WESTMALLE - Time appears to stand still in a Trappist abbey like Westmalle. However, appearances can be deceptive - even here the latest technologies are quietly creeping in. The abbey has an up-to-date dairy cattle farm, a cheese dairy, and a bakery, all equipped with the very latest equipment.
And in the brewery, a new brewhall is the crowning glory of an investment programme that also includes a new cellar, an additional warm room, a new laboratory, bottling plant, a maturation chamber, and water purification plant.
“With our new brewhall we can make sure that our beers are of the highest possible quality,” brewmaster Jan Adriaensens tells us. “We can now work more flexibly. Moreover, we use less energy and water and that is good news for the environment.”
Let’s step back in time for a moment. The Art Deco brewhall was first fired up in 1934, the same year that the iconic Westmalle Tripel was created.
Brother Thomas perfected the recipe in the 1970s. “He trained me in my early days,” says Jan. Thomas certainly taught Jan to respect tradition. The younger man now adds the right dose of hop bells to the wort by hand. Three natural fermentations, the last one in the bottle, go in to producing the celebrated taste of this Trappist; brewed like all the Abbey’s beers with pure water, barley malt, hop cones, sugar and the house yeast.
Tradition and technology are not mutually exclusive; quite the contrary, in fact. Westmalle uses technology to support a traditional brewing process, choosing the tech that best fits the tradition. For example, the former wort filter has been swapped for a traditional filtration basin.
After boiling, the hop cones are transferred to a hop basin that filters the wort. This reduces the pressure on the hop cake and improves the aroma and taste of the beer.
“We use a lot of aroma hops,” Jan explains. “Our experience is that hop cones provide the best aromas. We do not tolerate any compromise when it comes to quality. I am responsible for checking the hop cones when the new harvest arrives: the quality of the essential oils, making sure no mould is present, etcetera.”
And so the quality of the beers has continued to evolve throughout the years. The ingredients, the use of new equipment and other innovations can all have a great impact on the final product. Other elements, production times and temperature to name but two, can also influence the flavour.
“We have an increasingly better grip on quality thanks to the use of the latest technology,” says Jan. “We aim to produce fruity beers with a great hop balance and plenty of complexity - nothing watery or bland.”
The Westmalle house yeast is perhaps most responsible for the fruity character of these Trappist beers. “We extract the active yeast from previous brews,” the brewer tells us. “From experience we know exactly how much yeast to harvest and when to do it. Once a year we start off a yeast culture from scratch.”
Last but not least in this recipe is the brewing water: rich in minerals and calcium and pulled from two wells, each 60 metres deep. The iron is removed from the water, manganese is filtered out too, but the other minerals are retained.
Are these holy beers ready for eternity when they leave the brewery? “When our beers are shipped after the warm re-fermentation in the bottle, it is of the highest importance that the bottle is stored at cellar temperature and, if at all possible, in a dark environment,” Jan responds.
“You can drink our beer according to your personal preference,” he adds. “If you are after a young, fresh and fruity dubbel or tripel, open the bottle within a year. If you’d rather have a madeirised beer that is less fruity, wait at least a year and follow the taste evolution far beyond the best-before date printed on the label, which will be around two years after bottling.”
Abdij Westmalle Antwerpsesteenweg 496