I would like to write about a fabulous bar I went to in Whitehorse that served a wide selection of Belgian beer but, unfortunately, it doesn’t exist.
Instead, I recently went to the Chambar Restaurant in downtown Vancouver and was greeted by one of the best beer menus in miles – all Belgian. Chambar is a trendy, bustling restaurant where the beautiful people of Vancouver converge. But don’t let that dissuade you, even unfashionable Yukoners like myself can get a table without attitude. The beer menu offers over 50 Belgian beers, including blondes, dubbels, tripels, sour beers, wits, as well as four beers from Belgian Trappist breweries. (Oh, and the food is spectacular).
Trappist beers are a kind of “appellation-controllé” sort of like Scotch or Champagne. The name was formalized in 1997 as a way to protect and promote Trappist beers. The Trappists are a branch of the Cistercian order of Catholic monks and nuns who are do-it-yourself types, making their own bread, cheese, liqueurs and, of course, beer.
To be a Trappist beer, the beer has to be brewed in a Trappist monastery. Any other beer, even if it is brewed in the style of these beers or with affiliation to another type of monastery, can only be called an abbey beer. There are eight Trappist breweries in the world. Six are scattered around Belgium and make the following beers: Westmalle, Westvleteren, Orval, Rochefort, Chimay and Achel. The other two are in the Netherlands and Austria.
There is no singular Trappist style. The various Trappist breweries make light session ales, rich and malty dubbels, strong golden tripels and many other styles.
Most of these breweries only brew a few different styles for public sale. Some of the beers are widely distributed, others are more rare.
Up until 2011, the Westvleteren Trappist brewery in Flanders didn’t sell their beer outside the grounds of the monastery. These monks only brew enough beer to make a modest amount of money to help maintain their monastic lifestyle and support their charitable works.
You can’t find any Trappist beers at the Whitehorse liquor store, but they are widely available in southern Canada. For a near approximation, try some of the Unibroue beers such as La Fin du Monde, which is a Belgian-style tripel. These Unibroue beers don’t have the refinement or the depth of the Trappist beers, but they are brewed in the Belgian style and are the closest facsimile available in our small city.
One of the better-known Trappist breweries is Chimay, at Notre-Dame de Scourmont Abbey. It is nestled in the south part of Belgium, near the French border. Three Chimay beers are available to the public and are exported widely: Blue, which is 9% alcohol by volume (abv); Red, which is 7% abv; and White, which is 7% abv. These beers have hints of jasmine, apples hazelnuts, muscat grapes, almonds and caramel. Give one of these a whirl the next time you travel outside if you want to taste what hundreds of years of brewing tradition can do for a beer.