The secrets of making Belgian Trappist ales

June 10, 2010

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?


Ode to the Brothers

June 2, 2009

Guest post today from my good friend and beer hero, Ken Hilton. It’s probably no coincidence that I was brewing a patersbier yesterday, the day this hit my inbox. Enjoy!

The Brothers at Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren, Belgium….that is.

Westvleteren-logoAfter a particularly bad day at work, the only thing I wanted to do was hit the beer fridge, grab something, pop the cap, slosh it into a glass, retire to the deck….and sulk. So, I did just that…….

Diane said, “Oh, what a pretty bottle! Is that one of your home-brews?…it does not have a label.”  I looked down at what I had just opened…brown curvy bottle…no label….and a cap that simply had a “12” on top. Oh, crap!!!!  In my foul-tempered mood, I had just opened the only bottle of a cherished Trappist ale that I have ever had….given to me by a real beer lover…that one can only get by traveling to Belgium and purchasing from the only place in the world you can get it…..the monastery of Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren, Belgium. I was horrified that I had defiled what should have been one of those unique moments in a beer lover’s life….opening and savoring one of, if not the best beers in the world….one that should be sipped, savored, slowly and lovingly sampled and shared in a special moment. But no….I sloshed and dumped the world’s finest Trappist ale in a heathenly manner into a vessel… least I have enough class to have grabbed a Belgian style snifter.

St. Arnold of SoissonsSlowly, I poked my nose into the snifter…..ummmm… real overt Belgian Yeasty “funk”. A surprisingly clean, mildly caramel nose. No real hops clouding up the aroma… hot alcoholic vapors. Not really all that exciting. But, I sniffed again, because there was something soooo inviting. The first sip……OMG!!!!  A hint of Chocolate…..not the dark Belgian Godiva chocolate one might expect….but a lucious, smooth, rich milk chocolate….pervading the front and sides and back of my palate. But wait….there is more….oh, so much more. Even more subtle is a hint, just a hint, of dark fruit.. rich dark fruit like figs and prunes and dates. A complex layering of sweet, caramel exudes luciousness…..light and dark caramel blended wonderfully in the background….almost reminding me of a Werther’s butterscotch candy and one of those chewy caramels with the white center in your mouth at the same time. A lightly toasted nuttiness adds a touch of complexity to the very clean base of the beer….in a way that suggests the “Brothers” really know what perfection is…..Balance.  Balance, sorta like having a monastically balanced life….devotion, reverence, creative pursuits, intellect, simplicity….making the best beer, cheese, and breads in the world and remaining humble about the significance.

Is there more to this beer?? Oh, yes!!!! After half a bottle, I realized that this lucious, full-bodied wonder has a kick…..I am slowly drifting into a state of oblivion to the day’s tribulations and entering the world of beer prayer and reverence. The balance is awesome…. the sweet introduction gives way to a wonderfully dry finish. The carbonation helps fill the mouth with all these taste and aroma sensations at the same time.

I arrive at the finale……I am humbled by the sheer genious of this beer. But, wait…what is that lingering flavor filling my mouth?? I cannot quite pick it out, until I lift the bottle and gaze upon remaining dregs and floaties in the final 1/4 inch of the bottle. Yeast.  A small sniff, a larger inhalation…….gently swirl and consume the final 1/4 inch…straight from the bottle. An orgasmic wave shudders its way through my senses. It is the yeast that has created all of the subtleties in this beer. Yeast which is so secretly guarded as to its origins and is only cultivated in this one Trappist monastery. I have just consumed the key to this marvel without even considering the fact that I could have “cloned” this yeast for my own use.

I hear the birds chirping around me….smell the roses on the trellis….see a beautiful sunset unfolding. The day’s tribulations???? Who gives a hoot!!! I am in Beer Nirvana.

Tomorrow, I book my flights to Belgium to ride my bicycle to Westvleteren in quest of the “Holy Ale”. Thanks to the Brothers of Saint Sixtus…..and to you, Matt, for giving me this beer.


Editor’s Note: That’s not Beer Nirvana, Ken; it’s brewvana. Thanks for sharing.

Cleaning out the beer closet

December 23, 2007

And now, a guest post from one of my beer heroes, Ken Hilton.

What happens when you have been brewing for competitions for a couple of years? It is simple… have amassed so much beer that the closets have been overflowing for what seems a beer eternity. Meaning, no more brewing until you drink up the stashes of delightful delectables…..or pour out the crap.

Well, the last 2 weeks has been the latter….with a few surprises. Most of the stash is 2-3 years old, well beyond hope of redemption for the lighter varieties, but still within finding yet another “oh, wow, Dude” beer tucked away somewhere. Here’s the drill……take one of each of the 47 varieties and chill them down. Resist the temptation of falling back to the “standards” and drink 2-3 of the 47 each night with the ultimate aim of determining which ones stay in the closet for consumption, which ones get poured out, and which ones go to “Joe the next-door-neighbor who drinks crap beer anyway”.

Here’s the tally. Joe got the soapy tasting dunkelweizen and foamy English Pale Ale. The darker beers seemed to hold up fairly well, so saving them for BBQ nights seems appropriate. The Royale Raspberry Russian Imperial Stout hit the drains….went down kinda “chunky”. And then there were the surprises. One bottle left of the Sweet Spiced Kumquat Orange Tripel….poured nicely, darker than I remember, slightly oxidized sherry-like character. Oh My!!!!  What a wonderfully delightful beer. This one brings back memories of the competition in which it was entered in Charlotte…..the U. S. Open. As I recall fondly, a remark was made by one of the Best of Show judges….something to the effect of “anyone having enough balls to put kumquats in a beer”. Truly classic memorable comments. That’s what homebrewing is about…..pushing the limits of creativity. This one probably stays a memory…to difficult to even comprehend brewing it again.

And, there was the Belgian Dark Strong that was so hot and alcoholic and so overpoweringly “dark-fruit-prune” character that it was hardly drinkable. Now, complex, mellow, warming, lucious and exotic. Alas…..only 2 bottles of this one left.

And the tale goes on. The moral to the story…….put some brews away. Practice patience and self-restraint. Indulge yourself over the holidays with some old friends, some good music, rich foods, and surprise brews out of the closet. You might just surprise yourself…..and resurrect some fond memories of times past.

Oh, the real drill of this exercise is to make room for the 20 cases of meads made over the last year of competitions… that 2 or 3 years from now, I can do the same voyage of discovery with the meads.