(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, The Syrup Koan: Syrups Keep a Beer From Being Syrupy. This post introduces the beer Cinq Cents.)
Cinq Cents, more widely known as Chimay White, was Father Theodore’s favorite beer. Perhaps this doesn’t mean much or anything to you, but it should. Father Theodore was the monk at Scourmont who, under the tutelage of Jean De Clerck, isolated the famous Chimay yeast strain. He is the man who developed all the recipes for the four beers Chimay produces, three of which are commercially available and all of which are universally considered world classics. He is the monk who ran the brewery during the entire stretch in which it established this outsized reputation. He is the man whose interviews with Michael Jackson on the television show The Beerhunter sold the romance of Trappist brewing to the international drinking public. He is the reason that in college some dude handed you a sip of Chimay Blue, and said, “For serious, this is the best beer in the world.” The only person who can claim more singular credit for the taste, quality, and fame of Trappist ales is Jean De Clerck himself. Father Theodore had a Chimay White every day of his life.
The Chimay White is a tripel created in the style of the Westmalle Tripel. All of these Trappist tripels were designed to compete with the lightness and clarity of the Pilseners which were invading Belgium. The thinking was, if we can give people the light crispness of body and the newfangled clarity that they respond to so intensely in these Pilseners, but maintain the phenolic complexity and high gravity to which Belgians are accustomed, we can stave off the Pilsener monopoly in a way that many other nations have not been able to. The answer was obvious because it had been close at hand all along: beet syrups.
Beet syrups, you say? What the hell are you talking about, you say? But it’s not as strange as all that; it’s really quite homey and rustic. I don’t how much you know about the agricultural possibilities of Belgium, but it’s not a great climate for sugar cane. It is a great climate, though, for growing beets. Traditionally, Belgian farmers created their own sugar by making a syrup out of their own beets, and then suspending strings in the syrup on which the sugar crystalized. This was a very flavorful and characterful sugar. Think perhaps of pure cane sugar versus refined white sugar, and how much character is lost in refinement. It is essentially a survival of premodern methods of producing sugar. As all brewing used to be done in the same Belgian farmhouses that produced these beet sugars, these syrups made it into the wort sometimes, with frequency enough to be an acknowledge part of the brewers arsenal, and central to all of the darker, preexisting Trappist recipes.
There is some controversy over whether beet syrups figure into the recipe of the Chimay beers. In 1999, a Belgian publication ran a story scandalously implying that much of the grain bill for Chimay beers was wheat starch. This was thoroughly denied by Chimay, but seems to be true. Without getting too technical, there is no reason to use six-row barley, which Father Theodore said they specifically sought out, unless you have starches with no enzymes on them, like wheat starch. Scourmont seems to be fibbing. In this same article, though, it is claimed that candi syrups (beet syrups) make up 12 percent of the fermentable sugars in Chimay White. This was vigorously denied by the abbey, but as we have already noted, their denials make little sense. It would be at odds with all brewing practices in the region and style, and the taste of the beer is very similar to beers which acknowledge use of these syrups. This denial of syrups seems similar to when Samuel Beckett claimed that if by Godot he had meant God, then he would have said God: it is an obvious lie to maintain an air of possibility.
What does the beer itself taste like? Delicious, of course. There is a rich autumnal orange color that comes probably from slight caramelization of the beet syrups, and is topped with a sticky, fluffy persistent meringue of foam that comes from the proteins in the wheat starch and the bottle conditioning. There is a big blast of sharp black pepper, but also a definite perception of baking spices, which tends to show up in tripels and seems to come from the conjunction of the lightly caramelized beet syrups with the expressive yeasts. There is something, as well, of zesty quality of dry, high acid white wines like a trocken Reisling, a Sauvignon Blanc, or an Albarino, a fresh fruitiness that recalls apples, pears, lemons, and more tropical flavors. Much of this comes from the dry, sharp, fruity quality that this yeast hitting these syrups makes possible. I think the drinker will be most struck on first sip by the assertive hop presence, which is much higher than we expect from Trappist ales. Chimay White uses hop extracts rather than whole cones or pellets, but it uses extracts of some American hops for part of the hopping and I think it shows. There is a spicy, minty, pine, candy complex of notes that combine to form almost a mentholated lozenge note, a very particular and pleasant sensation that arises from the conjunction of the beet syrup, the American hops, and the expressive yeast.
The slight mentholated quality and autumnal orange color makes it a nice cold weather treat and the sharp quality similar to acidity and the black pepper notes mean this beer a nice can still cut against the monolithic carbs and fat of Thanksgiving.
If you try Chimay White, let me know what you think in the comments!
Similar Beers in Store: The Third Party Tripel from Denizens, Golden Monkey from Victory, and the New Belgium Tripel are all accomplished new world examples of tripels, though somewhat lighter in color and flavor. The autumnal flair of the Chimay White makes it an outlier in the style, and perfect for this time of year.
A conclusion to syrups: I hope you have come to agree with me that honey, sap, and syrup can sharpen and dry a beer in a way that improves its food pairing potential, and that these syrups are a vital way of introducing new flavor compounds into beer which cannot be achieved through grain alone.
But if you take away nothing else from this month, at least realize how intellectually dishonest those Bud Light commercials about corn syrup were. Miller uses corn syrup to lighten the body of the beer. Budweiser knows that. They are trying to exploit your ignorance of the syrup koan. Don’t believe it for a second.