At the BeerLovers’ Café just behind Liège’s City Hall we get together to taste the limited edition Chimay Grande Réserve Fermentée en Barriques 2018, a Trappist beer aged in whisky barrels.
The new, elegant tasting glasses bearing the ancient insignia of the famous abbey arrive, and the ceremony can begin.
The tulip-shaped vessels protect the scents of this fragrant beer beautifully, while the lily engraved on the bottom of the glass produces a splendid head of froth. The three rings engraved on the long stem refer to the triple fermentation process: in tank, in wood, and in bottle.
A dark beer hides under a creamy, frothy head, releasing hints of wood, pear and plums in the nose. The taste is coloured by impressions of bread crusts, roasted and smoky touches, and a hint of honey and vanilla.
This Chimay is a complex degustation beer – and strong, at 10.5% ABV that needs to be discovered at a leisurely pace. It will make a welcome addition to the dining table, preferably towards the end of a meal, when it might be paired with a Chimay Poteaupré cheese, drawing out its aromas of hazelnut, or a fruity Chimay à la Rouge, with its apricot and peach flavours and intensely bitter notes.
If you prefer to finish your meals on a sweet note, there are still plenty of ways to welcome this Trappist to your gathering. Chimay Grande Réserve Fermentée en Barriques 2018 makes a great companion with a sabayon, crème brûlée, or desserts made from dark chocolate (particularly those with touches of vanilla, pistachio or orange), or with berries.
This is slowly becoming a welcome tradition: In 2016 the first Chimay Grande Réserve Fermentée en Barriques - that one was aged in cognac barrels - came onto the market. The subsequent edition spent time in rum barrels from Martinique, and, in 2018, it is whisky’s turn to take centre stage.
These three editions can be bought as a beautiful gift set from the Chimay Visitors’ Centre, the Auberge de Poteaupré (the Abbey’s own pub), and selected beer merchants. The packs comes with a booklet that will help you fully enjoy these sophisticated beers.
Producing brews with such complex characters takes time. Barrel aging, as practised at Chimay, is another way for the brewer to show his art and expertise. The aim is always to create a balanced beer, not one that is dominated by the taste of the spirit that once inhabited the barrels. For this the choice of wood is the prime variable: for this edition it is split between French oak (34% of the time), American oak (41%) and recycled whisky barrels (25%).
Following its main fermentation, the beer will be oak-aged while it re-ferments. Regular tastings of this degustation beer will help decide when it is ready to be moved to the warm chamber, where it will re-ferment again in the bottle. This is typical of the Trappist approach: don’t do anything by halves but don’t force anything - take all the time you need.
The wisdom of owls
At the Belgian Owl distillery in the rural Fexhe area, just a stone’s throw from the city of Liège, huge pot stills have been installed in a barn restored to its impressive former glory. This farm-yard distillery, run by Etienne Bouillon, is surrounded by the fields where the barley for its whisky is grown.
Chimay is working with Etienne because of his expertise and evident respect for the local terroir. For example, the water he uses is pumped up from a depth of 38 metres and filtered naturally through a thick layer of loam and chalk.
The first spirit out of his stills was a jenever, but he has since grown in confidence and in craft. The Belgian Owl is a Belgian single malt, made from 100 percent malted Belgian barley grown on this very farm. Single means that the whisky is all produced by Etienne, there is no blending. His owl logo pays homage to the expertise of the maker and the wisdom displayed by the drinker (or so we hope).
This is a very mellow whisky, aged in bourbon barrels, with a delicate perfume of apple, pear and white flowers, and touches of vanilla (from the bourbon), hazelnut and cinnamon. The worlds of beer and whisky are closely related; after all, they contain the same ingredients with the addition of the hops that flavour beer.
Etienne knows all about this, and his love of a good tipple goes well into and beyond beer. At the request of some of the brewers he has got to know, Val-Dieu for example, he has set up a second, smaller distillery to create spirits made from their brews - collaborative works of art on which his signature should still be clearly visible.
More Information on Chimay & Espace Chimay
Bières et Fromages de Chimay