Thursday 24 November 2011

What on earth is an Abbey Ale?

The Val De Sambre Brewery in Wallonia, whose tripel
on the sunny morning I visited in 2005 was rather gorgeous

What on God’s fairly decent earth is an Abbey Ale? I only ask as I am currently involved in revising the style guidelines for a major beer competition. And given the flux in which beer styles are involved — or maybe the stasis that they are fixed in — I think it’s a fairly decent question to be asked.

Abbey Ale? Leffe obviously, in the same way as we think of Guinness as an Irish Dry Stout or maybe Stella Artois as a, er, um, I don’t know…continental lager, macro lager, generic lager? Leffe is a beer, an Abbey Ale, sorry, that I was introduced to in the late 1980s and I rather enjoyed. Probably lapped up the candi sugar sweetness and the fat and flabby character of the alcohol (rather like a gut hanging above the belt as anything over 6% in those days was seen as rather risqué), and possibly the herbal flintiness and a sense that this beer might rather enjoy canoodling up to the pork steak and cream sauce that my mate reckoned was the bees knees in Brussels at the time. I also always enjoyed the Leffe Tripel whenever on holiday down in the southwest of France; there was a sense of the sweetness being held back, almost a very enjoyable dry chalkiness on the palate that made it a wow with fried chicken.

But then I have tried Leffe in the past couple of years and it’s reminded me of a childhood sweet that we used to call a Spangle — sweet, sweetingly sweet, yes the fatness of the alcohol is there, but there is a medicinal tang that I associate with the smell of one of the sprays that my rugby-playing teenage son dons before a match. It’s also a brittle sugar candy, seaside rock sort of nose, herbal I suppose, but not that pleasant. A default beer perhaps, like Staropramen (of which I had a half last night that reminded me of cider) or Guinness (here’s an interesting question — would I ever consider John Smith smoothflow as a default beer, of course not, I like beer but there are limits, it’s a bit like meat, I avoid McDonalds like the plague).

So I get back to the original question: what is an Abbey Ale? Is there such a thing? Trappist is an appellation — it covers dubbel and tripel and very strong dark beer. Abbey? It seems to be 5-6% (but then looking back at my notes I find Silly Brewery making a 9.5% one), sweetish, gold in colour with reddish hints, but then it could be a brighter gold or a darker gold. In one French brewery I was given one with rice in the mix, which gave it an almost ethereal lightness of touch, which didn’t work for me. So is it a marketing device? On the label the picture of a fat cheery monk or a sombre looking abbey and the promise of heaven in a bottle seems to be a popular device. Marketing then. That’s the way my thoughts are going. Which means that a lot of other beer styles could be seen as mere marketing devices. On the other hand, the story behind a beer is important. If you get too fundamentalist in an anti-styles fashion then we might all just live in the Repo Man universe where cans are entitled meat, fish, whatever: minimal and monochrome.

Maybe the idea of beer styles is a sort of poetical development — a need to categorise, like the need to paint or write in different ways and then codify it. And yet having said all this, I’m still not sure what an Abbey Ale is. Is there such a creature?


  1. An Abbey ale is a trappist-style ale without the genuine Trappist Product mark.

  2. i think beer styles are very much like music genres, some brwers wish their beers to fall into a category, wheareas others work hard to defy them or create a new "beer genre"

  3. You've nailed it: it's a beer with a picture of a fat religious type on the label. None of the true trappist beers do that, do they?

  4. Properly speaking, "Abbey Ale" (which in itself isn't speaking properly, but let's forget about that), has little to do with a style. It's more like a wine's D.O.C., if, let's say, St. Bernardus or Florefee fancied doing a pale lager, it'll still be an Abbey Beer, because those are, by law, Abbey breweries (regardless of what they happen to brew). The fact that most of them brew pretty similar stuff is just coincidental.

  5. Could it just be - and bear with me on this - a broad term for monastic beers as a whole? Ie; it's not a beer, but a term?

  6. Abbey is an adjunct definition open to abuse.

  7. Much like "Belgian Beer", which is internationally trademarked by the Union of Belgian Brewers, the phrase "Abbey ale" has been widely pirated.

    Here is what Wkipedia says about it. :

  8. Very simple answer -like a trappist it is not a style, it is more a connection with Abbey. source:

    Certified Belgian Abbey Beer

    The collective trademark may only be used by members of the Union of Belgian Breweries (UBB) having signed an written agreement with the UBB.

    The breweries may only use the collective mark if the following conditions are fulfilled :

    – as far as "the abbey beers" are concerned that were already
    present on the market when the collective mark was registered :

    1. there has to be a connection with an existing / no longer
    existing abbey and

    2. royalties (1) have to be paid; these can be used to help
    finance the Abbey's charitable activities, other good works
    and cultural activities/works that contribute to the cultural
    preservation of the abbey, allied to the abbey or to another
    defined organization if the abbey no longer exists

    3. any marketing activity or publicity can be verified, checks by
    the abbey or the defined organization.

    – as far as the new abbey beers are concerned (i.e. put on the market after July
    12th, 1999) :

    1. or the beer is brewed in an existing non-trappist abbey (or an
    existing abbey that licences a brewery to brew the beer under
    its responsibility and that commercialises the beer itself) or

    2. a beer brewed by an independent brewery having acquired the
    licence for the use of the name of this beer from an existing
    abbey (juridical tie by means of a contract). The brewery
    itself commercialises, distributes the beer and

    3. royalties (2) have to be paid to the abbey/order and the order
    needs to support charitable activities and

    4. has to be based on an historical background (the abbey had any history of brewing) and

    5. the abbey has a right to check, verify the publicity.

    (1) These have to be of an order/size that is prevailing on the Belgian market
    (2) Idem