I had a religious experience (in the bathroom) at Monkless Belgian Ales this weekend. And I’m having another while typing and listening to Keith Jarrett’s Köln Concert from 1975. But that’s not what I heard in the bathroom.
Monkless Belgian Ales is just four years into production, and only two-and-a-half years on a 10-barrel brewing system. The shiny, clean brewery has a tank capacity of 100 barrels, and it’ll push 1,000 barrels of production this year. While that’s not very large for a production brewery, it is remarkable that 100% of the beer is fermented with expressive Belgian-type yeast. This model is an extreme rarity in the U.S., and deserves attention because the brewery has been quite successful selling its canned, bottled, and draught beer in Oregon.
When Monkless first came to Eugene, while I was working at The Bier Stein, the Imperial Peppercorn Wit and Capitulation, a dry-hopped Tripel, seemed a bold first move to push into a new market. But once the pint cans of Shepplekoffegan Wit, Peppercorn, and Capitulation hit the shelves and started selling, it seemed that Monkless had discovered a sect of beer drinkers who appreciated the balance of its characterful beers. It helped that Shep’ became an easy, affordable domestic alternative to Blue Moon.
In 2017, 500ml. bottles of Friar’s Festivus, a Belgian Strong Dark ale spiced with mace and cardamom, spent a brief layover on the shelves before being scooped up. That compelled the brewery to shift its schedule and brew more while customers continued to seek it out. As far as I remember, it outsold the perennial favorite St. Bernardus Christmas Ale; at the very least it generated more fervor. This year, it won a Gold medal at the Oregon Beer Awards.
I was treated to a flight of all eight of Monkless’ current beers at the brewery’s tasting room on a hot Saturday afternoon. Somebody had kindly set up water misters in the garage doorway. A Mexican food truck was serving tasty street food. Folks trickled in; most ordered flights. Some came back for a full glass, others got their Bend Ale Trail passports stamped and continued on.
The flight was arranged on two barrel staves, in order from lightest to heaviest, starting with Shepplekoffegan and ending with Meet Your Maker, an un-spiced Belgian Dark Strong. With the exception of the Maker and Dubbel or Nothing, all of the beers lay in the pale-to-golden realm, but the shared traits more or less ended there. The brewery keeps four yeasts for its various beers, and even blends a couple of them for one of the beers (can’t remember which).
If you’re curious about the difference between a Tripel and a Belgian Golden Strong, Monkless has you covered; the Restitution and Trinity are quite different, with the former, a Belgian Golden Strong, showcasing fruity, apple-pear-peach esters with a bit of spice, honey, alcohol, and a full body without being too sweet. The Trinity, an Abbey-style tripel is spicier and a bit drier, with some pale stone fruit and pepper/cinnamon notes, all from yeast. Capitulation, which is Trinity dry-hopped with Hallertau Blanc and Citra, pairs the vinous German hop and now-classic IPA hop to lend bright fruitiness and some extra bitterness to the Tripel, which is a lovely addition that’ll surely get a hop-head’s attention.
Being a fan of sessionable beers, the Shep’ did me right, and paired perfectly with my pork tacos and spicy salsa verde. I’ve found that witbiers made as one-offs lack the fluffy wheat body, and are often too dry feeling; Shep’ is a well-practiced wheat beer with a good dose of the traditional orange peel and coriander.
Samaritan’s Saison was a recipe from one of the assistant brewers, and had the distinct ganja aroma that I remember from my first bottle of Dupont Saison; that was very pleasing to recall. It’s dry, a little scratchy, but not as carbonated (on draught) as a bottle-conditioned saison so the pils-like malt sticks around for the next sip.
The bartender, cellarman (and also homebrewer and cheesemonger) Nick gave us an educated tour of the brewery, which is well set up and seems ready to receive more tanks if necessary. The brewery currently hires a mobile canner, but the cork & cage bottles (packaged with priming sugar and yeast for natural carbonation) are done by hand.
After the tour, finishing the flight and chatting about cheese, I felt the familiar urge. Entering the bathroom is a step back in time, to a Renaissance-era cathedral – especially if you close your eyes. A single speaker in the corner was playing Miserere, the Gregorian hymn based on Psalm 51, at a high enough volume that all other sound disappeared. I guess I found where the monks went.
One of the hardest things about brewing Belgian-style beer is attaining a balance between yeast, malt, and hops. All beer obviously requires yeast management, but the flavors in American-style ales and lagers are mostly expected to be “neutral.” Utilizing yeast’s potential for flavor contribution is a tough game, and means really getting to know how it acts under various conditions. Monkless gets it right.