St. Benedictus Abbey - Achel Trappist Extra
Serving Temperature:52–59° F
Suggested Glassware:Chalice, Goblet, Tulip or Pinot Glass
This has long been one of our favorite Trappist beers, brewed by the smallest monastery brewery in Belgium, and only about 300 cases total are brought into the U.S. each year. It can be a challenge tracking this one down stateside, especially as of late, and for us this is one of those standout beers that really is worth tracking down. Even among the Trappist offerings, which are entirely stellar in their own right, there’s something unique about the way in which Achel Trappist Extra is composed: a lighthearted but deeply complex beer; arguably in quadrupel terrain, but quite different and smoother and more red-fruit-driven than any other quads that spring to mind. This one’s effortlessly light, a prime example of the exceptional way that Belgian breweries craft big beers, and, while ageworthy for quite some time, expect bottles of this to quickly disappear. Do take some time to savor them!
Our patience in pouring this one was rewarded, with a slower pour ultimately revealing a perfectly sized, mousse-like foam that lasted. It also leaves behind nice lacing, which coats the interior of the glass and sparkles as the bubbles gradually returned to the liquid below. The beer itself is a beautiful deep amber, almost mahogany, hinting at a presence of wood that isn’t actually there and red-fruit notes (which definitely are). It’s a great-looking pour from Achel, its light-tan head and reddish liquid set off well when poured into a chalice.
The aromatics are the most fruit-forward part of the package, offering up notes of cherry, strawberry and plum, along with deeper, darker notes like dates and leather. But there’s a touch of fruit-punch-like vibrancy that makes this feel quite young, as well as a blackberry note that seems pulpy and fresh-picked. There’s barely a touch of caramel at the moment, though expect that to gradually increase for any bottles of this you’ve decided to cellar. It should fit in seamlessly with the other notes here—as this was basically built for aging. As this beer currently presents itself: bold, engaging, estery aromas with a whole lot going on.
The core elements of the flavor extend far beyond fruit. While there’s plenty of complex fruit-leather and dried fruit components throughout, the date and leathery notes play far larger roles than in the aromatics, with greater hints of caramel, such that this ultimately seems like an especially plush, magnificent, super-drinkable Belgian ale with its peppery and clove notes from the yeast turned down. While traces of an expected Belgian yeast character do have significant presence, often appearing as pear and white pepper notes, in addition to much of the fruit, there’s a whole lot of graceful malt character underpinning things as well, making for a perfectly synced combo of yeast characteristics and underlying ingredients.
While this is incredibly smooth as is, we do (as noted above) have high expectations for it after a bit of time spent in the cellar. The red-fruit and pepper focus suggest grilled pork, with its hefty alcohol keeping the two paired in terms of overall impact. Look for fare that complements red and dark fruits, incorporates dates (or will go well with them), and/or is truly hefty enough to stand up alongside a 9.5% world-class Trappist ale.
The Achel brewery enjoys a lengthy, albeit imperiled, history. Brewing operations at the Saint Benedictus Abbey started back in 1850, but the abbey was damaged in World War I and the brewery wouldn’t be rebuilt for many decades after. (It’s believed the Germans took around 700kg of copper in the process of dismantling their kettles in 1917.) The region, located near the border of Belgium’s province of Limburg and the Netherland’s North Brabant province, has been a retreat for prayer and contemplation at least as long ago as the mid-17th century. The monks at St. Benedictus Abbey—or Achelse Kluis, the hermitage of Achel—managed to distinguish themselves in a variety of different industries over the years, from cattle-breeding and cheese-making to cabinetry, baking, and a variety of other handicraft skills. (One of the key, tucked-away elements of a life lived in contemplation is you still have to pay the bills.)
Fast forward about eight decades, since the last beer had been brewed on-site in 1914. With the oversight of Brother Thomas (who had been the brewmaster at Westvleteren, Westmalle and Orval), the abbey resumed brewing operations in September 1998. It was the first newly designated Trappist brewery since Orval joined in 1931, and remains the smallest of the six Trappist Belgium breweries (the others: Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren and Chimay). The brewery is currently helmed by Brother Jules and lay-brewer Marc Knops, with their annual production staying below 4,000 hL (3,400 bbls). That’s smaller than Westvleteren!
Today, the monks of the St. Benedictus Abbey remain committed to a variety of services: brewing their famous Achel Trappist selections, as well as running a gift shop and inn (the latter being one of the best ways to actually see the brewery, which isn’t able to offer tours). Achel is one of only two (!) Belgian Trappist breweries where the monks themselves remain involved in the day-to-day brewing. We’re huge fans of Achel’s lineup, which includes both blonde and bruin versions at 5%, 8% and 9.5% ABV. The Achel 8 Blond and Achel 8 Bruin are both occasionally available stateside and worth seeing out. To form: They are two hugely drinkable beers, even at 8%. But it’s the Trappist Extra that’s ultimately the brewery’s calling card—and for us it’s an experience that stands out even alongside its world-class siblings.
Should you find yourself anywhere near northern Belgium, the fields and forests of the area surrounding Achel will certainly encourage some peaceful contemplation. (A little bit of beer from a renowned Trappist brewery probably wouldn’t hurt either.) For those unlikely to take the trip in the near future—Achel’s bottle-conditioned Trappist Extra offers up the very best drinking experience we’ve found from this world-class (and persistant!) Belgian brewery.
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