Nectar of the Gods: A Revised Guide to Brewing Low Oxygen Monastic Ales


"The Cathedral of Beer": Rochefort's Monastic Brewhouse

There has been an unspoken understanding since I started working with Bryan that I was not going to contribute all that much to the business of lager brewing. I have never been set up to brew these “cold” beers and while I now have a deeper and more serious appreciation for their flavor and construction, my heart has always been elsewhere. Rather than try and contribute to a subject already brimming with great information and experience, I decided to branch out and start working on my own set of ideas concerning my favorite “style” of beers (Monastic family of beers is more accurate): The Trappists.

What is it about Trappist ales that has me so enamored? If the product of all the Low Oxygen toil in the realm of lagers is to produce a supremely flavorful and easy drinking everyday beer, then the reason we brew in the Trappist idiom is to produce the fine wines of the beer world: contemplative, potent, and yeast driven beverages to be sipped slow and savored. They are a yeast showcase whose malt backbone and high alcohol typically combine with a light, “digestible” body that makes numerous servings not only tolerable, but essential.

What i’d like to talk about is applying concepts of Low Oxygen brewing to brewing Monastic ales. I had developed some ideas some time ago that at the time favored less of a dark syrup-centric approach but as I go on a few months now of an indefinite hiatus from brewing, I’d like to re-evaluate my experiences and opinions to hopefully help some of our forum members and readers brew these ales at a level they may not have before.

The Yeast

Just to be clear at the outset, the major Trappist breweries in the world, the ones we are most familiar with: Chimay, Achel, Westvleteren, Westmalle, Rochefort and Orval, only use 4 distinct strains of yeast. Westmalle distributes their strain to both Achel and Westvleteren so that leaves the Westmalle, Chimay, Rochefort and Orval strains as the 4 unique choices for brewing these ales at home. I’m going to focus primarily on Westmalle, Chimay and Rochefort here, not only because they represent a triumvirate of sorts for me and a pinnacle of flavor as far as i’m concerned, but also because their beers represent a pretty standard model for what most people like about these ales. Orval can be somewhat dodgy in my area in particular and I find that bottles of it older than 6 months start to get very funky. We’ll focus on the “Big Three” here to make it easier.

The most beneficial thing you can do when developing an interest in brewing these beers is tasting them. Westmalle, Chimay and Rochefort have the advantage of being readily available in most largely populated areas so acquiring them is pretty easy. I have my own ideas about fermentation schedules for these beers but let’s take a quick look at how you can approximate and clone these beers as is before moving on to the original recipes at the end of the post.

Westmalle (WY3787,WLP530) is a furious strain. It develops quite a bit of krausen during active fermentation and with a fair amount of adjunct sugars (> 8%) will give somewhere in the mid to high 80s for attenuation. Rather than try and attach my interpretation of the flavors produced here, it is better for you to try their Tripel and Dubbel to get a feel for what to expect. It has the tendency to be the most phenolic strain and can be “spicier” and more “earthy” than either Rochefort or Chimay. It also seems to have the narrowest band of initial fermentation temperatures before it gets “hot” (think fusels). Starting out I would stick to their fermentation schedule closely to approximate their flavor (if you follow that you will get their characteristic flavors for sure). Westmalle begins fermentation at 64 °F and let’s the fermentation rise before attemporating at 68 °F over the course of 5-6 days. Interestingly enough, Both Achel and Westvleteren ferment their beers, using this same yeast, at significantly different temperatures. Achel pitches at the same 64 °F as Westmalle but let’s the beer rise to (and attemporates the beer at) 72-73 °F over the course of 7-8 days. Westvleteren pitches at 68 °F and let’s the beer truly free rise to 82-84 °F over the course of 4-6 days. We will talk about my proposed method of fermentation control later, but just keep in mind how different the beers from these three breweries taste and know that they are all using the same yeast! Westmalle takes advantage of the krausen produced and uses that to repitch into all their beers.

Most representative beer: Westmalle Tripel.

Chimay (WY1214,WLP500) is probably my personal favorite strain. It can be a slow starter if you follow the advice of most homebrewing authorities and pitch low but I find that starting between 66-68 °F with this strain gets it going faster. Chimay tends to exhibit the most “fruity” and “estery” profile of the available strains. Everything except Doree (thier table beer) is readily available, with the Premiere (Dubbel) being what I think is the most representative beer of this strain’s best flavors. Chimay begins fermentation at 68 °F and lets the beer free rise over the course of 4 days to 82 °F. Some critics have noted that the quality of Chimay has slipped slightly over the years, suggesting that to meet their production schedule (they are second only to La Trappe in terms of output) that they rush fermentation. We can keep their starting temperature and gradually raise toward 82 °F over the course of 5-7 days to mitigate this if it seems like an issue. I certainly enjoy their beers as is. An interesting (and tasty) commercial beer using this strain is Smuttynose’s Single Digit Dubbel. Chimay is of particular interest because they do not repitch yeast. They grow a new culture of yeast for each batch of beer.

Most representative beer: Chimay Premiere (Rouge) and Chimay Doree (Gold).

