First impressions – Despite the title, there is actually very little instruction on “monk brewing technique, and when you read the book, you begin to understand why. Monostatic brewing has been somewhat romanticized, and the reality is that the majority of these breweries are very commercialized. I was surprised to read how very few monasteries actually brew the Trappist style beers. Most, as I mentioned, are very commercialized and use lesser quality ingredients (like Chimay, which switched to hop extracts over 30 years ago… this shocked me).
This book, despite the title, is not a “recipe” book. While it seems to have a few commercial recipes, the overall focus is on the attitude of brewing in the Belgian style. And I am okay with it. But for those of you not looking for an education on the history of the style, this is probably not the book for you.
A few chapters in, they begin to talk about the history of each Belgian monastery, where their beer styles originated from, and how they have changed over time. Fascinating, but hard to follow without really knowing each monastery. I am familiar with Chimay, and Orval, so their history is interesting, but the others I have never heard of, not as much.
After covering the historical breweries in Belgium, the author moves on to US breweries that were inspired by the Belgian brewers (like New Belgium Brewing). It was surprising to learn that other breweries like Russian River first focused on brewing Belgian style beers to begin with. This section I also found to be a little dry, especially if you’re not familiar with many of the breweries referenced.
Next, water profiles are covered, which is fascinating, but again, very academic. It is interesting to note that the monasteries were built near what were considered to be, at the time, good sources of water. This meant that the water was clean and abundant, not necessarily that it was suitable for brewing (from a mineral standpoint).
Moving on to the typical grains and fermentables used by these breweries, there is some discussion on what American breweries use, since they don’t necessarily have access to the same malts. Interesting to note, that the Brewers say the difference between American and Belgian malts is not night and day. Along with the sugars extracted from the grain, Belgian beers use a lot of sugar/candy sugar/candy syrup in the recipes to help boost the ABV, and dry out the beer. What is fascinating is how each version of sugar carries on a certain flavor. White sugar, no impact. Dark Belgian candy syrup, raisin flavor. The really cool thing is that American brewers will use different ingredients than the Belgian brewers do to achieve the same flavor profile. At the end of the day that’s the goal. Not to match ingredients and brew a different flavor beer, but to match the flavors and brew beer that honors the style.
Finally, in the last quarter of the book we get to the sample recipes and Belgian brewing technique.
Overall, this ended up being a very fascinating book and was not at all what I expected. Being the big nerd that I am, I appreciated the Belgium brewing philosophy. However, if you’re looking for a Belgian brewing book that outlines the technical side and how the monks brew, this is not the book for you (unless you skip to the last quarter of the book where the commercial clone recipes are).
I did really enjoy the philosophical idea of brewing like a Monk. I feel so much of that ideal has been romanticized but still rings true in the hearts of the noncommercial Belgian beer lovers.
Until next time, my Friends. #RespectTheCraft