|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?