On Clones, Colour and Cassonade

When a year-old blog post suddenly gets a burst of traffic—in this case, increasing its total by some 50%—one’s curiosity is naturally aroused.

That is what happened a few weeks ago to my last Pursuit of Abbeyness XII brew-day entry. Following the referrer links, I found a discussion about cloning Rochefort abbey beers on the Homebrew Talk forum which, among other things, contained a photograph of a recipe sheet for Rochefort 6 taken at the brewery 13 years ago.

That, and the little exchange concerning my own Rochefort-inspired brew, raised some interesting questions about the very idea of beer cloning, the “spirit” of Belgian Trappist ales and the authenticity of homebrew-scaled versions of them—as well as making me question (but ultimately affirm, for the most part) my own recipe.

As I am not a member of Homebrew Talk, I have used this post to record my thoughts.

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My blog page was introduced to the discussion by a UK-based member of the forum going by the name of “Northern Brewer”, who noted my focus on “getting the sugars right”.

The initiator of the thread, Derek Scott, responded thus:

Homebrew Forum shot 1

Northern Brewer then leapt rather gallantly to my defence, and he articulated my views so well that I will let his words stand:

Homebrew Forum shot 2

I am going to start my own response by focusing on “the lightbulb of a colourant like Sinamar” and “chasing colour with flavourful ingredients”, because that is one of the most intriguing aspects of the recipe photograph and the subsequent discussions of it across various forums.

Here is the photograph.

Rochefort 6 recipe

In terms of the mash-and-boil recipe, that reads:

Malt 1750 kg
Amidon (starch) 225 kg
Cassonade 300 kg
Pure Malt 4L
Hallertau 2.5 kg
Styrian Golding 2.5 kg
Coriander 1 kg

Derek Scott translates that into handy proportions and, very helpfully, scales it up to create proposed Rochefort 8 and Rochefort 10 recipes, as shown below.

Realfort 6, 8 and 10

Sinamar, a Weyermann product, is what Scott recommends as a replacement for “Pure Malt”, which is a beer colourant manufactured by a small UK-based company. Both are produced by evaporating and filtering worts brewed with roasted malts to create a high-colour but low-flavour and low-bitterness additive.

“This is a better option than using roast malt,” Scott writes, “There is ZERO roast malt flavor in any of the Rochefort beers. I highly recommend leaving it out.”

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I share Scott’s scepticism about roasted malts: it is difficult to detect any obvious dark-malt flavours in Rochefort beers. I try to use just enough to lend some colour while maintaining a low flavour threshold—although I would accept that my use of Chocolate malt is perhaps still too liberal, introducing something of an Achel Bruin character to Pursuit of Abbeyness XII.

What intrigues me, however, is the discrepancy between the appearance of Pure Malt colourant in this recipe photograph from 2006 and the several, repeated references to sugars being the source of colour in darker Trappist beers that we find in Stan Hieronymus’s Brew Like a Monk: Trappist, Abbey, and Strong Belgian Ales and How to Brew Them (Brewers Publications, 2005).

For example, Hieronymus writes that Westmalle Dubbel includes a dark malt valued for its aroma, but that brewery manager Philippe Van Assche “said dark sugar provides most of the color”. In the following section on Westvleteren he writes: “The monks won’t reveal how the dark beers obtain their color, as well as the intriguing flavors traditionally produced by darker malts and/or dark sugar. However, Jackson and others report the use of caramelised sugar.”

In the second half of the book, which describes American interpretations of the abbey styles, we find Rob Tod of Allagash Brewing Co relating how, when he made a Dubbel in 1996, he couldn’t find a good source for dark candi sugar crystals and instead “used lighter-coloured rock candy from a regional supplier and added more dark malts to the recipe—the Pilsner base supplemented with 20°L and 120°L crystal and roasted malt”.

Hieronymus asked the same question I did. Without roasted malts or an additional colourant, how do we make a dark brown beer? His answer seems to be, emphatically, that it is imparted mostly or entirely by sugars. Additional colourants are never mentioned in the book at all, as far as I can find.

Of course, Hieronymus’s book should not be taken as the last word on these recipes.

In 2005, he was even more adamant on the question of candi crystals versus candi syrup. “Historical references to the use of ‘candi sugar’ in Trappist breweries beginning in the 1920s don’t describe the crystal rocks Americans call ‘Belgian candi sugar,’ but most often a dark caramel syrup”, he writes. “Today, when brewers at Westmalle and Orval refer to candi sugar, they specify using it in liquid form”.

The Homebrewers’ Association forum member named Rob, or “Siamese Moose”, who took the 2006 recipe photograph, recalls something very different.

At the time (2006) the big debate on homebrew forums over Belgian beers was whether they used candi sugar rocks or liquid candi syrup. At the time, we (me and the several other homebrewers there) were just happy to put that topic to rest. They used rocks, and the process of addition was rather unique at Rochefort. Storage for all ingredients was on the level above the brewhouse. Rather than carrying the rocks down a flight, they had an opening in the kettle stack on the upper level, and they dropped them in through the stack. Shortly after we got into the brewhouse there was a loud rattling, which we learned was the rocks banging their way down the stack.

