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BJCP Study Group: Category 26

by Rob Friesel

With session #20, we are about 85% of the way through our BJCP category study. It’s hard to believe that we’ve been at it for nine months, and that we’re only about two-and-a-half months away from the exam. Tonight we tucked into some… bigger beers.

Category 26. Trappist Ale. ("One of these things is not like the others..."

Category 26. Trappist Ale

When I first started paying attention to the beer I was drinking (I’m loathe to say “discovered craft beer”), when I said “Belgian beer” what I really meant was “a potent Trappist-style ale”. What caught the attention of my palate is pretty much what the BJCP calls out in the last line of their category summary:

Trappist type beers are all characterized by very high attenuation, high carbonation through bottle conditioning, and interesting (and often aggressive) yeast character.

That… and the satisfying pageantry of uncaging a heavy bottle, massaging out the cork, and the snappy pop as that refermented CO₂ escapes all at once.

26A. Trappist Single 26B. Belgian Dubbel 26C. Belgian Tripel 26D. Belgian Dark Strong Ale
25 – 45 IBU 15 – 25 IBU 20 – 40 IBU 20 – 35 IBU
1.044 – 1.054 O.G. 1.062 – 1.075 O.G. 1.075 – 1.085 O.G. 1.075 – 1.110 O.G.
1.004 – 1.010 F.G. 1.008 – 1.018 F.G. 1.008 – 1.014 F.G. 1.010 – 1.024 F.G.
4.8 – 6.0% ABV 6.0 – 7.6% ABV 5.5 – 9.5% ABV 8.0 – 12.0% ABV

It would be difficult to describe the unifying elements of this category’s four styles any better than the BJCP style guide quite I have above. From a taster’s perspective, I’d have likely put that yeast character first in the description, but I suppose from a brewer’s perspective, it’s the very high attenuation that matters most. (I suppose you could have a competitive “Trappist-enough” ale without pitching those characteristic yeast? And/or pitch such yeast but handle them so that they don’t go big on esters?) Perhaps the only other thing I would comment on, as far as common threads go, is that even the hoppier examples would not be highly-hopped — certainly not by the standards we’re used to around here (i.e., American IPA).

Where these styles differ appears to be along the axes of gravity and color. Somewhat predictably, as you move from the Trappist Single on up, the gravities increase. With the escalating gravities, the perceptibility of alcohol coincides as well, though none of the four styles should ever have a “hot” or “solventy” character; in fact, in each case the style guide suggests the alcohol should be smooth (with the Tripel even going as far as to use the word “deceptive”). The colors also alternate: pale, dark, pale, dark. Also somewhat predictably, the two paler styles should have a more pronounced hop presence, while the darker styles should have a pronounced malt character.

visualizing Category 26 (OG vs. IBU)

We did not have a BJCP judge to mentor us that night, and no new members to orient, so after a little bit of preamble (i.e., which beers to score vs. taste/discuss), we got into it.

