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St Bernardus Tripel

As in North America, so in Europe, the borders between nations and states have occasionally been re-drawn. Parts of northern France were once ruled by the Duke of Flanders. They still regard themselves as being Flemish, though Flanders is now a state in Belgium.

In this generally flat countryside, a small group of hills forms a natural border between France and Belgium. One of these "mountains" must at some stage have been known for its cats. In French, it is called as Mont des Cats. It is in hop-growing country, near the French (but Flemish-sounding) village of Steenvoorde.

On Mont des Cats is a monastery. It was run by the Augustine order in the 1700s and has been Trappist since 1826. The monastery did have a brewery, but it has not produced beer since the beginning of this century. It has nonetheless influenced the beers of two quite separate breweries across the frontier in the nearby town of Watou, Belgium.

The town of Watou even has a statue of a brewer on one of its main squares.

This whole border region is hop country, especially around the Belgian town of Poperinge, not far from Ieper (Ypres). The town of Watou even has a statue of a brewer on one of its main squares. He is not identified as a particular brewer - he just serves as a symbol of the local industry. I have seen no such statute anywhere else. On another main square is a famous restaurant specialising in cuisine à la bière, 't Hommelhof (the name means hop garden).

At a time of instability in France, the monks from Mont des Cats moved across the border and established a chapter in Watou. "The Chapter" (in Flemish, Het Kapittel) gave its name to a range of fruity-tasting, complex beers still made by the Van Eecke brewery, just off the town square at Watou.

The chapter of monks also established a dairy farm and developed a local market for their cheese. When the monks returned to France, a local family of cheese-makers took over the business. In the recovery period after World War II, the family, called Claus, turned their dairy (also in Watou) into a brewery.

Confusingly the stimulus for this was a request to produce beer for another Trappist monastery, St Sixtus, in nearby Westvleteren. During that half-century, the monks of Westvleteren produced beer for sale at the abbey, while the Claus family brewed a St Sixtus range for wider distribution. When the monastery of St Sixtus replaced its old brewhouse with a bigger one in the 1990s, this arrangement came to an end.

Like the cheese-making monks who inspired it, the Claus family brewery had always been dedicated to St Bernardus. Its beers, in the abbey style, are now sold under the name St Bernardus, and new partners have joined the company to help market this range.

The St Bernardus brewery is south of the town, on a country road near the border. The road was called Abele Street until a local government reorganisation two or three decades ago. At that point, the local municipality expanded to include another Abele Street, so this one was renamed Trappist Way. The argument for this was that the road linked the dairy farm with the abbey across the border. This enabled the St Bernardus to use the word Trappistenweg on its labels.

The whitewashed brewhouse has handsome copper vessels bought second-hand in 1946.

The brewery, masked by lime trees, is in the imposing 1930s building that once housed the dairy. The whitewashed brewhouse has handsome copper vessels bought second-hand in 1946. An arbor of chestnut trees leads to an office in a renaissance-style house on a cobbled courtyard. The office has a billiard table and oriental antiques collected by founder Guy Claus. Adjoining the brewery is a small but stylish bed-and-breakfast hotel (fax 32-57-388071).

Its beers are bottle-conditioned and complex, with some acidity to balance their heftiness. Three are labelled with numbers based on the old Belgian gravity scale. Pater 6, at 6.7 per cent alcohol by volume, has a chestnut colour and is very fruity and creamy. Prior 8, at 8.0 abv, is ruby to purplein colour, with an oily richness of texture and a spicy, nutty maltiness. Abbot 12 (10.0 abv) is almost ebony, very big and assertive, like a warming coconut brandy, with a hint of coffee.

Two are Tripels, both spiced. Watou Tripel (7.0 abv) has an orangey color, a grassy hop aroma and a peachy palate. It was originally aimed at the French market, though it now sells on both sides of the border. Our choice on this occasion is the slightly stronger St Bernardus Tripel (7.5 abv).

Tasting note: Almost iridescent, orange colour; the aroma of rosewater; surprisingly light on the tongue for such a strong beer; a palate that suggests vanilla, cookies and sesame seeds; and a tangerine-like finish.

Food pairings: Despite its strength, a good aperitif. Or try it with asparagus, artichokes or grainy salads. Could be good with cracked wheat, humus, or similar starter dishes from the Balkans, Armenia or the Eastern Mediterranean.

Published: JAN 21, 2001
In: Beer Hunter Online

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