Dean McGuinness reviews Chimay Red and La Trappe Dubbel
People talk about the ‘four ingredients’ that are used in beer. In truth, there are many ingredients that are used in beer in addition to these four core ingredients, but the German Purity Laws have focused everybody’s mind on water, malted barley, hops and yeast. The first of these is the easiest to understand. Anybody who has seen barley growing in a field can get their head around malted barley. Hops are a bit more nebulous, but understanding that hops are a relative of the cannabis plant lets people understand that it is a leafy flower that grows on a vine that can impart wonderful flavours in beer. Yeast is definitely the least easy of these four ingredients to conceptualise.
Today we are doing a mini-masterclass in two types of yeast. We have two different beers from the same style that are brewed using two distinctly different yeast strains. The grain bill (malted barley) and hops for these beers would be comparable, and the basics of the water would be quite similar, but the different yeast used in these two beers makes for a distinctly different taste experience.
Our two beers for today are Chimay Premiere and La Trappe Dubbel. Both are Trappiste Dubbel beers.
Yeast and Flavour
Ironically, yeast was an ingredient that was not identified in the original Rheinheitsgebot 500 years ago. Brewers could physically handle malted barley, hops and water, but yeast is microscopic so it is a bit harder to understand. Before the time of Louis Pasteur, the existence of micro-organisms was not even conceptualised, let alone understood.
In times past, yeast was referred to as ‘Godisgoode’ – it was taken that some mystical thing would happen to beer to transform it from a sugary liquid to a wonderful alcoholic drink with an abundance of flavour. Brewers knew that they needed to keep the ‘lees’ (the last bit of the previous batch of beer) to inoculate the next batch and trigger the fermentation. The ‘Brewers’ Stick’ was a way for brewers to transfer the yeast from a previous batch into the next – by stirring the beer, yeast would adhere to the wood grain of the stick, and then when the same stick was used in the next batch, this yeast would be transferred into the next batch of beer.
Yeast is a micro-organism – a single-cell, living thing. When it is introduced to a sugar environment, it metabolises (eats) the sugar and converts it into carbon dioxide and alcohol. During this process, various different flavours are generated, transmuted and re-consumed – the skill of the brewer lies (among other things) in guiding the yeast through a specific metabolical pathway so that the desired flavours are achieved in the beer.
There are different strains of yeast – each one has its own characteristics and likes to behave in a certain way and to work in a specific environment. Yeasts can be broadly classified into ‘ale’ yeasts and ‘lager’ yeasts, and, when looking at these two broad categories, ale yeasts prefer warm fermentation environments and lager yeasts prefer cooler fermentation environments. Lager yeasts tend to develop some unusual (and sometimes unpleasant) flavours in the middle of the fermentation cycle, but the brewer allows these flavours to be driven off during the fermentation to give a clean fermentation character that allows the flavours of the malted barley and hops in the beer to shine through. Ale yeasts tend to generate an array of flavours that become integral to the character of their beers. Both of todays beers are brewed with ale yeasts.
While yeasts belong to certain broad families – like ale and lager yeasts – within these families, you can have specific strains of yeast that have their own distinctive and unique characteristics. Ale yeasts tend to produce fruity flavours – esters – that can vary depending on the base beer. Darker beers sometimes produce darker fruit flavours (currants, raisins, plums), while lighter beers can sometimes produce lighter-coloured fruit flavours (stone fruit, like peaches and apricots, or tropical fruit like pineapple, grapefruit and mango). Some ale yeasts also produce distinctly spicy characteristics – with ‘spice’ being used in a very broad sense of the word. ‘POF’ yeasts (yeasts that are particularly good in producing a type of flavour known as ‘phenolic’) can produce flavours that range across an array of spices through smoky or clovey.
With Belgian yeasts, the flavours can be particularly complex. Some Belgian yeasts tend to produce particularly fruity beers. Some produce beers that combine a blend of fruit and phenols. In some cases (as with Saison’s) you can get distinctly ‘funky’ flavours from the fermentation – goaty, caprylic, leathery, barnyard – but that’s a matter for another day!
Our two beers today showcase fruity esters and rich phenols. A famous brewing scientist – Jean DeClerck – did work with the Chimay brewery to understand their yeast. He identified that there were at least fifty different individual strains of yeast in their yeast culture. This is particularly significant in todays brewing scene. Many large breweries work on single strain yeasts – it is much easier to have an army of consistent, regimented yeast cells that are all geared towards doing the same thing than it is to manage an amalgam of fifty distinctive and individualistic ‘artistic’ yeast strains, each seeking to contribute their own artistic flavour to the beer. However, if you are interested in beer from an artistic point of view, multi-strain yeasts provide a palate of flavour that balance one against the other to produce genuine masterpieces.
Our two beers today have distinctly fruity, estery flavours in them. They also have similar grain bills, so they both have brown sugar, toffee, caramel bases. However, the phenolic character in both beers is quite different. In Chimay Red, the phenols take a background position to the fruity fermentation flavours, providing a spice counterpoint to balance the predominantly estery character to the beer. With La Trappe Dubbel, phenols in the form of richer organic flavours are more prevalent, and the background flavour of the beer is a bit sweeter to provide a counterpoint to the phenolic character of the beer.
