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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Trappist Ales: Chimay (Abbaye de Scourmont)

Chimay is the most well-known of the Trappist breweries, and most people who are beer fans will have had a glass--it's available at many grocery stores and you even see it on tap sometimes. One shouldn't construe this availability as evidence that it's a mass-market beer, though; Chimay is one of the most highly regarded brands in the world.

Compared to some of the other European monasteries, Chimay is but a spring chicken. The abbey at Scourmont (Chimay town) wasn't founded until 1850 very near the French border. They were early brewers, however, and started in 1862. One of the quirks of location is the groundwater of Chimay, which is very clear and free of minerals--producing the soft fullness for which the beer is famous. According to Jackson, the brewery needed to be brought back into production after WWII, and the monks brought in Jean De Clerck, who introduced the yeast strain still in use and formulated the basic versions of the three beers Chimay still brews.

Brewing Style
Chimay produces three styles of beer, "White" (a tripel), "Red" or Première (a dubbel), and "Blue" or Grande Réserve, a style unique to Chimay. The brewery uses about 10-15% wheat malt in each of its beers as well as dextrose--not the candi sugar characteristic of Belgian ales. Until the 1990s, the brewery used open fermentation. When they switched to tall, conico-cylindrical fermenters, the beers apparently lost complexity ("grievously," according to Jackson).

The recipes were developed in collaboration between the master brewer, Father Théodore, and Jean De Clerck in the two decades following WWII, and the final beer to join the line-up was White, in 1966. Still, the recipes change slightly. In addition to the change in fermentation, the hops also shift. Chimay surprisingly prefers American hops, and have used Galena in the past. They now use Cluster hops. Interestingly, they don't use whole hops but extract--because Chimay is designed to lay down and age, the monks prefer extracts, which hold their aroma and bitterness longer than whole hops.

Tasting Notes
Chimay is such an elegant beer. It has a heady, refined aroma and that rich, deep color; the head is a silky latte hue. There's a reason this beer sells well in the United States--it is so approachable, but neither tame nor simplistic. The flavor is a bit like desert--creamy and soft, vanilla notes and plum, and then the long finish, a little sharp with alcohol, just to remind you that this is an adult's beverage. Hops don't immediately announce themselves, but after a few sips, you realize they're actually quite assertive. Chimay is this way--you continue to find new depths. Later I found caramel and then cinnamon and then...

I don't know what the beer tasted like before they switched to closed fermentation--the change happened nearly 20 years ago. But if the Grande Réserve has suffered a "grievous" loss in the transition, it must have been an amazing beer. To me, Chimay is a confection--a glass of pure pleasure. It is excellent with cheese (which the monks of Sourmount also handcraft) but even better with chocolate. In fact, it could be that there's no better accompaniment. (Portlanders can experiment by going to a Pix Patisserie, where both chocolates and Chimay are available for side-by-side sampling.) Chimay's not the most sublime of the Trappists, but it's a world standard for good reason.

ABV: Red 7%, White 8%, Blue 9%
Cluster hop extract (Yakima Valley)
Adjuncts: Dextrose (5%)
Rating: Grande Réserve A-
Available: Readily available at beer stores and many grocery stores.


  1. Nice write up Jeff!

    You noted, "...Chimay is but a spring chicken." True, but wouldn't you say Anchel is still an egg? ;-}

    You noted, "Cluster hop extract (Yakima Valley)" as their hop? WOW! Really?? That's a new change for the worse! Cluster are kind of the garbage hop in comparison to others. It has great stability but not a very good taste.

    Chimay RED has historically been a GREAT CLASSIC beer, but has been reportedly slowly deteriorating since Father Theodore's death.

    I have noticed definite changes in the beer over the past 20+ years. It's still kind of enjoyable, but not exactly the same.

    After doing some quick internet research, I found it's been a HUGE controversy over the past 5+ years.

    From a British article on the web site it's noted:

    "(Chimay's) beer ingredients are listed, in French and Dutch, as: water, malted barley, wheat starch, sugar, hop extract and yeast. These are the same as those listed on the label of one of the Brewery's three main beers, Chimay Triple (former White). The other two main beers, Chimay Red (Rouge) and Chimay Blue (Bleue), additionally have malt extract declared as an ingredient.

    Well, this was the ingredients disclosure for 2004 and earlier bottlings, but, amazingly, for the 2005 ones, the following are declared for Chimay Red and Blue: water, malted barley, wheat, sugar, hops and yeast. Has there been an actual change of recipe to these less controversial ingredients?"

    Also, in the same article, Chimay denies any change...but...

    "Where ingredients are concerned, quality control manager Dominque Denis and production manager Jean-Micael Degraux were emphatic that nothing had changed since the time of Father Theodore. They pointed out, with perhaps a hint of righteous anger, that the brewery introduced the listing of ingredients on labels in the late 1990s. There are no requirements under Belgian law to do this, but now the brewery finds itself under attack for its openness.

    They are bemused by critics who accuse them of using candy sugar. It was phased out 40 years ago. Pure dextrose is used in the brewhouse while liquid invert sugar is used for secondary fermentation in bottle. Sugar accounts for 5% of the fermentable materials. "

    From "The beers of Chimay. Plus ca Roger Protz, 05/05

    "The argument is that the monks have "dumbed down" their beers by using such inferior ingredients as malt extract, wheat starch and hop extract in the brewery."

    For those who are not following the previous entries.... Basically, Chimay is saying they haven't changed anything in the recipe, but Hop Extracts, Cluster Hops, dextrose and Malt Extract were NOT original ingredients for Chimay beers!

    This mean the recipe was changed before 2002 - 2004 and possibly before 1997 according to some sources.

    Sounds to me like no one has a had a true Chimay for the past 8-12 years!

    More research is needed! Don't let this stop ANYONE from trying these beers! These arguments are just within the anal retentive beer hierarchy groups.

    BTW, Chimay makes some wonderful cheeses made with their Red and Grand Reserve. I've seen the cheese at New Season's and World Foods.

    Check it out!

  2. Great article, Jeff.
    The Grand Reserve is always a good stepping stone for me to introduce wine-only-lovers to good beer. They can appreciate its character.


  3. What retail outlets sell bottled Chimay Blue?