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Classic Beer of the Month September 2010: Rochefort 10

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Rochefort 10, 11.3% (Belgium)

There’s a refreshing, although perhaps not unexpected, modesty about Trappist breweries. Their beers are wonderful but the names are stark and functional, generally an indication of colour or strength, such as blond, dubbel and tripel, or even as simple as a bare number. That’s certainly the case at Rochefort.

Rochefort 10It was in the 13th century that the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy was founded deep in the Belgian Ardennes, near today's settlement of Rochefort.

It was originally constructed as a convent but monks arrived later, trading places with the nuns.

No doubt, the brotherhood began making beer right from the start, providing a safe drinking liquid at a time when water was perilous and also a source of nourishment for times of fasting.

But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the brewery became really important. The farmwork carried out by the monks could no longer support the maintenance of the abbey and new money was needed, so beer sales outside the walls looked like the answer.

In the 1960s, the brewhouse was rebuilt and new equipment installed and today the three beers from Rochefort serve the joint purposes of ensuring a work ethic among the brotherhood and providing an income that is shared between upkeep of the buildings and support of good causes.

A commercial brewer would surely have made more of such beery treasures, bestowing them with names that would help them fly off the shelves. At Rochefort, the name of the abbey is branding enough, however, and the beers roll out with the basic names of 6, 8 and 10.

The numbers refer to the gravity of the beer before fermentation begins and are therefore a rough indicator of the strength of each beer. 6, in fact, weighs in at 7.5% ABV, 8 at 9.2% and 10 at a hefty 11.3%.

All the beers have a distinctive peppery, fruity character, with degrees of complexity naturally growing as the strength increases.

Strange Ingredients

When you look at how the beers are brewed, the ingredients list seems a little odd for world classics. Pale and caramel malts you’d expect, but wheat starch and white and brown sugars? Yet there are good reasons for these, if you ask the brewers.

The wheat starch helps the yeast – a mix of three strains – express itself, contributing to the fruity aroma and taste, while the sugars help raise the beer to its giddying alcoholic heights without contributing too much body. Also in the mix is a little coriander, just enough to complement the seasoning of Hallertau and Styrian Golding hops.

The beers are top fermented but are not matured in tanks at the brewery. Instead, all the conditioning comes in the bottle. After primary fermentation has ended, the beer is passed through a centrifuge to remove tired yeast and then sugar and fresh yeast are added before the bottles are filled.

This explains why it pays to experiment with bottle ages. Younger brews will probably be a touch sweeter and fuller because the yeast, eating up the sugars, slowly dries and thins the body of beer that is matured for longer.

Any of the three is worthy of a feature in its own right, but we’ll focus on the biggest as it has all the Rochefort qualities in abundance.

Rochefort 10 is often referred to as ‘the Burgundy of beers’. It’s the ultimate nightcap, a dark brown beer with which to reflect on a long day, or to sip like a fine wine along with a rich stew or even a stodgy, sticky pudding.

The flavour is supremely complicated and engages you with every sip. Rich malt, dried vine fruits, estery banana, caramel, port wine and peppery spice are just some of the characteristics you may unearth.

Every glass is a voyage of discovery. It’s a beer with which you can never be bored but you’d never guess all that from the name.

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