Ignore the headline, Belgian-style Abbey and Trappist Ales were always cool, but in a time where American craft beer is more obsessed with hazy IPA’s, pastry stouts and sour ales, it’s refreshing to see breweries like Monkless Belgian Ales focusing on the traditional. Even those who have embraced traditional Belgian-style ales are more often brewing rustic farmhouse ales, a hard to define style that’s anything but refined. In a small industrial garage space in Bend, Oregon – Monkless Belgian Ales is getting back to some of our original inspirations for the craft beer movement – Monastic, classic, Abbey style Ales. With consistent growth and recent Gold and Silver Medal wins at the Oregon Beer Awards, Monkless beers have recently earned a spotlight they previously had not had. Perhaps it’s time to re-explore the classics.
Todd Clement founded Monkless in 2014 with his friend Kirk Meckem who then left the business in 2016. Monkless is now owned and ran solely by Clement and his wife Robin. The brewery started as a home basement nano operation before they moved to their current warehouse/garage space in Northeast Bend in the original home of 10 Barrel Brewing. Here they operate a small taproom inside the cellar room with the brewhouse in the next suite over. Food carts provide bites and the taproom can be a popular after work spot to the office and warehouse workers who mostly occupy the area.
Amazingly, Clement was not even a homebrewer when he started Monkless Belgian Ales in his basemet. He was an organic chemist (Ph.D.) when work trips to Antwerp in Belgium brought him to fall in love with traditional Belgian/Abbey-style ales. After spending 7 years in the pharmaceutical industry as a process chemist Clement moved to Bend. While the city was undeniably a great beer town, Clement became frustrated that he couldn’t find his favorite styles so he decided to use his science background to begin brewing them himself.
“My first batch was a Belgian Tripel. Within two years I purchased a 1 bbl system from Stout Tanks and Kettles. At that point, it occurred to me that I couldn’t possibly be alone in the Pacific Northwest with a love for Belgian-style ales, and one year later I was brewing professionally.”
His experience in the pharma industry has proven valuable in maintaining product consistency and helping to scale up his recipes to a 10bbl brewhouse. As any professional brewers knows, cleanliness and quality control may be the most important part of brewing and Monkless has proven theirs with the Silver and Gold Medal wins at the 2018 Oregon Beer Awards.
taster tray at Monkless Belgian Ales small industrial taproom
Many Americans and even beer geeks and professional brewers still view traditional Belgian-styles like Abbey Ales to be sweet and boozy, even cloying. In fact when made properly these beers can have the perceived sweet, fruity and spicy notes up front but finish relatively dry. They are yeast based beers that take time to coax the proper flavors out of, ferment too hot and you may have too much banana and clove, too cool and the beer may not ferment out and will end up candy sweet. Knowing how and when to keep the temperatures up and down in the fermentation process and how each yeast variety reacts to changes like these which also include aspects like enzymes, malts, hops and water ph is key in making world class Abbey ales. To this day we see many commercial examples that can be overly fruity, estery, phenolic or rely on spices to simulate the complexity.
“In my experience, the best Belgian ales are well attenuated and dry. For me, this is key to brewing a great Belgian-style ale – if you don’t accomplish this, you won’t brew a great Belgian,” says Clement. He recommends using sugars in the boil to kickstart fermentation with sugars easily broken down by the yeast and keeping sweetness down by attaining a higher level of attenuation (yeast easily breakdown these simple sugars.) Monkless adds cane sugar or dark candi syrup to every beer they currently make except for the Shepplekofeggan (Belgian-style Witbier). Dark Candi syrup is added only to the dark beers and the addition of these sugars helps keep fermentation fruit flavors under control.
“Esters can easily get out of control, but with a consistent fermentation temperature profile, our yeast strains produce a nice balance of fruity esters and spicy phenolics.”
OBA gold-medal winning Quad – Friar’s Festivus
Clement also agrees spices can be overdone but uses some himself, magically so on Friar’s Festivus, their OBA gold-medal winning Belgian-style Quad spiced with Mace and Cardamom. It’s an unusual concoction that on first whiff might take you aback but once warming up with a snifter and a few sips the spices wash over your tongue like a hot Chai Latte on a cold winter night. Friar’s Festivus is also the beer where Clement may stray the most from traditional versions. Brewed as a winter seasonal, Clement wanted a big and dark beer with spice presence but to reach outside of the norm on spices used in a traditional Belgian Noel. On the odd selection and the right combo Clement says he got there “After much experimentation, we arrived at mace (the sheath around the nutmeg pod) and cardamom, and really loved the combination.”
While the preponderence of farmhouse and sour and wild ales is growing, Clement hasn’t found any lack of interest for his classic Belgian interpretations. He says if anything it’s just a lack of exposure to those beers and not a lot of local and accurate representation of them. But there is a lot of hop fatigue in the Pacific Northwest and Monkless is capitalizing on that.
“many of our followers are looking for less bitter and less hop-forward beers that are not overly spiced, sweet or sour. Belgians done right fit that bill and can appeal to a wide range of beer drinkers and beer enthusiasts alike. This is our area of focus.”
Clement isn’t against the farmhouse and wild ales by any means, he just has a stronger affinity for Trappist/Abbey-styles. He is actually working on a Spring/Summer release of a Saison and isn’t ruling out sour beers either. He just needs the space to implement a sour program, as you can imagine he’s not doing going to do quick kettle souring but approach it traditionally. Will this take place anytime soon? Perhaps not, but Clement would like to see Monkless…”in an old church, add a small barrel aging program and play with a few sours, plus offer some high-end European cuisine for our guests while they listen to the monks chant and enjoy authentic Belgian style ales.”
At this point you can still get Monkless Belgian Ales just about anywhere in Oregon on draft or in bottles and even cans. Monkless bottle conditions their limited release like the medal winning Friar’s Festivus Quad and Dubbel or Nothing and will also begin bottling Meet Your Maker a Dark Strong in 500ml corked and caged bottles, all three to be year-round later this year. For now you can get force carbonated draft and 16oz cans and 4-packs of their main year-rounds Capitulation (Dry Hop Belgian-style Tripel Ale), Shepplekofeggan (Belgian-style Wit) and Peppercorn Imperial Wit. Bigfoot Beverages distributes them in 11 counties including Eugene and Central Oregon while Monkless self distributes to the Portland-area and Southern Oregon. They have eyes on Washington soon.
Kiefer VerSteegh (left) and Todd Clement (right) of Monkless Belgian Ales
Monkless Belgian Ales
20750 High Desert Ln
Bend, Oregon 97701
Instagram: Monkless Belgian Ales or https://www.instagram.com/monklessbelgianales/