One of the best things that Michael Jackson ever did was give the world Belgian Beer.
Not the Belgians, of course. They already had Belgian Beer. I’m pretty sure that the Dutch and the French were aware of it as well. What Michael Jackson managed to do was invest Trappist beer with a level of Romance that persists in marketing and in the subconscious minds of beer drinkers to this day. I get the feeling that you’re going to be skeptical about this claim I’m making, so I’ll link to the episode of The Beer Hunter where he waxes rhapsodic about Chimay. (I also think, probably disrespectfully, that David Mitchell could play him in a biopic based on this sketch.)
We owe Michael Jackson a lot as beer drinkers. He more or less singlehandedly created a systemic organization of knowledge for dealing with beer, categorizing styles based on historical provenance and ingredients. That’s important as far as it goes, but his real gift was imbuing the topic with a sense of Romance. I believe that we would not ascribe nearly as much importance to Trappist beers without his six editions of Great Beers of Belgium. What he managed to do in his lifetime was promote an iterative narrative. Each edition would improve on the last and the legends that he promoted would grow. Chimay, Westmalle, and Achel may not exactly be household names, but would we know them at all without his constant tending of their stories?
I wondered about this as I looked at the number of bottles of Stift Engelszell Gregorius Trappistenbier sitting on the shelves at Summerhill: 336. This was part of the Spring release and we’re now well into July. You would think that it would fly off the shelves, but no one seems all that interested. I wonder whether this is due to the lack of an authoritative figure to tell their story. It seems to lack the cachet of its Belgian brothers.
I realized that I knew very little about the beer except for the fact that it was Austrian. Having done some research, I’m shocked that it’s still there.
Maybe you’re familiar with the story of Orval. A widow named Matilde, who just happened to be Countess of Tuscany, carelessly dropped her wedding ring into a fountain. She prayed for its return and lo and behold a trout came to the surface with the lost ring. She was so thankful that she built a monastery on the site. It is a good story in an Aesop/Ovid kind of way.
The Engelszell story beats it standing.
Picture it! The d’Oelenberg Abbey in Alsace at the turn of the 20th century. The 200 monks live a relatively happy existence, but dark clouds loom on the horizon! During the first World War, all of the expansions made during the 19th century were bombed to rubble. The monks, without a home, were forced to relocate to Engelszell on the Danube in Upper Austria. Gregorius Eisvogel is their leader and he becomes the prior and subsequent abbot of the rococo church and monastery in 1925. In 1939 the Gestapo confiscate the abbey and evict the brothers. Several are sent to Dachau and more are dragooned into the Wehrmacht. Of the 73 brothers who had been part of the community only a third were left in 1945. In 2012 only 7 remained. They have turned to brewing in order to afford to maintain their property.
The beer tells their story in a glass in a way no other Trappist beer does. There’s the issue of the name: Gregorius is named after their first abbot at the new location. There is, one supposes, a theological issue of pridefulness in celebrating their own history. There are no other Trappist beers named after a single man. Their history is represented by the use not of a Belgian Ale yeast but by an Alsatian wine yeast more apropos to their earlier lives. They use honey from near their own monastery in place of candi sugar and would have used honey from their own apiary in test batches; monastic cells possibly mirroring those of mellifera.
The beer is 10.5% and pours a reddish brown with auburn highlights. The aroma at fridge temperature pronounces the sourness deriving from the yeast strain in use with fruit character from plum, prune and currant. As it warms there’s slightly burnt rum raisin on the finish, a note of cocoa on the soft palate and as it reaches the proper temperature for consumption there’s black licorice, eucalyptus and a powdery cherry candy dot at the front of the tongue. Reaching room temperature there is a dusty bazooka joe character and a warming kirsch note in the throat before a souring finish.
Here we have a unique product with a great story retailing for $4.45. Somehow no one seems to have written about the release in Ontario. I think that part of the problem is that there is no authoritative figure like Jackson to give it the nod. He’s not around to push the narrative of Trappist brewing and invest it with Romance and as a result the feeling I get is that no one knows what to make of an Austrian Trappist Beer. I don’t believe Gregorius is quite world class, but it’s very good and there’s nothing else like it. After all, they’ve only been making it for three years. You should pick up a bottle.
There’s a larger lesson to be learned here, though. With the democratization of the internet we are without authoritative figures. It is easy to write about properties like Chimay that have existed for 150 years because there are reference materials to spoon feed you. It is difficult to do what Michael Jackson did, which is approach a thing from first principles and understand both how to analyze and promote it all at once. It is necessary even in a world with Untappd where objectivity and subjectivity are frequently confused.