  1. 26A. Trappist Single. St. Bernardus Extra 4. Judged; structured tasting. Scores ranged from 35 to 42 but were mostly within a point or two of 40. That said, even the 35 indicated that it was an enjoyable beer, just that perceptions didn’t align with impressions of the style based on the academics. In particular, he remarked that it was “not Belgiany enough” and that without foreknowledge of the style would have thought it was a German beer. (Perhaps a Category 4 beer brewed with an ale yeast?) As we went around, the qualities we were looking for more of: more hops, and more phenolics. The latter seemed fair, and we knew what kind of fermentation treatment feedback we would give. Sorting out the feedback on the former merited some conversation: how do you suggest “hoppier” without sounding like you’re asking to transfer a Trappist Single into some kind of IPA?
  2. 26B. Belgian Dubbel. La Trappe Dubbel. Judged; structured tasting. We decided to do a simple “ladder” up the strength of the category, and judge the first two; that way we would have judged a (presumably) paler/hoppier Trappist and then a darker/matlier Trappist. Here, our scores ranged from 36-44, though mostly hovered within a point or two of 40. As is our group’s custom, we started with the 36 to see what his impressions were. “Not as complex as I’d think it should be, and too much alcohol. Also I think it was oxidized — there was some kind of cardboard taste.” To this latter point, we dug in; while it’s certainly possible (even likely) that the beer was oxidized, it was also a traditional cork-and-cage — could the cardboard aroma/flavor be from the cork? There was a lot of agreement around the table about the “food impressions” from this beer: lots of comments that included descriptors like raisin, banana, plum, pear, caramel, and chocolate. We had a brief sidebar about how, although chocolate is a style-appropriate descriptor, it’s also not one that comes initially to mind when thinking of a Dubbel. For my part, I asked if anyone else thought it was over-hopped, given that I found it had “moderate” hop flavor as opposed to “low […] optional and not usually present” — but I was alone on that one (though the point was acknowledged).
  3. 26B. Belgian Dubbel. Homebrew example. Not judged; no structured tasting. Significant bubblegum aromatics which, while not inappropriate (as mentioned for Trappist Single), isn’t mentioned specifically as appropriate in the style guide. Unfortunately, most of us dumped this one after just a sip or two. It was sour (“but not like on-purpose Sour Beer sour”) and likely infected.
  4. 26C. Belgian Tripel. St. Bernardus Tripel. Not judged; no structured tasting. One of my all time favorite examples of one of my all time favorite styles. And/but/so my hot take on this one wound up being: seemed kind of dull compared to bottles I’ve had in the past; oxidized? There was also the fact that my sample was from near the bottle’s bottom, after having been tipped up and passed around to at least 8 people before me. It was still very good — it just didn’t live up to my memory. That being said, this particular beer sparked some interesting lines of discussion. First, with the memory of Extra 4 still fresh in our minds, it was curious just how different the two beers are — and how the Tripel does not give the impression of just being a “doubled up” Trappist Single. The second interesting line of discussion was about the “rocky head” described in the style guide. Looking back at our notes from earlier in the evening, several of us had remarked on disappointing heads and/or quick collapses from beers poured earlier in the evening. We observed that the quality of the head is a function not only of the beer, but also of how it is poured and served. To this we wondered, are these beer styles somehow handicapped going into competition? If a single bottle gets split two or three ways, does that affect how well the head develops? The conventional wisdom seems to suggest it would.
  5. 26D. Belgian Dark Strong Ale. St. Bernardus Abt 12. Not judged; no structured tasting. Quick impressions: rich malts; some complexity; yeast characteristics; alcohol warming. The more interesting discussion was along the lines of “What’s with the 12 in the name?” We initially speculated °Plato? — but quickly walked back from that. (After all, 12°P works out to be something like 1.048 which… maybe for a Trappist Single, but certainly not the Quad.) That’s when we learned about “Belgian degrees”.
  6. 26D. Belgian Dark Strong Ale. Homebrew example. Not judged; no structured tasting. Seemed smoother than the Abt 12 (oddly?), and had some nice spicy yeast character along with low caramel and chocolate from the malt. And while the flavors were interesting, it also seemed under-attenuated and we speculated about whether this might have been an extract brew.
  7. 26D. Belgian Dark Strong Ale. Another homebrew example. Not judged; no structured tasting. An experiment by one of our members “trying to get this yeast back in action”. Some vinegary qualities to it overwhelmed most of what was there.
  8. “What would you enter it as?” Our sensory training exercise for the evening was to take the mystery beer and, using our senses, attempt to place it into the “correct” BJCP style for competition. For me, this beer was largely “candy sweet” and “grainy sweet” while otherwise neutral; I wasn’t getting much in the way of hop character, and I was searching for something and latched onto “tangerine/lemon” but maybe it was just wishful thinking. Ultimately I jotted down “18A” and conjectured we had an unusual blonde ale on our hands. The exercise’s coordinator asked us to speculate on the beer’s strength. “Under 4%?” No hands up. “4-5%?” A couple hands. “5-6%?” The other hands. “More than 6? 7+%?” Maybe one hand. And that’s when he revealed the 25 oz. can of “Natty Daddy” — an 8% mass market pale lager [inserts Chappelle GIF]. “I didn’t know such a thing existed.” The big unanswered question being: just what is the style space for such a thing?
  9. Bonus beers. I brought a growler each of Tilde Porter and Couples Massage.

Takeaways

  1. Consider the feedback you would give. It’s not enough to ding a beer with just “needs more yeast character” — be more specific. “Would benefit from more phenolics” is good; “…consider the temperature ranges for your strain and consider raising fermentation temperature” would be better. Similarly, consider what’s acceptable for interpretations of the style and when giving your feedback, make sure you’re speaking to what’s appropriate and not just what you like. Consider what kind of feedback you would like to receive and try to give something like that.
  2. What is appropriate isn’t always what you associate with the style. Many styles have a range of acceptable sensory impressions. Sometimes what is appropriate isn’t necessarily the first thing you associate with the style. I’ll call back here to how chocolate is appropriate (“hints of”, at least) for a Belgian Dubbel, but isn’t at all a flavor I associate with it.
  3. Bottle handling matters. This is a callback to the “disappointing” heads on nearly every sample from the session. Some further study is warranted here but it begs a few questions: Are there certain styles that just can’t tolerate multiple pours? Are there certain styles where the head is “ruined” if you happen to get the second or third pour? What about glassware? How much of this is the steward’s responsibility? How much do you (as a judge) need to be aware? Or do you judge the head as-is, regardless of these factors?

Addendum

I posed some of the questions from the “Bottle handling matters” section (vide supra) to the BJCP group on Facebook. There were a variety of opinions on this subject, and the best way I could think to summarize the points:

  • Remember that Appearance is worth only 3 points of the total score; keep a sense of perspective and don’t over-think it.
  • That said, if a beer has a poor head (with respect to its style) then it may be indicative of other problems; factor that in as you assess the other aspects in the sensory evaluation and as you allocate the Overall Impression score.
  • That said, try to remember what sorts of other factors might impact the head. Plastic vs. glass cups? Are they clean or dirty?
  • And THAT said, don’t be so quick to blame the glassware; if you poured properly, you ought to get an appropriate head if the beer was made and packaged properly.
  • Also, I was wrong to throw the stewards under the bus even hypothetically. But I admit it: that’s another thing that I needed to learn about competitions.

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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