Did the brewers at Rochefort mislead Hieronymus? Did he somehow miss this detail? Did the brewery switch to candi sugar crystals sometime between Hieronymus’s visit and that of “Siamese Moose” a year or two later?

And does this throw into doubt his apparent certainty that Trappist breweries get most of their dark beer colour from sugars?

One thing is certain. Any information concerning the ingredients and processes of Belgium’s Trappist breweries needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, if not a pinch of roasted malt.

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I am going to stay with the topic of sugar for a moment, and return to one of Scott’s objections to my Pursuit of Abbeyness XII recipe: “Molasses just seems inappropriate to me in a Trappist inspired Ale or clone”.

This is a bit of a sweeping statement. Similarly, another of his objections, “Roasted malts are inappropriate to me in a Trappist inspired Ale or clone”, disregards their presence in, for example, Achel’s beers and, according to Hieronymus again, in St. Bernardus Abt 12, “for aging stability”.

I suspect, however, that the objection to “molasses” might be a simple matter of mistranslation from English English to American English.

When someone from the US says “molasses”, they tend to mean the syrupy waste product from refining cane sugar. In the UK we are more likely to call that “treacle”. For us, “molasses” tends to mean “molasses sugar”, which is simply the least-refined of the raw cane sugars available on the market, the one with the highest molasses content. As the photograph in my post last February showed, I use molasses sugar from Billington’s for both colour and flavour, supplementing a larger body of ordinary brown sugar which is there mostly for fermentation.

Billington's molasses

In the same spirit as cassonade

This moist, sticky grain sugar is at least in the same spirit as what is indicated by “Cassonade” in the 2006 recipe photograph, in my view.

Hieronymus writes that Rochefort deploys “cassonade brune in its recipes”. In France and Belgium, cassonade brune, cassonade bruin or cassonade ambrée is a dark, moist, molasses-rich grain sugar. Examples would include those from the Belgian company Candico, and the French company Daddy.

In my experiments with sugars, molasses sugar (which a Belgian might call cassonade bruin or perhaps cassonade corsée) does two things: it helps to deepen the colour of the finished beer, but it also seems to be the only way to approach Rochefort’s rum-and-coke character, which it has to a greater extent than most other abbey ales, especially when fresh. As Hieronymus puts it in Brew Like a Monk: “The dark, rummy character that comes from caramelized sugar is harder to duplicate, and certainly not by using American brown sugar.”

Despite appearances, I believe Derek Scott and I may be on the same page here, as he recommends “Some of the soft sugars available, Brun Fonce from CSI, Inc. in particular”. CSI, or Candi Syrup Inc, is a US-based manufacturer of speciality brewing sugars, and its Brun Foncé is, as the name suggests, a very dark, very soft beet-derived sugar. I suspect it is not far removed in its character from a cane-derived muscovado or molasses sugar.

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“It strikes me that he is after more of the Quadrupel thing,” wrote Scott as his parting thought on Pursuit of Abbeyness XII. “Or more of a Westvleteren thing rather than Rochefort.”

Well, I am not sure whether that is right or wrong. I do like most of the Dark Strong Trappist Ales; and I do like a number of “Quadrupels”, from St. Bernardus Abt 12 onwards. I would say that I have tried to create something that expresses the signature characteristics of those beers, with a special bias towards the distinguishing marks of Rochefort 10.

Am I trying to “clone” Rochefort 10? Certainly not.

That assumption begs too many questions, in any case. Which Rochefort 10 should we try to clone? The one that Hieronymus reports contained Caramel malts back in 2005, or today’s, which Scott claims is brewed without any speciality malts at all? The version from a decade ago that contained Hallertau hops or today’s, which uses Aramis? Given that the hops impart only the merest bitterness and almost zero aroma to Rochefort 10 and are almost certainly chosen for economy alone, why worry about it?

And there are still more questions.

“They have changed the recipe several times to account for changes in equipment,” as “Siamese Moose” observes. “It took them several years to get it right when they switched to conical fermenters.”

That critical change to brewing equipment happened in 2002. Around the same time, the brewery appears to have changed its malt supplier. So, are we cloning a pre-2002 Rochefort 10 or (one of) the post-2002 recipes? And should we seek out the same supplier of malt?

I recall that, in the account of a vertical tasting of Rochefort 10 in Patrick Dawson’s Vintage Beer: A Taster’s Guide to Brews That Improve over Time (Storey Publishing, 2014), the panel noted that head retention follows a bell curve across vintages, “leading one to wonder if a change in brewing or recipe is the culprit”. The mid-point of that vertical tasting is five years back and the book was published in 2014, suggesting that the high point for head retention was perhaps around 2008. Does the drop-off in head retention have something to do with a gradual replacement of cassonade brune with Pure Malt as the beer’s main colourant?

