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Classic Beer of the Month November 2011: Chimay Blue/Grand Réserve

Chimay Blue/Grand Réserve, 9%

Chimay is probably the best-known of Belgium’s Trappist breweries. The fact that it’s also the biggest, and is the most pro-active in marketing terms, no doubt has much to do with that.

Scourmont AbbeyThe Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmont was established in 1850, as an offshoot of the abbey at Westvleteren in West Flanders.

Constructed down in the south of Belgium, close to the border with France, the abbey opened its brewery in the 1860s and this is now a sizeable brewing concern, employing around a hundred lay staff members in addition to one of the abbey’s 17 monks.

Having a monk soil his habit (as it were) during the brewing process is one of the prerequisites to gaining the right to use the ‘Trappist’ appellation on monastic beer labels.

The other two concern the need for the brewery to stand within the abbey grounds and for all profits generated to be spent only on the upkeep of the abbey or good causes.

Chimay raises around €1 million a year for work in the local community, such is the success of its brewing operation.

The Abbey's Range

There are three beers in the abbey’s range. The first is the one with the red cap and label. Called simply Rouge in its small bottle format, and Première in its 750-ml, Champagne-style package, it’s a spicy, fruity brown ale packing 7% alcohol.

It dates from the abbey’s earliest days but the recipe was reformulated when the brewery was reconstructed after World War II looting by the Nazis.

In quite a different vein stands Chimay White, Cinq Cents as its bigger bottle is known. Introduced in 1966, to commemorate 500 years of Chimay (the local town), it is now also known by the stylistic designation ‘Tripel’, reflecting its golden colour, zingy citrus-hop character and good whack of alcohol (8%).

Top of the shop is Chimay Blue, our beer for this month. This is one of the great nightcap or after-dinner beers of the world, a beer with (totally justified) pretensions to fine wine status as implied by the name Grand Réserve that adorns the large bottles.

Hugely Complex

It’s a hugely complex beer, red-brown in colour, and presenting an aroma that touches on over-ripe soft fruits, red apples and an anise-like spiciness, all grounded by a meaty, woody yeast character.

The dark malts that form part of the grist show up initially in the taste, but with plenty of sugary sweetness behind. Plums and a hint of banana characterize the fruitiness, with perhaps gentle pear notes as the beer warms on the tongue.

As you’d expect from a beer of 9% alcohol, a spicy warmth lines the throat as you swallow, before a dry, bitter, herbal finish that offers more anise, or possibly even liquorice.

Chimay BlueOriginally introduced as a Christmas beer, in 1948, Chimay Blue is one of the world’s great beers for ageing, a concept aided by the vintage date on each label.

Port-wine notes have been known to emerge after a few years’ maturation in bottle and it is said that the taller bottles, which potentially allow the yeast more room to live and work its magic, facilitate this process better than the attractive, stubby smaller bottles.

It’s a beer to enjoy with a slice of fruit cake, or with any number of complex cheeses. It has exactly the carbonation and flavour elements to deal with the creaminess and ripeness of cheeses of all descriptions, and especially the cheeses that are also made by the brothers at Chimay.

The alternative is simply to sip and savour, allowing the warmth, substance and the ever-changing flavours to relax you after a long day, sending you into a state of monk-like contemplation.

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