Stift Engelszell Gregorius Trappistenbier 8

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.

I stole this image from the monastery's website. I hope they don't send internet Jesus after me.

I stole this image from the monastery’s website. I hope they don’t send internet Jesus after me.


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.IMAG1286[1]

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.IMAG1289[1]

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.

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8 thoughts on “Stift Engelszell Gregorius Trappistenbier

  • Alan

    God. The Great White Hero returns. Here I was thinking how we can now finally put Jackson aside given how the system is now the Matrix; how we are rereading the text and see he actually wrote something else; and seeing that cider packs all the romance these days; yet just like that it’s 2005 again in your first paragraph. The best thing about the 20,000 good beer universe is we can explore ourselves no longer needing the man pretending to be exploring on the edge of civilization when in fact he was just across the English Channel.

    • admin Post author

      Incredibly tiresome. The idea that it must be one or the other, even that it can be one or the other is nonsensical. The entirety of the referential system of beer styles is Jacksonian. Try exploring the “20,000 good beer universe” from scratch and see how long it takes before you run into that structure. You may as well try and catalogue the natural world without knowing about hierarchical taxonomy. Whether you like it or not, the system is memetic to the extent that it effects everyone’s thought on the subject, yours included.

      They’ve been producing the thing since 2012 and I have yet to find any posting or review that has managed to put together the various elements listed in the article. They have not done a good job of getting the story out. That was what Jackson was good at. If you find his influence on the subject matter tyrannical, consider that his contemporaries don’t stand up in terms of quality or volume of content. Blame them. I haven’t claimed at any point in the article that he can’t be argued with or that he is necessarily right. I claim merely that he promoted a narrative on an ongoing basis in an iterative way and that he was good at it. That’s absolutely what Stift Engelszell needs: storytelling.

      Just remember that without the effort he put in over several decades you’d have nothing to kick at.

  • Alan

    Balderdash! There. You made me drop the B-bomb. Jackson’s long standing deadness is a key factor in his disutility in the current scene. The main thing to remember is no one is exploring the 20,000 universe as it is impossible to do so meaningfully and hasn’t for a few years. The centre lost the ability to hold right around Black IPA. Craft has spun off shaking off the shackles of the construct by adding everything to everything, leaving little but the relics of microbrewing pretending that there is a form being followed.

    A mouse in the land of ants, Jackson was relatively good in getting a story out because no one else was interested in his niche even if wine writers were doing it better and with a greater basis in fact. Plus, few were watching over his shoulder to check if it made sense and those that did didn’t do him the respect to repeat his construct of type, style and variation maintained until about 2000. I don’t find him tyrannical, just irrelevant even if his actual writings indicate a more interesting view than his disciples manage sharing on.

    This brewery may need a better narrative but it, like most, really needs local drinkers who pay the bills. If it needs a narrative, they would do well to avoid stylistic connection to the outer reaches of the taxonomic scheme and simply contextualize itself into it own history and community, as good storytellers have done throughout time.

    • admin Post author

      I don’t think you appreciate that he worked with the AHA in order to come up with the stylistic guidelines that are the lingua franca of good beer’s resurgence. GABF categories? Jackson. BJCP styles? Jackson. He actually helped define the thing in ways that are used practically at most times by most brewers. Not “relics” as you suggest, and it began well before 2000. You can hustle semantics if you wish, but that’s the framework people are using in competition and in practice.

      It doesn’t matter whether the oeuvre is entirely internally consistent. No one’s is. That’s why it was iterative. Also, who are these fictive “disciples” you’re referring to? Are they mostly made of straw?

      In terms of local drinkers who pay the bills, shall they just move the rococo masterpiece down the road? They’re Trappist monks. It’s already a niche and their entire community could fit in a minivan. They make a good product. All they need is to explain the detail in a more cohesive way.

  • Alan

    Yes, I do understand that. You know that. It’s just so sad that it’s become like the droning corrections of the high school librarian sucking the life out of it all. You get different mileage, that’s fine. But the Trappists need to feed those who buy the beer regularly, not the ticker passing by. I am sure they don’t care where they fit in the Jacksonian scheme. Shouldn’t their story fit their needs in an honest way rather than craft’s? My favour story from Jackson in Belgium is how Girardin wanted nothing to do with him, refused interviews. They knew where their focus needed to be.

    • admin Post author

      Right, but you’re conflating the two parts of the argument. I’ll outline them for you.

      1) Jackson is massively influential in terms of taxonomical structure.

      2) Jackson was good at telling the stories of breweries and lending them romance.

      The two points are not related in the article. You’re the one relating them to each other. The point of the article is that the reason that the romance ascribed to the Belgian Trappists continues is because he spent his entire life promoting them. There is no one telling that story with the Austrian or American Trappist beers and for that reason even the cachet of the Trappist brand doesn’t capture the imagination in the way it does with the Belgian ones. It’s a very simple argument. It has nothing to do with the taxonomical system. It has nothing to do with Girardin. I know you periodically like to be willfully obtuse in order to get in some recreational arguing, but no one else seems to be having difficulty with the concept.

  • Alan

    Hmm… I was listening to a lot of early AC/DC last evening as we were smacking at each other. Delete it if you like. Your call. Not that I don’t agreed 110% with me… but, you know, no need to be a dink about things. On the other hand I have a very interesting analogy now to be made with “A Long Way To The Top…” and newbie nanos if you are interested.