The Young Trappist
Only 45 minutes from from the youngest Trappist brewery in Belgium - and with the cleaning lady entertaining the dog as she chased around the house with vacuums and feathered dusters - we packed the car, opened the gate, and drove east towards the Dutch border. Achelse Kluis straddled Holland and Belgium: a place built long before present borders existed (if you want to call the line on the ground between Belgium and Holland a border). Wispy and remaining stubbornly sunny, the weather held out, but along with the rush of passing tractor-trailers, the gusts blew our tiny Opel hatchback. The open, Low Country fields laid no barrier for the wind, evidenced by the countless windmills dotting the landscape. We frequently crossed veins of canals redirecting water to the ocean, making the champaign habitable and above seasonal floods. Between corrugated brown fields the road ran east: the bricked Abbey of Achelse Kluis rising before the fields of Holland picketed with barren trees.
The abbey and monastic traditions began in the 17th century. During the French Revolution the monks left the abbey, but the tradition continued (along with brewing) in the 1840s, reinvigorated by monks from neighboring Westmalle. Global conflict, once again, interrupted both the monk’s homily and brewing during WWI; the brewing didn’t resume until 1999. Belgium’s brewing history highlights one significant fact: war, while terrible for most everything and everyone, inflicts particular drain to quality beer.
At the front, Holland-facing, side, through a stone archway and along tree-line promenade, we entered a patio between the brewery and stables. Three to four groups sat around plastic tables in green plastic chairs sipping Blonde and Bruin from the chalices typical of Trappist breweries. The temperature dropped with a gust of wind but warmed again when that breeze moved a cloud away from the sun. An open doorway on the right led into a cafeteria straight from a 1980s ski lodge. We ordered a glass of both the blonde and bruin (brown, typically a Dubbel in an abbey brewery if it’s lower gravity); a young girl behind the counter pulled two taps filling our chalices to the annotated 33 cL line printed on the glass. Soup was also available for individuals looking to diversify their caloric intake; however, we were on a strict liquid diet.
We unstacked chairs and sipped our beers: the blonde was the clear winner. Blonde with slight haze, strong, fine bead, and frothy head, it emanated classic Belgian yeast aromas of clove and banana bread. The palate started spicy with banana and bubblegum notes followed by white wine dryness. The finish was pleasantly dry with a white wine, floral background. In general, balanced and well-hopped. The Bruin, a seven percent ABV draft brown, was dark, burnt caramel in color. The nose carried hints of dark preserves and a slight, milt chocolate sweetness. The taste started dry and spicy followed by raisins and dates. The finish balanced herbal bitterness alongside malty sweetness.
Before leaving we visited the bottle shop at the entrance of the courtyard. An adult candy store, we lapped through the narrow aisles organized in city grids separated by blocks of cased beer inside thick gauge steel wire crates. Every Belgian Trappist beer - excluding Westvleteren - stacked into a wall right of the entrance, followed by ramparts of St. Bernardus, Leffe, Saison Dupont, Rodenbach, Boon Lambic, and Oude Beersel. We left with a 50 Euro bill; at home we would have broken 200 dollars at least. We emptied the clanking, gypsy cart of alcohol and Belgian chocolate into the trunk and walked towards the Dutch border for a view of the abbey before leaving.
I crossed the line painted on the ground separating the two countries, looking back into Belgium to see a young boy crying on a bicycle. Oaks lined the road, ends struggling to bud with the beginning of Spring, and converged upon the gates of Achelse Kluis 300 feet inside the border. A 30 square foot garden, dwarfed by narrow, brick dormitory buildings roofed with slate tiles, teemed with flowering shrubbery and tulips bending under the weight of colored petals. A belfry separating the day in audible pitches and filling the silence of monastic life rose next to the Abbey church. The church, shaped as a crucifix, contained more ornate decoration: red window panes and jambs, yellow-tiled mosaic along chestnut brown panels, and a bright red roofline. On the way out I saw St. Benedict’s statue in color against a grey diorama above the abbey’s entrance. Driving away, we passed tractors on the road and in the fields as farmers resumed activity after Winter dormancy. Beer bottles rattled chords from the trunk while the sun blew away with the strong wind carrying clouds and rain into the evening and the night.