The secrets of making Belgian Trappist ales

Time for another guest post from my good brewing friend Ken Hilton. He’s taken countless awards, including Carolina Brewer of the Year and Meadmaker of the Year. He’s biked across the United States and Europe and he’s guested here at brewvana a couple of times in the past. He’s a deep well of information—and a really nice guy. He is the epitome of the brewvana philosophy. Enjoy his walk through candi land…

Delving into Belgian candy sugars

By Ken Hilton

Have you ever tasted any of the Belgian Trappist ales and marveled at the complexity and depth of flavors… especially the darker versions. Here’s how I learned.

One afternoon, after an especially horrid day at work, I reached into the beer frig, grabbed the first unlabeled home-brew I could find, snapped the cap, and started pouring. Diane walked in and said, “What a lovely bottle…is that one of yours? ”

I looked at this lovely bottle and, in horror, discovered I had just opened the only bottle of St. Sixtus Westvleteren 12 that I have ever had…given to me by a close brewing friend…. purportedly the best beer in the world. I had just crudely sloshed this heavenly elixir into an English pub pint.

The next hour was spent sipping, swirling, smelling, tasting the most incredibly complex, luscious, layered, enlightened, heavenly beer I have ever had. Every taste revealed something new—multiple layers of caramel, a soft cocoa/chocolate nuance hidden only to the back of the palate, a luscious sweetness, a surprisingly dry yet sweet finish, some figs, some dates, a dark color without the over-done-prune Special B flavors, a fully-carbonated spritzy pour with a huge, dense, fine-bubbled head, nuances of esters from the Belgian yeasts, and a smooth warm-glow of fine alcohols. My mood had been altered—maybe forever—I gotta figure out how to brew this.

After much research, I came to the realization that this monastically complex beer was utterly simple….Pilsen malt, earthy hops like Styrian Goldings, etc and sugars. No way… just no way.  How can something so intriguingly complex be so simple? The yeast… gotta be the yeast! Until I found out that the yeast is probably Westmalle (or a Westmalle yeast that has adapted to the terroir in Westvleteren What about the sugars… what about the sugars…. WHAT ABOUT THE SUGARS!

I had played with making some invert sugars of different varieties before…with varying results. Then it dawned on me…. I remembered when I was a kid helping my mom make caramel from cane sugar and water. I can still smell and taste it. Could it possibly be so simple? Yes! It could be and probably is. So, I hit the kitchen with an almost spiritual zeal to create complexity from simplicity.

The resulting creative endeavor yielded four different and distinct Belgian candi sugar syrups. The first, pure clear invert sugar syrup to add alcohol and a crisp dryness to offset potential cloying sweetness. Second, a light golden colored candi sugar syrup with an almost nutty sweetness. The third, a medium colored candi sugar syrup with a rich buttery caramel flavor. And lastly, a dark candi sugar syrup with a toasted and slightly burnt caramel taste. How hard was this? Simple.

Mix two parts cane sugar (Belgians use beet sugar…which is molecularly the same, but possibly with a slight earthy character) with one part water, add two tablespoons lemon juice/pound of sugar, heat to 195-200F and hold the temp for 30 minutes. Do not boil—yet. The citric acid helps debond the sugar molecule allowing one atom to scoot around and reattach itself making the invert sugar more digestible to brewing yeast. Sanitize some quart jars and pour off what you need. This is the clear (almost) invert sugar syrup.

Make more invert sugar syrup in the pot and bring to a boil. Use a candy thermometer, and watch it closely…very closely…VERY CLOSELY! As the water boils off, the syrup thickens and the temps rise. When most of the water is boiled off, the temps rise rapidly. This is the tricky part—no running to the beer fridge for another beer—just watch the thermometer. You will see various temps with words like “soft ball” and “soft crack” and “hard crack.” Keep the boil at the “soft crack” point. Do not go into the “hard crack” level. If you need to drop the temps quickly, just drop in a teaspoon of water to adjust…. Hint, hint….have your water and spoon ready ahead of time. Do not stir. Boil the invert syrup until it starts to darken… light, medium, dark. When the appropriate color and flavor is reached, remove from the heat. DO NOT TASTE THE HOT SUGAR …IT WILL BURN THE CRAP OUT OF YOUR TONGUE… cool it down to taste. If left to cool like this, you will have Belgian candi sugar (or goo)….and it will darken a bit more from the residual heat. Just after cutting the heat, add warm water and stir to get the syrup consistency…remember, as it cools it will thicken, even after adding water. Pour off into sanitized pint/quart jars and seal.

Now for the fun. I made a St. Sixtus clone. Pilsen malt, a bit of aromatic malt, invert sugar syrup, light and medium and dark candi sugar syrups, Styrian Golding for bittering and any other noble hops for flavor and aroma and Flanders Golden yeast. A got a big surprise during fermentation. Started at 1.110 and stopped at 1.048—way too sweet. Thought maybe it was the yeast crapping out, so I added fresh yeast… then another Abbey yeast, then champagne yeast…. and it never moved. Realized much later that the degree of caramelization of the sugars alters the fermentability. The invert ferments quite nicely. The light candi sugar syrup attenuates quite well. The medium…well…. medium. And the dark almost has no conversion. So, plan your recipe to account for the levels of each used. Finally, I made another batch of St. Sixtus clone with only invert and light candi sugars and blended 60/40 and 40/60 with the first batch.

And now, you are waiting for me to tell you that mine was every bit as good as Westvleteren 12.

Still waiting?

2 Responses to The secrets of making Belgian Trappist ales

  1. troy says:

    Good timing. Just this morning I bought ingredients to brew a Belgian/Trappist -style ale. My first venture into that style…… Planning to use turbinado sugar… but this post gives me confidence that the brew will end up fantastic… I’m not trying to clone a specific beer, only create something i will enjoy drinking. Since I usually brew english-style bitters with more complex recipes, I was curious if my simple grain bill (similar to the one described above) would do the job, and now I believe it will. Thanks.

  2. Lynn says:

    I had my first Trappist ale last weekend; a Chimay Red. My opinion of Belgian Beers has forever changed. Thanks for the info about the non-fermentable sugar. I’ll keep it in mind whilst brewing my Chimay Grand Reserve.

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