Monday, July 19, 2010

Books About Beer - A Taste of Heaven

This book has suffered long enough at the vagaries of my schedule. I first meant to write about this February, then March, then April, then June, then last week. Finally, today, I will end my own personal hell of confliction, pray for my own repentence, and take my penance, for you shall be delivered the information about this most fine book by Madisonian Madeline Scherb, A Taste of Heaven (you can get it in electronic form here). Part cookbook, part guidebook, part history, this book has everything you'd want to know about Trappist Beer, Trappist cheese, Trappist bread, and Trappist body lotion (!?).

I had a chance to interview Ms. Scherb about the book, about beer, and about monks and nuns.

MBR: What is your background and why would you want to write a whole book about Trappist Monks and Nuns and the food they make and the things they drink?

Madeline Scherb ("MS"): I was on a journalism fellowship in comparative religion when I came up with the idea for my book, A Taste of Heaven. I needed a class project and since I'm Catholic and I like a good beer, I put two and two together and came up with the idea to write about food and drink made by monks and nuns. Also, 9/11 was a big influence on me. I was living in New York at the time and that event made me re-think my priorities. I was unhappy at my PR job and wanted to get back to writing, and I'm glad I did because the book was the result!

MBR: Why monks? In other words how the heck did monks and nuns get into the brewing business in the first place? Legend has it that monks started brewing because their churches were also inns during the middle ages and that rather than serve water, which could kill people, the innkeepers (monks) would create wine and beer. Is the legend true? If so, what kinds of beers would these have been? What would that beer have tasted like?

MS: Beer and wine were safer than most drinking water in the Middle Ages. Also, wine was necessary for Mass, so monks got to be quite good at making it. They once owned some of France's finest vineyards! Beer was more common in northern countries like Belgium and Germany, where monks started to make it for their own consumption and then sold the surplus to pilgrims and other travelers. It was common for a monastery to have a little pub and guest house, just like they do today. I can only imagine what the beer might have tasted like back then. Monks were allowed to drink beer during Lent as a kind of "liquid bread," so I imagine it would have been a hearty beer.
MBR: My understanding is that there are more than 7 trappist monestaries. Why are only those 7 allowed to called their beer "authentic Trappist products"? What if the Monestary of the Holy Spirit in Georgia (an American Trappist Monestary) were to start brewing beer - presumably it could not call its beer "Authentic Trappist" beer? What makes beer "Trappist" such that this should be the case? What about beer like Ale Asylum's "Trappist-Style" Pale Ale?
MS: There are hundreds of Trappist monasteries around the world, however only a small handful make beer. Six of those are in Belgium and one is in the Netherlands. They are: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren in Belgium, and Koenigshoeven in the Netherlands. True monastery beers are so delicious and have such a high reputation that secular producers started putting monks and abbeys on their labels, and the monks felt it was necessary to distinguish their product. In fact, if you see a monk or abbey on the label of a beer bottle, I can guarantee it wasn't made by monks! The abbeys developed the Authentic Trappist Product label to help customers identify their beers. To qualify for the label, a beer must be made entirely within the walls of a monastery, with some oversight by the monks. Most monasteries employ lay labor these days, but the monks are involved in the management of the breweries even at abbeys where they are no longer making the mash themselves. The monks at Westvleteren still make the beer entirely by their own hands. Of course, Westvleteren beer is notoriously hard to get a hold of and the best place to drink it is at the abbey brew pub (see my book for a suggested itinerary for Abbey Brew Pubs).

[Ed Note: You can read more about geographic indications here]

"Trappist-style" typically refers to a beer that is dark, malty and often uses candy sugar, such as Chimay's Grande Reserve or Rochefort (both delicious beers). However, Westmalle abbey is said to have invented the Belgian Triple style and newer abbeys such as Achel are making beers that break with tradition. Orval is one of my favorite Trappist beers and it is quite hoppy and has a refreshing aroma. GQ magazine just recognized Orval beer on it's "Must Try Now" list!

[ed note: The use of "-style" in this manner is highly controversial. It basically comes down to whether beer is, or is not, intended to be protected similarly to "wine and spirits", which are expressly prohibited from the use of geographic indications by merely appending "-style, -kind, -imitation, -like, etc.". - Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Article 23, of which Belgium, Netherlands, and the United States are signatories. It's the same reason I can't call my pale, fizzy wine "Champagne-style".]

An American abbey could use the Authentic Trappist Product label if it makes beer according to the requirements for the label. I don't know of any abbeys in the United States that are making beer, but I'm hopeful. Personally, I would like to see nuns make beer.

Also, a couple of monasteries in Germany make beer: Andechs, which has a rather famous brew pub, and Plankstetten which makes a spelt beer. I think they are Benedictine monks.

MBR: Given the high expense of Trappist beers, I am unlikely to use them to cook with. Can you persuade me otherwise? Is there any particular recipe that just simply would not taste the same with any other beer?

MS: Expensive is, of course, a relative term. I am always on a tight budget and was never more so than while writing my book, however, I would much rather spend five or six dollars on a Trappist beer and support the monastery with my purchase than buy a cheaper beer. I probably would stick to the real thing for Charlie Trotter's beef cheek-with-miso recipe in my book or, say, the wonderful roast cod recipe from Vincent Wauthy in Rochefort, Belgium. But I have happily experimented with local Wisconsin beers as substitutes in the French Toast recipe that calls for Westmalle. (By the way, Trappist beers are a little more economical per bottle over at Woodman's grocery store but I usually get mine at Whole Foods.)

MBR: What is unique about the Trappist culture in particular that makes their foodstuff so darn tasty? Is there some kindred spirithood with the Slow Food movement?

MS: Monks and nuns were living an "organic" lifestyle long before the Slow Food Movement was born. They used to farm to support their abbeys. They grew vegetables, raised cows and made cheese (some still do), had fruit orchards and ate mostly vegetarian meals. But I think the secret ingredient that makes all their products so wonderful is simply this: They live to pray, not to work. Work is a form of prayer for them. They balance work with prayer, and pray seven times a day. They see all things as part of God's creation including the beer, cheese, caramels and chocolates they make. Thus a Trappist beer is, if you will forgive a cliche, a true taste of heaven! Cheers.

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