Rochefort (WY1762,WLP540) is a standout for the dark strong ale category. Given that all their beers (6, 8, and 10) are dark and over 7% ABV, it’s a natural fit for that style. They pitch at 68 °F and allow the beer to free rise to 73 °F. Rochefort is unique in that they do not vary pitch cells with gravity. They pitch 15 M/ml into all their beers. This means the the 10 gets a lower pitching rate then the 6! The brewery starts a new pitch after brewing the 10, uses it in the 6 for a week (4 batches), the 8 for a week (4 batches), then uses it in the 10 for a week before discarding and growing up a new pitch. The 6 can be tough to get as it is has the lowest production, but the 8 and 10 are typically available. The 8 and 10 in particular make excellent fireside sippers.

Most representative beer: Rochefort 8.

The Ingredients, Wort Production, and Water

In addition to being yeast driven, these beers always have a solid malt “backbone”. Pilsner malt is universally used, with Pale malt making appearances as well. Some dark malts, usually Belgian chocolate malt, debittered black, and Special B are employed. Caramunich makes an appearance as well. Being that we are ultimately discussing Low Oxygen brewing here, i’ll make some basic suggestions about the malts that should work well in these styles. Why do we continue to recommend people use Weyermann? It’s pretty simple: their malt datasheets are far and away the most detailed and insightful. They are high quality malts in addition to this. Why not use the best?

For Base Malts: I suggest using Barke Pils alone, Weyermann Pale Malt alone, or a mix of Regular Weyermann Pils and Weyermann Vienna. Use Vienna in amounts around 15% (+/- 5%) to establish your desired flavor. Procure either full sacks or amounts from a full sack in order to get the malt analysis.

For Specialty Malts: Use Weyermann CaraHell, Weyermann CaraBelge, Weyermann CaraBohemian, Weyermann Carafa II, and Dingemans Special B in the desired amounts. CaraHell goes great in Singles and Tripels. CaraBelge is sort of the CaraHell for these monastic ales and it has some nutty and light caramel flavors. Use Carafa II sparingly, if need be, for color adjustment or light chocolate notes. CaraBohemian and Special B are excellent for adding the plum, fig, raisin and burnt sugar/dark caramel flavors.

For Sugars: Use table sugar or Turbinado for Tripels. Use D90 or D180 in varying amounts, and in conjuction with table sugar to get the color and flavor desired. I initially started brewing these beers using Low Oxygen methods to get away from syrups (out of curiosity mostly) but I can see now that they are important and need not make up the entire sugar load to be useful.

For Spices: Coriander and Orange peel are worthwhile additions to Singles. I’m not a fan of it in anything else. Use Sweet Orange Peel. Some recipes call for Bitter Orange but screw that. It just doesn’t taste as good in the final product as Sweet Orange.

As far as wort production is concerned, don’t do anything different than what you are already doing. Focus on consistency. Step mash if you can. You won’t find a Trappist brewery not step mashing. The ghost of Jean De Clerck is still present in everything they do. He was a smart man and a pioneer who recognized in the 1940s that there was a significant (if not fully understood) role that Oxygen played in the brewing process.

For Hops: These beers are not hop showcases. I would stick to Magnum, Styrian, and Saaz. German Perle, Hallertau Mitt, and Tettnang are also good choices.

For Water: Add enough CaCl to hit your calcium numbers and let your sulfites give you whatever Na and SO4 they will and call it a day. Use 5.4 as your pH benchmark and acidify accordingly.

The Fermentation

Here is where we can get a little loose and innovative. You can certainly follow much of the advice in the yeast section for specific beers and use the specific brewerie’s schedules. What I recommend is a pretty simple and straightforward guide for use in all of the strains that worked out well for me. YMMV and I would love to hear feedback from people as they incorporate and evolve it to their tastes and brewhouse.

  • Pitch at the typical starting temperature for the yeast being used: 64 °F for Westmalle and 68 °F for Chimay and Rochefort.
  • Oxygenate to 8 ppm
  • Place the fermenter in a water bath (water level up to wort level) to temper any major swings. Try to keep in an ambient temperature of around 66-68 °F. We will not be controlling the temperature actively!
  • Let the beer free rise with no restriction. In a water bath with an ambient temperature stated above, this should not exceed 75 °F. In the first 24-36 hours, this shouldn’t spike too much.
  • Transfer as required to spund (keg or bottles)

The Packaging

While I have been a vocal proponent of Bottle Spunding (I still swear by it) in the past, I have to now place a certain caveat on it: You really need to use 16-22 oz. bottles. There is just too much sediment leftover to get decent pours from small bottles. You can certainly do it and I have in the past, but the best pours and experiences I have had have been with 16 oz. German bottles. With that said, Bottle Spunding is a still a great alternative.

Now that I have that out of the way, I must say that I think kegging using our recommended methods of spunding and using natural carbonation are a perfectly suitable way of approximating and replicating the classic Belgian bottle conditioning. You have active yeast (comparable to what you would find settled out at the bottom of the commercial bottles) and natural carbonation. All the required ingredients. As a test, bottle some straight off the fermenter after jumping to your spund vessel and compare the flavors.

