Affligem's Abbey Trio
The Affligem trio of abbey beers – Blond, Dubbel and Tripel – are not exactly newcomers to the British beer scene.
They’ve been shipped across from their native Belgium, off and on, for a number of years, but today a new importer (Morgenrot) is involved and there’s a push behind the bottles in the on trade, so they look like becoming ever more prominent in specialist pubs and bars.
The beers have origins in the Affligem abbey (pictured below), founded in the year 1074, on the border of East Flanders and Flemish Brabant.
I visited the abbey about ten years ago and was impressed at its calm majesty and also the fact that there were hops growing in the field just below.
Sadly, despite the obvious agricultural benefits of the area, it proved not such a good choice of location, as the area has time and again found itself in the middle of Europe’s many bloody conflicts.
The monks have suffered cruelly at the hands of various combatants, with the buildings attacked and looted. In both World Wars, the Germans stole the brewing vessels to make weapons, so it’s hardly surprising that the monks decided not to re-equip after VE Day and opted to licence out production instead.
The contract went initially to De Hertog, near Antwerp, but was then acquired, 20 years later, by the De Smedt brewery, in the town of Opwijk, closer to the abbey site.
De Smedt these days is part of the Heineken empire, the Dutch giant buying into the company at the turn of the millennium simply to acquire Affligem as an abbey brand to compete with Interbrew’s Leffe and Grimbergen, which was owned at the time by Scottish & Newcastle.
Heineken has invested in the brewery and certainly driven Affligem forward, particularly the weakest of three beers, Blond. Weak, of course, in Belgian terms is relative; at 6.8%, it packs quite a punch – too much, it was considered, for the UK market when the beer was first promoted in Britain a decade ago; a special 6% version was created for British drinkers instead.
Blond has an invitingly rich, golden colour, with a rocky white foam. Bottle-conditioned, like its two sister beers, it tastes clean and fresh, starting sweet but balanced by a refreshing, sharp tartness.
Lush tropical fruits fill the palate, with orange and mango to the fore. Slightly floral and perfumed, it’s also warming, with plenty of mouthfilling carbonation and an almost clove-like bitter note. The finish is instantly dry, with some bitter orange zest lingering before tangy hop notes take over.
Dubbel (also 6.8%) is bright chestnut-red in hue, with lots of tightly-packed beige bubbles as a crown. The aroma is intriguing, somehow combining strawberry and orange fruitiness with a touch of caramel and a herbal ‘cough sweet’ character.
Herbal flavours lead the way on the tongue, soon joined by perfumed floral notes and more juicy suggestions of strawberry and orange. Despite a sweetening touch of brown sugar or caramel, it’s mostly a bitter beer, with a warming nature and an appealing hint of aniseed, before a decidedly bitter, very dry finish in which herbs persist and there’s just a hint of cherry.
I like both beers but the pick of the bunch is Tripel. At 9% and golden in colour, it fits the style profile handsomely, noisy bubbles bouncing around the glass as you pour.
Caribbean fruits – pineapple, mango, orange and a trace of banana – waft from the dusty, bready aroma, beating a path to a taste that is sweet and silky at first.
Fizzy carbonation and succulent fruits ricochet around the mouth, overshadowing a subtle caramel note and leaving the taste to fall just on the sweet side of bittersweet.
Zesty bitter oranges, a clove-like bitterness and some caramel-suggestive creaminess make their mark in the very dry, increasingly bitter and satisfying finish.
If you want to be ultra-picky, all the beers perhaps could be marked down for being a little on the thin side. On the other hand, that’s probably what makes them so quaffable for their strengths. It’s a trifling criticism of a totally authentic, very enjoyable trio of beers.