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If you are a beer lover, and I am guessing that you are based on the fact that you are reading this blog post, you would be remiss not to understand the history of faith and beer. For over 1,500 years, monks around the world have used their faith and dedicated their lives to the perfection of the beer-making process. So, the next time you run into a monk (never thought I could say that), thank them for helping make craft beer what it is today.
As you study monks and brewing, you will quickly figure out that there are hundreds of monasteries around Europe that all have an incredible history and create amazing beer. However, we need to keep some focus so we will look at the most famous in Germany and the Trappists. To understand their history, we will start the story in the 6th Century and learn about Saint Benedict of Nursia and his writings that roughly translate as The Rule. These writings essentially built the first template for monastic life and imparted the wisdom of the spiritual and the administrative. At the core was the golden rule of Ora et Labora – pray and work. Each monk dedicated themselves to eight hours of prayer, eight hours of sleep, and eight hours of manual work, sacred reading, or works of charity. Augmenting this rule, was another rule that monks and the monastery must exist without outside money and through the work of the monks’ own hands through the production of goods and services built a framework for faith to perfect beer and other goods such as cheese and honey.
Now that we know where the faith and precision of the monks come from, let’s look at the history of the German monks who are among the oldest continuous brewers in the world. Today, Weltenburg Abby and Weihenstephan Abbey both claim to be the oldest continuous operating breweries in the world starting somewhere around 1040. Records aside, this has given these monks almost 1,000 years of brewing history to create some of the most revered beers not only in Germany but in the world. Each Abbey, as with most breweries in Germany, follows very strict purity rules set out in law in 1516. These principals allow for only the use of malted barley, hops, water, and yeast (wheat was added after an uprising years later). The rules make German beer narrow in variety but utterly perfect in execution.
If Germany has the history, the Trappists have the notoriety when it comes to monks making beer. The name Trappist comes from the Cistercian monastery in La Trappe, France (not where the beer La Trappe is made). In 1664, these particular monks thought that too many of their fellow monks were becoming too liberal. They introduced new, more rigorous rules, to live by and the Trappist movement was born. To carry out the financing of their strict monasteries and to expand their practices, breweries began to appear around the middle ages in Europe. Today these original Trappist breweries are world renowned for the focus on constantly perfecting the brewing process and keeping exact records.
In 1997, eight of the original Trappist abbeys came together to protect the Trappist name and the highest quality that comes from their strict production process. They created the International Trappist Association and the private logo that is assigned to any goods (cheese, honey, beer, wine, etc.) that are produced with respect to the precise production criteria. These criteria include: The product must be produced inside the walls of a Trappist monastery either by the monks themselves or with supervision, the goods are produced as secondary importance that places primary value on the monastic way of life, and finally the goods are not intended to be a profit-making venture.
Trousseau is somewhat of a mystery to many wine drinkers. Indigenous to the Jura region of France, in the town of Montigny-les-Arsures, the dark-skinned grape varietal has quite the history in Europe and is known to have been cultivated for at least 200 years under a variety of names. Curiously, until recently it has most widely been known in Portugal as Bastardo where it is made into dry red table wines as well as their most famous exports, Porto and Madeira. In Spain, it can be found under other names, Merenzao and Verdejo Negro, where it is used both alone and in red blends.
The most compelling Trousseau are those that can be coaxed into a subtle and balanced expression of tart red fruit, minerality and mossy earth. Trousseau can easily become a high-octane wine, due to the naturally abundant sugars in the grape varietal. Due to this, it can be considered fully ripe and ready to pick when at a lower sugar level than other varietals, thus producing a wine that is higher in acid with less alcohol.
I first discovered Trousseau while “palate trouncing” through the wines of the Jura in my first years in the restaurant world. I was instantly taken by these unusual and rustic wines, at times confused by their strangeness and curious as to what made them so much different than the polished New and Old-World wines to which I’d become so accustomed. The initial rawness and brutality impressed but intimidated me. I was confused but not put off. As I began to dig deeper into the world of Jura wine, I discovered there existed a subtlety and odd grace to these wines that I had never had the opportunity of tasting. Odd grace – like an elephant on ice skates.
Let’s not beat around the bush: I have fallen for Trousseau. I am drawn to varietals with strange minerality and evocative dark forest matter, bright and light fruit piercing through the undergrowth to create a truly compelling wine. It can take on notes of light and bright sour cherries, ripe red fruit and expiring green matter or, depending on vinification technique, become a pungent, alcohol-driven, red fruit beast in need of a good chill. It is the forgotten street poet of grapes – full of nuance, easily irritable (thus “Bastardo”), and waiting for recognition of its subtle, easily-overlooked beauty.
New World winemakers are clearly catching on to the appeal of the varietal and Trousseau plantings are popping up with established producers’ names attached throughout the West Coast of the U.S., notably in regions where Pinot Noir, Gamay, and other Burgundian varietals have shown a success.
For the wine drinker who appreciates Pinot Noir and Gamay, these wines should easily appeal. This is food wine: gracefully footed with delightful acid and bright, pungent fruit expression, offering excellent pairing opportunities.
Pair Trousseau with: Game birds, smoked pork, berry reduction sauces, paté, or hard cow’s milk cheese (Morbier, e.g.).
“Bring in the bottled lightning, a clean tumbler, and a corkscrew.” - Dickens
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