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Monastic Brews and Extreme Beers

Religious orders have been brewing beer in Europe since the Middle Ages. These monastic brews are always widely praised and prized but often misunderstood — mostly due to their origins. Many people believe that monastic brews are both rare and of high potency. Though some are, indeed, rare and many can pack a punch, the exquisite brews made by the Cistercian, Benedictine, and Trappist orders can’t be so easily defined.

Most of the monastic beer styles are very old, and, thus, are ales, but at least one is born of lager parentage. Irrespective of their classification on the beer family tree, monastic brews are older examples of how beer gets to be extreme.

The origins of Dubbels, Tripels, and Quadrupels

Historically, monks throughout Europe produced only a beer of modest alcohol level, also known as table beer, that was regularly consumed with their meals. In preparation for special events or holidays, they’d also brew a beer, or beers, of greater strength — a Dubbel or Tripel or whatever they had in mind. Eventually, these bigger beers were sold to the public, while the least potent was still reserved for in-house consumption.

The simple and easy way to distinguish between the beers was to call the table beer a Single, with the beers of increasing gravity and strength becoming Dubbel and Tripel respectively. It was just a matter of time before a Quadrupel was added to the monks’ brewing repertoire.

The creation of Doppelbock

Italian monks from the order of Saint Francis of Paula and living in Bavaria took Bock Beer a step further by creating a whole new style of beer known as Doppelbock (double bock). Doppelbock wasn’t brewed for the sake of ego or greed but out of need. The brothers of Saint Francis wanted to brew a beer that not only quenched their thirst but also sated their hunger during the long Lenten period of fasting that precedes the Easter holiday. Due to its grain base and high carbohydrate content, Doppelbock is referred to as liquid bread for a good reason.

The monks at Saint Francis of Paula were given permission to sell their beers to the public in 1780. After word of their malty and spirituous brews spread, the monks and their beer became famous. Denizens of Munich are credited with calling the beer style Doppelbock, but the monks named it Salvator in reverence to The Saviour. Eventually, the monastery and its brewery were sold to a private brewing company that to this day goes by the name Paulaner.

Munich’s Starkbierfest (strong beer fest) is a springtime festival based on Doppelbock that’s said to be even better than that city’s Oktoberfest. Starkbierfest takes place when the weather is cooler and the tourists are scarce. If you’re into beer and Bavarian culture, this is the time to be in Munich. Because it’s tied to the church calendar, the dates of Starkbierfest vary from year to year. The season begins on the third Friday after Ash Wednesday and runs three weeks — three of the best weeks in beerdom.

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