Rochefort is a small town in the Belgian Ardennes, a region of rolling hills, streams, and forests in the south of Belgium. There are some noteworthy caves, and the town sees some tourism in the form of day-hikers and other outdoorsy-types of the less rugged sort.
In the center of town, the tourist office has a number of short hikes to recommend. One leads over a river, then turns north, following a small road up the crest of a hill into the woods. After a short time, the road gives way, but the path continues; while the hills, trees, and fields are beautiful and relaxing, you never forget that you aren't far from civilization – farmed fields, electrical wires, and small, roadside shrines remind you how long people have lived in the area. The path eventually descends to the walls of an abbey, the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy, before turning back toward town. If you know the name Rochefort, you may already have realized that this abbey is what I’m really writing about: inside its walls is one of the world’s seven Trappist breweries, producing three remarkable beers.
The abbey – unmarked, a couple of kilometers out of town – is not on the tourist track. There are no regular tours of the brewery, and the shop, which once sold the beers and religious literature, is now closed. Planning ahead, one can actually stay at the abbey, but this is hardly tourism; visitors come to pray and meditate, not to hike and drink beer.
I visited one morning, on a busy day, and series of trucks were waiting to pick up the latest brews (he forest path is not the only way to the abbey; the small, modestly-marked road is just enough to accommodate the trucks). The monks don’t ship their beer; you have to come to the abbey to get it. However, they do produce enough beer for it to be generally available; importers just have to make their own local arrangements to retrieve the beer from its home.
It’s fair to say that, in terms of availability, Rochefort occupies the middle ground of the Lowlands’ seven Trappist breweries (one in The Netherlands, the rest being Belgian). For example, Chimay’s production is large, and their beers are often the first Trappist product many beer drinkers try. Westvleteren, by contrast, only sells to customers who come to the abbey according to a strict appointment schedule, and will give you only a case at a time; they actively discourage export and growth.
Limited production is not a gimmick; each abbey is merely trying to make only the amount of beer they need to support their institution and charitable activities. At Rochefort, the second brewing kettle sits unused, for now. With only fifteen monks to support – down from 25, back in 1990 – there’s no need to put it to use making more beer. Since that time, too, laymen have had to be brought in to handle much of the brewing, aside from some administrative activity (so the monks can dedicate their time to their religious and charitable work). Nonetheless, the brewing tradition – and business – remains solid. In fact, the success here inspired Rochefort’s daughter abbey, Achel, to begin brewing again in 1998, after an 81-year hiatus.
The brewery produces three beers, named simply as 6, 8, and 10, after a measurement of gravity (alcohol) that’s fallen out of use, but gives a rough idea of alcoholic strength. By modern ABV (alcohol by volume) percentages, they would be 7.5, 9.2, and 11.3 – the older system rolls off the tongue a bit more easily.
The names’ multiples of 2 are echoed in a Noah’s Ark of ingredients: two pale malts, two types of sugar, two yeast varieties…and a couple unspecified spices and a darker malt as well. The water is drawn from a well on the abbey’s grounds, and the abbey has gone to some length to make sure that pesticides or fertilizers from neighboring farms don’t leak into the water table and affect the water’s purity – an essential ingredient for quality. The 6 is lighter and drier than its easier-to-find brothers, and shows some savory notes like bread, cumin, and even a meatiness alongside caramel, dried fig, and date aromas. It’s only a small part of their production; I’m not sure if that fact, or its apparent lightness (many Belgian beer fans seem to assume that higher alcohol beers are inherently better) make it less popular than the 8 and 10, but in my esteem it deserves greater recognition. For one thing, that dryness and its body make it quite flexible at the table.
The 8 is typically the easiest to find, and is slightly fuller and quite a bit more aromatic than the 6. Its fruit flavors are similar, but darker – dates and prunes – and the breadiness has broadened instead into walnut, toffee, and roast coffee touches. The 10 shows more fruit again, ranging from prune and raisin to fig and candied fruit notes, with a corresponding fruitcake spice. On the palate, spice, espresso, caramel, and eventually dark chocolate emerge. I’ve seen other descriptions that emphasize the warmth of alcohol on the finish; while it is certainly full-bodied and round, I find the alcohol balances well with the flavors, and I wonder if some tasters find the alcohol too prevalent because they are looking for it, knowing they are drinking the brewery’s – and one of Belgium’s – strongest beers. My only issue with the alcohol is that it means I can’t (well, shouldn't) have too many of them at one sitting.
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