Brewery with the best Trappist bockbier in the world
Saturday 23 October 2021
This article is from
A Brief History of Beer
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Trappist brewing as a brand is renowned worldwide, and jealously protected by the handful of breweries that meet the strict criteria for inclusion. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit a few, and they really are oddly magical places, though far removed from the hackneyed image of monks drawing water from an ancient well to feed the brewing kettle. These are serious professional outfits, often well-financed, with state-of-the-art equipment, but run according to the values of the monastic communities that oversee them.
Traditionally, Trappist breweries are most closely associated with three main styles, originating in Belgium: Tripels, Dubbels and Blondes. They’re not restricted in their range though, and this month’s beer from Dutch Trappist brewery La Trappe is an excellent example of a style that rarely makes its way to the UK.
Bockbier is traditionally (and in practice) a highly seasonal brew in The Netherlands. Dark and rich, with a velvety mouthfeel, and roasted coffee and chocolate notes; it has much in common with the stout or porter, though usually exhibits less hop bitterness. La Trappe has been brewing bockbier since 2014, and is the only Trappist brewery to do so (making it the best Trappist bockbier in the world, as the brewery’s export manager Funs Pubben points out).
“We brew it because the Netherlands has a tradition of Bockbier, and we wanted to round out seasonal brews, in line with calendar contraints,” explains Funs. “Here, it’s strictly a seasonal beer, with the bockbier season starting on the first Monday of October. Then we have a spring bock, and a witbier for the summer. Our bock is slightly non-traditional, in that we brew it with top-fermenting yeast, whereas they are usually made with bottom-fermenting lager yeast.
“Hopefully all of your subscribers will drink it during bock season. I know this box will come out I think in October so that’s spot on. Last year was obviously very strange, so we ended up with quite a lot of bock to sell, but this year we’ve already sold out and by November there won’t be a drop of the stuff left in the brewery; we only brew it once a year and that’s the way it should be.”
It’s a delicious style, comforting and malty without being overly sweet, and perfect for the time of year. So I’m curious why we rarely see it in the UK.
“It is strange,” admits Funs. “La Chouffe also brews a bockbier, but even that is exclusively for the Dutch market. I think it’s partly because nobody outside of The Netherlands knows what the name bock means, so it can be a little intimidating. We also put a picture of the bock animal – I think it is like a ram in English? – on the bottle. That association comes from Greek mythology though; we don't put rams in our beer. All our beers are vegan.
“It’s so close to a lot of other popular dark beer styles though, that I suspect a lot of breweries internationally are making something they could call a bockbier, but then just calling it something else.”
La Trappe has been brewing bockbier since 2014, and is the only Trappist brewery to do so
Before we get too hung up on defining styles – always a fun and largely fruitless conversation – I’m keen to learn where Funs believes Trappist brewing sits in the global craft beer community, and whether it carries the same weight as it once did. ‘Trappist’ as a brand has always meant quality beer, which of course prompted some breweries to adopt the label even when they probably shouldn’t have.
Today, the Authentic Trappist Product logo can only be used by breweries meeting three strict rules. First, the beer must be brewed within the immediate surroundings of the abbey, which generally means inside the walls of the monastery. Production must also be carried out under the supervision of the monks or nuns. And finally, profits should be intended for the needs of the monastic community, for purposes of solidarity within the Trappist Order, or for development projects and charitable works.
Funs says: “We’re protective of the name Trappist, partly because the three traditional styles brewed by the Belgian Trappists – Dubbel, Tripel and Blonde – have become so popular. We’ve seen this certainly with the very big breweries – Affligem, Leffe, Heineken and ABI – all brewing beers that aim to be similar to the traditional Trappist styles.”
The same is definitely true for smaller craft breweries, so what is it that creates that enduring appeal?
“A lot of people here still say IPA is a hype. I say it’s here to stay, which is a good thing. But the bitterness of the IPA is not for all people, and the traditional styles that La Trappe brews are familiar and comforting. Everybody knows what a blonde tastes like, everybody knows what a dubbel should taste like, so if you’re a small brewery you can build a very nice base with the traditional styles and then move onto imperial stouts, double IPAs, hazy IPAs and whatever.”
Nobody outside of The Netherlands knows what the name bock means
Focusing exclusively on a small range of safe, traditional styles, the life of a Trappist brewery seems about as far-removed from the fast-paced, trend-driven world of craft beer as it’s possible to get. For all the respect that Trappist brewing rightly receives, I have to ask whether Funs sees any of the Trappist philosophy carrying over in the this brave new world of beer. He takes a moment to give it some consideration.
“With the team we have here, everyone is still very passionate and proud of the beer we sell,” he eventually answers. “During lockdown I really missed coming into the brewery, and I really feel like the luckiest guy in the world to have this job, because I believe in what we’re making and why we’re making it.
“I think that’s where we easily relate to the small brewers, telling their stories because they all have a story to tell. Those three rules are our story, working together with the 25 monks in our abbey, putting so much care into preserving and expressing that tradition – right down to things like small changes in our glassware.
“And I think the smaller craft brewers, they are very proud also, and also mindful of the traditions and culture they’re coming from. In the past, every small town and city had a brewery. And today they are trying to get that tradition back; we are again brewing in our own city, taking pride in local products and telling that story. So I think a lot of craft brewers are part of a much longer tradition than they perhaps realise.”
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