As an avid homebrewer, I read a decent number of books about beer. Like many Aleheads, Belgiain style beers are some of my favorites – especially the Trappist beers and abbey style ales. So it was with great excitement that I recently picked up a copy of Brew Like a Monk: Culture and Craftmanship in the Belgian Tradition, by Stan Hieronymus.
Although I originally thought this would be a book specifically about how to make Belgian beers, it turned out to be quite a bit more than that. Many “how to” brewing books fall short in that they are simply a list of ingredients, recipes, or instructions. Brew Like a Monk goes above and beyond that, with the bulk of the book dealing with the history and culture of Belgian breweries. An emphasis is placed on the six Trappist breweries (Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren).* Notable American breweries such as Ommegang and Allagash are covered later, as they are generally considered to be imitators (albeit those who now compete in terms of flavor and overall quality).
In the same way that sparkling white wines not made in the Champagne region of France cannot be called Champagne, Trappist ales must be brewed in a particular type of abbey. Since “Trappist” is an appellation, only sanctioned breweries can offer Trappist products. Besides beer, there are other Trappist products such as cheese, honey, and wine. In order to offer a Trappist beer for sale, one must follow these three rules:
1. Brew your beer within an abbey that is a part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (a Roman Catholic Order).
2. The brewery must depend on the monastic community.
3. The brewery must be run not for profit, but for assistance of the abbey and community.
One of the reasons I like Belgian beers so much is that they have a colorful history. There’s something about imagining monks toiling away in their abbeys brewing beer in the same way they have for hundreds of years that resonates with me. The history of Belgian breweries is littered with fascinating anecdotes about how different places got started. Hieronymus brings these stories to life with his interesting way of describing the attitude and history of each brewery. My personal favorite quote, about Brasserie des Rocs:
“Jean-Pierre Eloir, a tax inspector, and his brewing wife, Nathalie, founded the garage brewery in 1979, using material from the ruins of a nearby Abby.”
Hard to imagine something like that happening in the States! The book is also filled with all sorts of interesting facts about the Trappist breweries. For example, three of the Trappist breweries, Westmalle, Westvleteren and Achel, use Westmalle yeast to brew their beer. Despite this identical beginning, the different fermentation temperature and fermenter shape lead to three substantially different different beers. Another thing that surprised me was that Chimay uses hop extracts rather than fresh hops, something I’ve had trouble with in my own homebrewing (so there’s clearly some merit in it!). According to the famous brewer, Jean De Clerck, the extracts give more consistent control over bitterness in Chimay White.
Brew Like a Monk is not written by a brewer: Hieronymus is more of a journalist who loves great beer. However, this isn’t a book for beginners: Brew Like a Monk is a highly detailed account, giving lots of in depth coverage of beer composition and origins. After a tour through the history of the Trappist breweries, other Belgian breweries, and Americans, Hieronymus goes into detail about how to replicate the flavor of a Trappist brew at home.
While there are recipes included in the book, they are limited in number. Recipes are restricted to a few that match characteristic well known Belgian beers. An example is Vinnie Cilurzo’s Strong Golden Ale (comparable to Duvel, Damnation, PranQster, or Salvation). Despite the small number of recipes, Hieronymus does a fantastic job of describing the process of brewing a Belgian style beer, and truly enables the homebrewer to strike out on their own. This isn’t a book to rely on if you’re just brewing your first batch. But if you want to make your own beer in the style of Chimay, the depth and quality of information is fantastic. Helpful hints include tips from professional beer tasting judges and how to spot faults, among other useful tidbits.
All in all, I found this book to be a fantastic read with loads of great information about the history, culture, and traditions of Belgian style brewing. It does a notable job of teaching you how to design your own Belgian style beer, whether you want to make an Abbey style ale, a dubbel, a strong, or even a blond. If you’re a true Alehead and are into more than just drinking beer – this book is for you. Highly recommended.
*Koningshoeven, the “seventh” Trappist brewery, is also covered in the book, although they have had a history of conflict with the International Trappist Association, and have on occasion not been permitted to offer sanctioned Trappist products.