The Carbonation

Call me a heretic but unless you feel the style warrants it, carbonate to lower volumes than is typically recommended for these ales. 2.5-2.8 should be more than sufficient. I actually think lower carbonation helps to “soften” the green beer flavor on these and helps to reduce aging times. I’m actually of the opinion that these should be drank relatively fresh. Life is too short to drink aged beer. If you have to sit a beer on the bench for 6 months until the flavors meld, you’re doing something wrong. My last Dubbel was the best beer I have ever brewed and went grain to delicious glass in 8 days. It had a beautiful, long lasting foam stand and was absolutely phenomenal after about 12 days grain to glass. I feel the lower carbonation was a big helper here.

The Recipes

So as a parting gift of sorts (my hiatus will likely last well into next year as I shop for and purchase a new home) I offer four distinct recipes, with Low Oxygen in mind, for everyone to experiment and savor as they wish. I hope they serve you well and that they help you deepen your appreciation for this distinct “style” of beers.

 

MONK

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Monk is a medium gravity Table Beer/Single that uses Coriander and Sweet Orange Peel

Modelled after: Chimay Doree

Yeast: WY1214

77% Weyermann Pilsner

15% Weyermann Vienna

8% Weyermann CaraBelge

Target OG – 1.050, Target FG – 1.007, Target SRM – 5 to 8

Use our Standard step mash recommendations

~ ABV – 4.75%

2 oz/5 gal of Coriander (@ 15 min)

1 oz/5 gal of Sweet Orange Peel (@ 15 min)

For Hops:

Target 16-20 IBU

Group A: Perle, German Magnum
Group B: Tradition, Hallertau Mittelfruh, Hersbrucker, Styrian Goldings
Group C: Saaz, Saphir, Select, Tettnang

60/30/10:
50% at 60 minutes of Group A or half and half from Group A and Group B or C
25% at 30 minutes from Group B
25% at 10 minutes from Group C

50-60/10-20:
70-80% at 50-60 minutes of Group A
30-20% at 10-20 minutes of Group B or C

 

2 MONKS

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2 Monks is a  Dubbel made in the Trappist “Style” with fruity esters and a medium-dark ruby color

Modelled after: Chimay Premiere

Yeast: WY1214

68% Weyermann Pilsner

14% Weyermann Vienna

6% Weyermann CaraBelge

3.5% Weyermann CaraBohemian or Dingemans Special B

8.5% D90 Candi Syrup

Target OG – 1.065, Target FG – 1.008, Target SRM – 15 to 18

Use our Standard step mash recommendations

~ ABV – 7.21%

For Hops:

Target 19-24 IBU

Group A: Perle, German Magnum
Group B: Tradition, Hallertau Mittelfruh, Hersbrucker, Styrian Goldings
Group C: Saaz, Saphir, Select, Tettnang

60/30/10:
50% at 60 minutes of Group A or half and half from Group A and Group B or C
25% at 30 minutes from Group B
25% at 10 minutes from Group C

50-60/10-20:
70-80% at 50-60 minutes of Group A
30-20% at 10-20 minutes of Group B or C

 

3 MONKS

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3 Monks is a Tripel made in the Trappist “Style” with light to medium-dark gold color and a dry, wine like finish

Modelled after: Westmalle Tripel

Yeast: WY3787

68% Weyermann Pilsner

13% Weyermann Vienna

8% Weyermann CaraHell

11% Table Sugar

Target OG – 1.072, Target FG – 1.009, Target SRM – 4 to 7

Use our Standard step mash recommendations

~ ABV – 8.34%

For Hops:

Target 30-39 IBU

Group A: Perle, German Magnum
Group B: Tradition, Hallertau Mittelfruh, Hersbrucker, Styrian Goldings
Group C: Saaz, Saphir, Select, Tettnang

60/30/10:
50% at 60 minutes of Group A or half and half from Group A and Group B or C
25% at 30 minutes from Group B
25% at 10 minutes from Group C

50-60/10-20:
70-80% at 50-60 minutes of Group A
30-20% at 10-20 minutes of Group B or C

 

BIG MONK

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Big Monk is a Dark Strong Ale made to sip while you contemplate existential crisis and the universe as a whole…

Modelled after: Rochefort 8/10

Yeast: WY1762

67% Weyermann Pilsner

13.5% Weyermann Vienna

4.5% Weyermann CaraBohemian

5% Dingemans Special B

6.7% D90 Candi Syrup

3.3% D180 Candi Syrup

Target OG – 1.079, Target FG – 1.010, Target SRM – 29 to 32

Use our Standard step mash recommendations

~ ABV – 9.74%

For Hops:

Target 22-25 IBU

Group A: Perle, German Magnum
Group B: Tradition, Hallertau Mittelfruh, Hersbrucker, Styrian Goldings
Group C: Saaz, Saphir, Select, Tettnang

60/30/10:
50% at 60 minutes of Group A or half and half from Group A and Group B or C
25% at 30 minutes from Group B
25% at 10 minutes from Group C

50-60/10-20:
70-80% at 50-60 minutes of Group A
30-20% at 10-20 minutes of Group B or C