Both of the beers are being tasted today from ‘sharing size’ bottles of beer – 750ml (wine bottle) sized bottles. If you are looking to do a tasting like this, there is no better way to do it than to get a group of like-minded beer lovers around to share a 750ml bottle together and to discuss the different flavours that each person gets. Beer drinkers are individual, and you will probably find that, while some people identify certain common characteristics in the beer, some other people will pick out quite distinct and unusual nuances that you might not notice until their presence is suggested to you.
Chimay Red –
Beer Style - Trappiste Dubbel
Alcohol by Volume - 7.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by - Chimay Brewery
Brewed in - Abbaye de Scourmonte, Chimay, Belgium
When Chimay first came to Ireland, Chimay Red was by far and away the most popular of the signature core range of beers (Chimay Red, White and Blue). I suspect that the red-brown colour of the beer was more familiar to beer drinkers used to Irish red ale, and the 7.0% a.b.v. was a touch closer to ‘normal’ than either Chimay White (8.0%) or Chimay Blue (9.0%). As we have become more familiar with higher strength beers, Ireland has gravitated towards the ‘norm’, which is that Chimay Blue is the most popular of the three styles. However, I often think that Chimay Red is sometimes overlooked because of the popularity of Blue.
Chimay Red has the classic flavours that one associates with a Trappiste Dubbel. Red-brown in colour, with a deep, tightly formed tan-coloured head, Chimay Red delivers barn-brack and Christmas cake flavours in both the aroma and taste. Raisins, currants, toffee, caramel and dark cherry together with a touch of nuttiness – walnut – all come through. This is complemented by a touch of roast bitterness and roast acidity in the finish. Brown sugar and caramelised sugar combine with toasty almond and marzipan, and subtle counterpoint of dark chocolate is present in the background. There is a balancing Belgian spice – black pepper, aniseed, nutmeg and cinnamon – that linger in the background of the beer to provide a contrast to the fruit flavour, but the fruitiness of this beer (combined with the mid-coloured malt flavours) is the defining character of this beer.
Red apple and dark cherry come through to further develop the estery fruitiness of the dried fruit flavours in this beer. The alcohol character is smooth and disguised, but it contributes to a slightly boozy fruit flavour in the beer – reminiscent of dark fruits soaked in alcohol for a long enough time that the alcohol character smooths out and serves to enhance the fruit flavour in a balanced way.
The complexity of flavour in this beer is an obvious consequence of the complexity of the fermentation from the mixed strain yeast. Each yeast strain provides its own distinct brushstroke and palate colour to the overall masterpiece of the beer, and each flavour that results combines to balance the overall gestalt. It is truly a delicious beer, layered in flavour and with incredible complexity and sophistication.
La Trappe Dubbel –
Beer Style - Trappiste Dubbel
Alcohol by Volume - 7.0% a.b.v.
Brewed by - La Trappe Brewery
Brewed in - La Trappe Brewery, Koningshoeven, Holland.
There is a distinct sweetness in both the aroma and flavour of La Trappe Dubbel that serves to balance the phenolic character that comes through in the flavour.
Just like a classic Trappiste Dubbel, La Trappe Dubbel is red-brown in colour and has a tan coloured head. This colour reflects the grain bill used in brewing the beer – caramel, toffee and burnt sugar flavours come through. In fact, with La Trappe Dubbel, the memory of crème brulee is in evidence, with the aroma of caramelised brown sugar that is characteristic of this dessert very much present, triggering memories of the time just after a crème brulee has been blowtorched to achieve this flavour. Other quite sweet characteristics come through – candyfloss and liquorice, both of which can contribute a notable depth of sweetness to a beer.
This sweetness is complemented by rich, sweet dark fruit flavours. Dates, plums, figs and forrest fruit flavours are all in evidence. The malt character combines with fruit flavour to give a toffee apple character to the beer. Again, there is a touch of roast malt character in the finish.
However, as one tastes this beer, the more notable phenolic character comes through. The sweetness of the beer serves to balance this phenolic character, but it is present in the form of rich, organic character. The flavour of Jagermeister comes to mind – a rich, viscous flavour. This is further developed in complexity with ginger flavours coming through – in the form of gingernut biscuits. White pepper is present as a spice counterpoint, but it is the richness of the phenolic flavour rather than Belgian spice that provides the primary balance in the beer.
La Trappe beers (like many families of Belgian/Dutch beers) have a house character that derives from the yeast strain used in brewing the beer. When one tastes the full family of La Trappe beers, this distinct combination of fruit and phenol becomes more obvious, with the particular character of the phenolic flavours emerging as a common ‘family’ theme in the beers. This phenolic character contributes a richness to the beer that is deep, complex, satisfying and incredibly tasty counterpoint to the fruit and malt character of the beer. Yumm!!!