Monastic Brewing Comes to America

Written by Tom Becham for Professorgoodales

Anyone who spends enough time in pursuit of craft beer will eventually discover the Belgian monastic brews. These seven brewers – six in Belgium, one in the Netherlands – are all Trappist monasteries and make a fairly limited number of beer styles for the purpose of funding the monastery and its works. The breweries/monasteries are: Chimay (the most widely available and commercial of the Trappist beers), Westmalle, Orval, Achel, Rochefort, La Trappe (the Dutch one), and the rare-as-rocking-horse-droppings Westvleteren.

There are many other brewers in Belgium which have monastic connections, and which may use the descriptors of “Abbey Dubbel” or “Abbey Tripel” for their beers.
But to be a genuine monastic brew, the monks must be involved in a certain percentage of the brewing process.

Well, monastic brewing has made its way to the United States. Sierra Nevada, in collaboration with the Cistercian Abbey of New Clairvaux, in Northern California, has introduced a new line of monastic beers. The monks are definitely involved with the brewing process, many of them having been trained by Sierra Nevada. The new line of beers is called Ovila.

Thus far, Ovila has produced three different styles: Dubbel, Saison and Quadrupel.

Ovila’s Dubbel hits all the right notes for an Abbey Dubbel. It has the deep malty, sugary, dark fruit aromas, and the same on the palate. It is no better than any of the Belgian examples; but since the Belgian monastic beers are all uniformly excellent for their styles (and in many cases define their styles), this is a ringing endorsement of Ovila’s Dubbel.

I’ve not had the pleasure of trying their Quad yet, as I’ve not found it anywhere nearby.

It is Ovila’s Saison that is truly impressive, however.

For those not familiar with the Saison style, it is often referred to as a “Belgian Farmhouse Ale”. It is not generally considered a Belgian monastic style (though Orval’s single commercial beer example is very close to a Saison), but is idiosyncratically Belgian. It has also been stated that Saisons ferment at temperatures much higher than “any sane brewer would be comfortable with”. Due to that high fermentation temp, Saisons will frequently have a funky “horse blanket” quality to the nose, and some widely varying phenolic and ester-y qualities to the palate. The way this plays out in Ovila’s Saison is that it tastes almost like an Abbey tripel when cooler, with a taste reminiscent of banana. When it warms, the funk comes out to play, and the taste varies between floral, medicinal and aggressively yeasty. Not only is it a good Saison, it wouldn’t take much tweaking to make it a GREAT Saison.

I highly recommend trying some Ovila beers, should you get the opportunity. Not only are they good beers, but the proceeds will be used by the Abbey of New Clairvaux in a worthy project. They are currently trying to rebuild a medieval Italian monastery from stones pillaged by William Randolph Hearst. So, you can drink Ovila beers and support a worthy cause and preserve history at the same time!

Tom Becham lives in California, he’s a homebrewer and reviews beer, brewpubs, breweries and beer events for professorgoodales.net.