the shelves, and much of it is brewed domestically. American brewers, Hieronymus observes, were pleasantly surprised to discover how much demand there was for Belgians.

Micros aren't the only dabblers in Belgian-inspired beer. Brewpubs, too, have joined the party; and their one-off renditions fit perfectly with the quirky nature of these beers. Which brings up some differences between the Old and New World. American brewers prefer more complex grain bills; tend to go easier on the sugar, which results in drier beer; and are prone to throw in spices--a practice that Belgian purists deem a mortal sin.

Hieronymus wraps up Brew Like a Monk with recipes contributed by homebrewers and professionals. He intends them as tools that the reader should learn from, not step-by-step instructions to be followed to the letter. One homebrew contributor is Noel Blake, whose dark strong ale won a national competition. Blake's lyrical description of his beer contained the phrase, "think like a Belgian, brew like a monk." And that phrase--or was it the beer?--inspired the book's title.

Part guidebook, part how-to, and part history lesson, Brew Like a Monk is intelligent and engaging. It will inspire you to become more familiar with Belgian beer, even if you don't brew your own. The book certainly moved me. Even before I put it down, I had to fight off the urge to pack my bags and hop the next plane to Brussels.