Beers: Gregorius; Benno Styles: Belgian Strong Dark Ale; Dubbel Brewery: Stift Engelszell ABV: 9.7; 6.9
If, at some future moment, I am compelled by the holy spirit to give up my house, car and cushy blogging gig for a life on religious contemplation, I think I'll become a Trappist. Also known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, Trappists are Roman Catholics who follow the Rule of St. Benedict, a 73-chapter book of precepts written in the sixth century by St. Benedict of Nursia that maps out a doctrine for life in self-supporting communities set apart from the material world and all its material girls. They don't perform public ministry, and their days are structured with set hours for reading, study, prayer and working with the hands. Them's my kind of people.
Trappists don't leech, they produce -- and the products they produce are some of the most sought-after, high-quality goods in the world. Many make cheese; some make wine and distill liquor; but until quite recently, only seven brewed beer. You've probably heard of or tried one of them: Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Achel, Westmalle, Westvleteren, La Trappe. The "Authentic Trappist Product" designation found on each of these ales is earned by meeting several criteria: the beer must be brewed by the monks themselves within the walls of the monastery, and all proceeds from the beer go back to support said monastery. But more than that, the label signifies quality -- beers made at these monasteries are crafted according to traditions and secret recipes passed down across generations. They're uniformly delicious.
So it was into a renowned family that the abbey of Stift Engelszell was inaugurated in 2012. The monastery, which translates to "angel's cell," is located in Austria, a good 500 miles from the traditional Trappist homelands of Belgium and Holland. The brewery's also quite a bit smaller than the other seven -- at the moment, there are just nine monks in the community, four of whom are elderly. Five brothers are directly involved in the brewing process, along with five lay professionals employed by the community to help them. With their help, Stift Engelszell's brewhouse is expected to be able to produce 2,500 hectoliters annually, which is about 66,000 gallons or 2,100 barrels, for the beer-inclined. That makes Stift Engelszell the smallest Trappist brand -- the next largest, Achel, brews more than twice that.
But, as we know, size and quality are not interdependent. The two beers now available in Arizona, Gregorius and Benno, are named after former abbey leaders -- Gregorius Eisvogel was prior from 1925-31 and abbot from 1931-50; Benno Stumpf was superior ad nutum from 1952-53 and abbot from 1953-1966. Both brews are made with local hops and an addition of honey produced at Engelszell's bee farm.
The lighter of the two brews, Benno pours a clear ochre -- the brewery calls the beer a "bright dubbel" -- with the nose an enticing blend of sweet honey and pear peppered with orange blossom, banana and soft farmhouse funk. The flavor, too, is almost more saison than dubbel, with crackers, white pepper, pear and traces of dandelion and cinnamon swirling before a dry, surprisingly bitter finish.
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Gregorius, the older brother, is undoubtedly the superior product. Hold a full glass to a light and the beer glows with maroon warmth; the tan froth atop gives up aromas of strawberry, red grape, molasses and toast. In the mouth, figgy sweetness bursts forth alongside licorice, cocoa and clove.
We all have our own methods of worship, and until the lord -- or, you know, whomever -- calls me off to a life of quiet beer-brewing in the mountains, I choose to perform my religious contemplation in front of a glass of beer. For a few days at least, that glass will be filled with the two offerings from the monks of Stift Engelszell, which are now available on Arizona shelves. Amen.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone, an accredited guide to beer. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.