For centuries, Trappist monks have been known for their outstanding brewing abilities. Monks in Belgium brew beer not only for their own consumption — they are hearty, healthy beers — but in order to pay for their way of life. Some of these beers are among the most sought after in the world, most notably beer from Westvleteren, which can only be purchased at the abby and only in small quantities. Others, like the world famous Chimay beer (brewed at Scourmont Abby), are widely available and are among the world’s most praised beers.
Not too long ago, I had a chance to have the three beers of the Rochefort Brewery, one of the only seven true Trappist breweries in the world. These folks have been brewing beer since 1595. So yeah, it’s a piece (delicious) history.
Rochefort makes three beers, simply called 6, 8, and 10. They’re relatively similar in style, with increasing levels of alcohol (from 7.5% ABv to 11.3%) and complexity being the major distinguishing factors. These beers are consistently among the top ranked beers in the world. Do they live up to the hype?
Pouring the 6, the first thing you notice is the gorgeous color. It’s closer to a deep orange brown than you see in the picture above, not unlike a forest floor in autumn. The 8 is similar, showing the brown of autumn leaves with just a faint hint of red. Not thick black like a porter, not golden brown like a brown ale. Brown like Mother Nature. It’s quite beautiful. The 10 is a deep, murky brown with hints of red at the edges but otherwise totally opaque.
All three beers are bursting with carbonation, too. Even with a gentle pour they jump up with two or three fingers of head. So all in all, these beers are wonderful looking.
When I first opened the 6, though, I wondered if they’d meet expectations. I expect a world class beer to have a world class aroma, but at first I felt slightly underwhelmed by Rochefort 6. Maybe it’s the big IPAs and Imperial Stouts I’ve been drinking this winter, almost all of which fill the nose with heady aromas, but this left me unimpressed. Smelled heavy with yeast, very sweet with hints of caramel. Not unpleasant, but also not alluring.
The 8, on the other hand, had an active and complex aroma. Hints of figs and raisins and just a touch of caramelized pears, with the damp, uplifting smell of a forest stream bank in the spring. Yeah, I’m serious. If you can imagine what a walk through old Europe would smell like, well, it smells like this.
The 10 was the most difficult to judge in the aroma department. The aroma is boozy similar to a big barleywine style ale. (Think of Sierra Nevada’s Bigfoot.) If you pay close attention you get some hints of figs and caramelized apples, but the big, malty alcohol smell dominates. It’s certainly a STRONG aroma. Whether or not it’s a good aroma depends on your tastes. As it warms, the aroma mellows a bit, revealing wafts of malt and raisin. Much more pleasant closer to room temperature.
The taste of each was just as complex and nuanced. The 6 got better with each sip. It tasted like a rich pastry bread in beer form, all sorts of bready and malty and delicious. A little sweet but subdued; caramel flavors but in perfect balance with everything else going on in the beer; touches of raisin and the like. By the end what had started as a decent but not mind-blowing beer turned out to be a stunner.
The 8 was more complex and yet oddly more subtle, too. The taste isn’t overpowering or explosive. It starts innocuous, a slight gulp of beerish liquid riding on the heady aroma, but the middle quickly broadens into Earthy, vaguely nutty flavors with malt, caramel, molasses, and touches of fig, raisin and plum.
If it’s got a fault it’s that the 9.2% ABV is more upfront than many crafts manage to accomplish these days. It’s not an invisible alcohol. While the Rochefort 6 drinks so smooth it’s frightening, you can TELL this one is a big, potent beer. In these days of 10 percenters that drink like they’re 6 or 7 percent, I’m sorry to say that this is a minor setback.
With the 10 you get nutty caramel and pumpernickel and other Earthy brown breads in the taste. It starts mild, then expands into a yeasty burst of pleasingly musty flavors before finishing with an alcohol-laden shimmer of mildly sweet breads and dried fruits. Like the 8, it also has a big, strong alcohol taste. A BIG alcohol taste. Many American crafts manage to meet or even exceed this ABV without the alcohol coming to the fore. Not here. Here it wants to arm wrestle you. American craft lovers have been spoiled with easy-to-drink big beers; the Belgians aren’t playing that game. This is not for the faint of heart.
(With both the 8 and the 10, I suspect they age WONDERFULLY and will taste less boozy and more complex after a year or so. I’ll find out in about a year; I already have a bottle of each stashed away.)
All in all these were incredible beer experiences. They’ll run you $5 to $8 a bottle, but if you love great beer it’s well worth treating yourself, even if only once.