I must confess that Belgian beers still make me a little anxious. For a long time, I thought that I didn’t like Belgian beers. Something about them seemed a little strange, and I preferred the tamer ales. Then about a year ago, I had a couple that I really liked. My expectations were now very confused. After years of thinking that I didn’t like Belgian yeasts, maybe there was more to it than that.
When I was given an opportunity to read Brew Like a Monk, I made up my mind to throw myself into it in an effort to try to decipher just what differences there were amongst the Belgian beers, and why I might like some more than others, and what better way than to learn about how they’re made, what makes them different, and what flavors the different styles showcase.
Hieronymus begins with the story of the monastic brewing tradition, correcting some misconceptions about their brewing practices, and providing a timeline of the development of Monastic and Trappist brewing. Hieronymus moves on to cover six trappist breweries, their histories and the beer that they have become known for. Next, Hieronymus moves on to Abbey beers, beers that are not brewed within the walls of the monastery, but are either attempting to mimic that style of beer, or have been contracted by a monastery to brew beer for them.
The next two chapters though, are where I really start to dig in. Just in case you didn’t start to gleam some of this information before, Hieronymus starts to get all technical now about mashing and brewing profiles, breaking down even more recipes in the process. Hieronymus then gets into yeast in a big way, going through various profiles of the two big suppliers in the US, Wyeast and White Labs, providing profile information on their popular strains of Belgian yeast, and even breaking them down by temperature range during fermentation, which I thought was really cool. Hieronymus even goes through and tells you which of the big Belgian Abbey/Trappist breweries have a commercial yeast culture available through one of the vendors cited above.
Next comes one of the more challenging, and yet, most important components of Belgian Trappist/Abbey production, bottle conditioning. I’ve always found the process of bottle conditioning to be a challenging one, but I’ve never pitched fresh yeast at bottling time either, something which all commercial brewers do. There are two main reasons Belgian Trappist/Abbey brewers bottle condition their beer, one is for flavor, and the other is to develop the high volume of carbonation expected in the style, which develops best in champagne type bottles with a cork and cage closure.
The last section of the book focuses on the reader and next steps, one chapter discussing the sub-genres of Belgian Trappist/Abbey beers, in an attempt to further educate the reader if they are looking to brew a specific style, or to judge in a competition. The last chapter focuses on recipes and recipe formulation. As a budding brewer myself, I like the tone that this section sets. Here are some recipes, but we encourage you to take these recipes, and draw inspiration from them, don’t brew them ounce for ounce. This has to be one of the best take-aways of this book, that there is no secret recipe, the way to make a special beer is to take it and make it your own, put yourself in the process, and see what happens.
This was definitely an enlightening book, and even though I’m still on the fence about Belgian Trappist/Abbey beers, I feel much more empowered and educated to move forward in my appreciation of the styles, and also to draw a little inspiration from within, and without the walls of the Abbey.