(Every month we choose a topic in brewing and look at three beers that elucidate different elements of this issue. The first post of the month introduces the topic, and the subsequent three focus on a single beer each. This month’s theme is, Preternaturally From the Mind Of De Clerck: The Great Beer Theory. This post introduces the beer Chimay Blue.)
Chimay Blue is the definition of Belgian Beer in the popular imagination. It is high in alcohol, dark in color, fruity and spicy in taste and smell, more vinous and light in color, body, and flavor than British beers of similar strength and dark maltiness, and has less roast character than those beers, as well. And it’s got something to do with monks.
Though Belgian beer is, of course, far more vast and multitudinous than that, Chimay Blue’s taste and body do come from several elements that are certainly “Belgian” in essence in a way that extends beyond itself but also beyond its style. First, the high alcohol content. This is a Belgian tendency at least as far back as the outlaw of the sale of spirits in Belgian cafes in 1919, about the same time as American Prohibition. However, it is likely that, as with so many other Belgian brewing practices, this preference for high gravity is probably also a holdover of premodern tendencies, the influence of the gruit. Before beers had hops, they were probably generally higher in alcohol, as this had a preservative effect.
Second, the highly expressive yeast is certainly Belgian. Without getting into the science of domestication, we can certainly see how the human hand has preferred and nurtured expressive yeasts in Belgium over the years, just as the human hand has preferred and nurtured friendliness in dogs. This did not happen overnight, but over centuries. It is true that Father Theodore isolated the yeast strain used by implemented the practices that Jean De Clerck taught him, but he was in essence just putting a scientific point on the preexisting Belgian domestication of Saccharomyces, and Father Theodore had those fruity, spicy yeasts to choose from because of generations of domestication that had predated him in that region.
The color, body, and tendency to taste of creme brule and raisins rather than chocolate, coffee, and campfire all come from the fermentable sugars used, which are deeply Belgian. The grains are Pilsener, a very delicate malt, and Caramel, a much more gentle source of flavor and color than roasted barely or black patent malt. In fact, most of the color and flavor comes from caramelized beet syrups, as we discussed with Chimay White. The beet syrup used in Chimay Blue is obviously much more caramelized than that used in the White, but the process is the same. As we said with the White, these beet syrups are actually a holdover from homebrewing practices of Belgian farmers who derived sugar from suspending threads in beet syrups made from the beets they grew. No Dixie Crystals.
When Jean De Clerck arrived at Scourmont in the early 1950’s, it is true that the monks made undrinkable, inept beer. It is true that he educated Father Theodore in modern practices, and guided him through the development of the recipes for these world famous beers, but I cannot think of a single element of the taste of this beer that is not determined by a pre-exisitng Belgian cultural force, whether it be a temperance movement, the domestication of microzoa, or the historical influence of Belgian farmers’ sugar making practices. It seems to me that De Clerck used the tools of modern zymurgy to bring Belgian cultural tendencies to a very high expression. So did Chimay Blue spring preternaturally from the mind of De Clerck? I think it is more accurate to say that it sprang from the complex mesh of Belgium itself, and that De Clerck determined not the character but the quality of a beer that is surely one of the great world classics and one I never tire of drinking.
Similar Beers in Store: Trois Pistoles in our Unibroue Variety pack is a wonderful and affordable example of the style from Quebec. So good!