By Richard Hill
The Walloon beer culture is perhaps best represented internationally by its Trappist beers, renowned in the US and many other parts of the world as the ultimate in brewing perfection.
Three inimitable beers of this type are brewed in Wallonia, in abbey breweries operated by Trappist monks of the Cistercian order (the idea that the Trappists take a vow of silence is incorrect, but they commit themselves to a self-imposed life of tranquillity where, in this case, one of the few reasons for talking is if your brother brewer forgets to put candy sugar in the brew kettle!)
The three Trappist beers – Rochefort, Chimay and Orval – take their names from abbeys tucked away in the uplands and forests of the Ardennes. Each of them comes in a variety of strengths, and they all have their own distinctive flavours. The monks originally brewed these beers – and also produced excellent cheeses – for the benefit of their local communities but, today, they make them available to the world at large.
The most widely marketed and best-known of these Walloon Trappist beers is Chimay, produced in 7, 8 and 9 ‘abv’ strengths (abv = alcohol by volume). Fermented with yeasts at temperatures of up to 30°C they have a character, according to American ‘Beer Hunter’ Michael Jackson, “reminiscent of Zinfandel or Port wine.”
The second Trappist beer is Orval, a distinctive brew that contrasts starkly with its two brothers. The use of German and Slovenian hops and a secondary fermentation process with multiple varieties of yeast give it a dry, almost bitter flavour (though not as bitter as Guinness) and an attractive dark orange colouring. Strength: 6.2 abv.
Finally comes the relatively little-known but delicious Rochefort displaying, in the words of Michael Jackson, “an earthy honesty [and….] flavours reminiscent of figs, bananas and chocolate.” This remarkable brew also comes in three strengths: 7.5, 9.2 and 11.3 abv, the last of these rating as one of the ‘heavyweights’ of Walloon beers!
In addition to its top-of-the-line Trappists, Wallonia offers a number of strong ales, such as Leffe and Maredsous, which are marketed under the denomination of ‘abbey beers’.
Talk of powerful beers brings one naturally on to the Dubuisson brewery in Pipaix, in western Hainaut province, a region that is also renowned for its local brewing traditions. Dubuisson produces the ‘Scaldis’ beers, highly regarded in the UK, Ireland and many other export markets.
Another very recent addition to the Hainaut brewing community is the Brasserie des Géants, a small state-of-the-art brewery housed in a 13th century castle-fortress close to the town of Ath. Its ‘Goliath’ brew (6% abv, blond with a citrus aroma and a slight flavour of hops) is already finding favour with beer buffs in the UK and Ireland.
Yet another and absolutely unique product of the Walloon brewing art is a category known as ‘seasonal’ beers: these were traditionally styled and brewed for the summer season, but are in fact available all year round. One is the Saison Silly, brewed in the town of the same name, also in western Hainaut. The Ath castle-fortress brewery produces ‘Saison Voisin’ (5% abv, amber, with a strong flavour of hops) while a small steam brewery dating from the 1780s produces another, the spicy Saison de Pipaix, in the same town as Dubuisson. Yet the most widely distributed of these beers (UK importer: Beer Direct of Stoke on Trent), and winning increasing favour in export markets thanks to its dry ’hoppy’ flavour (“hugely lively”, says Michael Jackson), is the Saison Dupont produced in a farm brewery close by.
Saisons and other speciality beers are not, however, the exclusivity of western Hainaut province. There are small breweries scattered all over Wallonia: Binche, home of the famous carnival that is reputed to have inspired the English word ‘binge’ (“honeyish, spicy-tasting beers” according to Michael Jackson), Lefèbvre in Walloon Brabant, Achouffe in the Ardennes (the beer sports the emblem of a bearded gnome wearing a red hat), Purnode in the province of Namur (‘Saison Régal’) and Soy in the province of Luxembourg, which produces ‘Saison’ beers for every season of the year…
Indeed the productivity and creativity of these small Walloon brewers is astonishing. Both Lefebvre and Purnode produce over 50 different brews, catering for almost every taste imaginable! Equally creative are the names given to some of these beers: ‘Big Chouffe’, ‘McChouffe’, ‘N’Ice Chouffe’, ‘Iguanadon’, ‘Loch Ness’, ‘Papy Jo’, ‘Circus’, ‘Judas’, ‘Black Jack’, ‘Grotto’, ‘Black Gosh’ and ‘J’ai dix ans hi hi hi’.
Yet another Walloon speciality is the so-called ‘white’ beers, all of which have a lower alcohol content but are delightfully thirst-quenching, particularly on a hot summer’s day. The best known of these are the Namur White, the Marlagne White, the Troublette (‘a little misty’), the Charleroi White, the Honnelles White and the Totje.
But to return to our Trappist origins, an appropriate closing remark is the charmingly phrased comment to be found on the unofficial Rochefort website (as a Trappist foundation, the Abbey of Rochefort steadfastly refuses to ‘open up’ to the outside world…): “Make no abuse of this gift of God. Let your Rochefort moment also be a moment of reflection. Enjoy it, drink a second glass, and a third for special occasions, but never more…”
To which, as amateurs of this beer, we can only say: Amen