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St Stefanus Goes Global
It’s a sign of the times: a major brewing business decides to add a new beer to its sales portfolio, and it chooses a Belgian abbey ale.
That’s clear evidence that the international lager market has stagnated and that drinkers are increasingly looking for more challenging beers.
The brewer making this move is SABMiller.
The global giant has decided to augment its selection of beers – one that already includes Pilsner Urquell, Grolsch and Peroni – with a beer created in a small, family brewery just outside Ghent and named after a monastery within the historic city itself.
St Stefanus Blonde is not a new beer. Brewed by Van Steenberge under licence from the Augustinian monastery since 1978, it has been sold up to now as Augustijn Blonde.
The beer will still be known by that name in Belgium but, for the international market, the product has been re-branded, to avoid confusion with, and potential legal action from, the Augustiner brewery in Munich, which was itself also founded by followers of St Augustin.
Augustin is very much a beer drinkers’ kind of saint. A late convert to Christianity, he had previously lived a hedonistic lifestyle, with sex and booze among his favourite pastimes.
He knew he had to change and prayed for guidance to do so, but he was, it seems, in no great hurry to clean up his act. ‘Give me chastity and continence,’ he is thought to have declared to God, ‘but not yet’.
Birth of the Order
The monastery that was constructed in his honour in Ghent dates from the year 1295, when monks were first allowed to practise in the city, using a chapel dedicated to St Stephen (Stefanus).
The Sint Stefanus order was thus born. The current monastery dates from 1796 but, although still an impressive site, has dwindled in size over the years. The premises were confiscated by Napoleon, but then parts of it were cannily bought back by the monks, using citizens as proxy buyers.
The monks at St Stefanus used to brew their own ale, but are now content to just share the proceeds of the beer they licence to Van Steenberge.
St Stefanus Blonde is a heady, golden brew of 7% ABV. Pale, pilsner and Munich malts provide the foundation, with candy sugar helping to boost the amount of fermentable material, and Saaz and Hallertau hops seasoning the brew in the copper.
The yeast employed initially is the same as Van Steenberge uses for another abbey beer, Bornem Tripel.
After primary fermentation, the beer undergoes four weeks of cold conditioning and then is racked into kegs for draught dispense. About 90% of the carbonation in the finished draught beer is natural.
The beer is also bottle conditioned. The yeast added at this stage is rare. Called the Jerumanus yeast, after the Latvian refugee scientist who provided it to the brewery on behalf of the monks, it has similar properties to brettanomyces and expresses itself slowly over time. This means that the older the bottle, the more complex the flavours.
Even young bottles, however, have been matured at the brewery for at least three months for the flavours to ripen.
The brewery recommends serving the beer cloudy, shaking the yeast into the glass, to ensure the most satisfying result. The yeast also makes the beer notably creamier on the palate.
Pears, bubblegum, melon and spicy, bready yeast are the hallmarks of the aroma, leading to more pear and melon, plus a little pineapple, in the taste, along with some mild herbal bitterness from the hops.
There’s a hint of perfumed alcohol, too, and lots of natural carbonation to fill the mouth with bubbles.
The warming, bready finish dries quickly, with bitter herbs elbowing aside any lingering sweetness and tropical fruit.
Van Steenberge, a seventh-generation, former farmers’ brewery, is well known for strong ales such as Gulden Draak and Piraat.
There is even a stronger version – 9% – of St Stefanus, dry hopped with Saaz and aged for nine months. Labelled Grand Cru, this tastes sherbety and woody, with a dry finish.
Augustijn, or St Stefanus, is likely to dominate the brewery’s immediate future, as the SABMiller promotional wheels turn ever more quickly, giving the beer far more exposure than Van Steenberge itself could ever manage.
The beer is a fine addition to the SABMiller portfolio, an attractive golden ale with enough complexity to keep your attention right to the last sip but, despite its 7% ABV, remaining surprisingly quaffable at all times.
You know you shouldn’t really but, just like St Augustin, you can’t help going back for more. I’ll switch to something less strong, you swear, but not yet.