You get my point. There is a Platonic ideal of Rochefort 10, but there is no specimen of the beer that we can “clone” as the true Rochefort 10. Even if there were, differences in equipment, ingredients and scale would preclude it.

As Denny Conn puts it on one of the discussion threads cited here: “I don’t believe any beer can be cloned.”

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Not being able to clone a beer is not the same as working without principles that guide one towards the Platonic ideal, however. The following are the principles that I have come to regard as the most important for building and evolving the recipe for Pursuit of Abbeyness XII.

Firstly, I have never felt compelled to use corn or wheat starch. This can only add fermentable sugars to the wort and therefore it would defeat the object of using fermentable adjunct sugars as a source of colour. I do add some wheat, however, as a contributor of both starch and protein, to help the simple sugars with head retention, and also to round-out the texture of the beer.

I have never measured a sample, but the finishing gravity numbers I see for Rochefort 10 of around 1.010 or 2.5° Plato imply a harsher dryness than I taste from the beer, even when it is fresh. I have found that a finishing gravity around 1.018-1.020 is most pleasing, achieved either through exhausting the yeast by increasing the starting gravity, or by mashing at a slightly higher temperature, or both.

As I mentioned already, one of the distinct flavours of Rochefort 10, to my palate, is rum-and-coke, with the tiniest hint of tobacco. That is why I am unafraid to use a good amount of the rawest unrefined cane sugars as a contributor both to colour and fermentable sugars.

Finally and most importantly, I would always prefer sugars over malts for colour. The presence of Chocolate malt and Roasted Barley reflect my inability to get enough colour into the beer with dark sugars alone, but also the “brew like a monk” ethic of favouring readily-available, inexpensive and economical ingredients.

I am intrigued by the apparent use of Pure Malt syrup and the suggestion of Sinamar as an alternative. But I use dark malts and barleys partly because I know I will also use my store of these in other beers, and because my usual homebrew supplier does not stock an equivalent of Pure Malt or Sinamar. However, what I have read on these threads has persuaded me to try something that I have considered for some time already, which is to phase out the Chocolate malt in favour of brewer’s caramel, which is readily available to me in the small quantities that would suit my needs.

I think this is all compatible with the wise words of Noel Blake, the homebrewer who created the recipe for Brewery Ommegang’s Three Philosophers Ale, as quoted in Brew Like a Monk: “Think like a Belgian, brew like a monk. That is, make a distinctive beer that is expressive rather than imitative, and dedicate yourself to it as if there is nothing else in life.”

That level of dedication is beyond me, but I certainly subscribe to the “expressive rather than imitative” ambition. I may have started with “a zeal for authenticity”, but practicalities soon put paid to that—and I also learned that there is more to authenticity, and indeed more fun to be had from brewing, than trying to pin down and copy someone else’s recipe.

2 thoughts on “On Clones, Colour and Cassonade

  1. I just have a few clarifying comments:

    “Northern Brewer then leapt rather gallantly to my defense”

    I certainly was not trying to rag on you in any way. I recognize the fact that you are after something original. My post was specifically about research into the actual Rochefort recipe. I was merely stating that what you were after was a bit different than trying to clone Rochefort.

    I don’t think you required defense here.

    “What intrigues me, however, is the discrepancy between the appearance of Pure Malt colourant in this recipe photograph from 2006 and the several, repeated references to sugars being the source of colour in darker Trappist beers that we find in Stan Hieronymus’s Brew Like a Monk: Trappist, Abbey, and Strong Belgian Ales and How to Brew Them (Brewers Publications, 2005).”

    “And does this throw into doubt his apparent certainty that Trappist breweries get most of their dark beer colour from sugars?”

    “Does the drop-off in head retention have something to do with a gradual replacement of cassonade brune with Pure Malt as the beer’s main colourant?”

    A few things to note here. Dark syrups and sugars do not add the amount of color most think they do. If you crunch the numbers and use Post-Boil Volume as the input to the Morey equation rather than the generally accepted value of Fermenter volume (this will distort the color prediction high), you’ll see that save for the darkest of syrups being produced, you’d actually need whopping amounts to match some of the colors in BLAM and that are quoted in other sources for these beers.

    I would say that many are still using dark syrups or sugars for the lion’s share of color and to be clear, I can’t say with certainty that other breweries besides Rochefort are using a flavor neutral colorant.
    As to the last comment, the replacement of sugar with a malt-based colorant wouldn’t decrease head retention in a beer. That’s of no consequence anyway because Rochefort uses both cassonade AND Pure Malt.

    Another thing to consider is that some breweries might not consider a Sinamar or Pure Malt colorant as an adjunct, but rather a malt since it is malt based. I know that Ayinger treats Sinamar as a malt product.
    Just food for thought. I wanted to make sure I was clear.

    “I suspect, however, that the objection to “molasses” might be a simple matter of mistranslation from English English to American English.”

    You nailed it here. In the states we view molasses as the very strong flavored syrup sold in the grocery store and elsewhere.

    I do, however, generally disagree with your assessment that the cassonade we are after here is not nearly as dark as the powdered molasses you show here. If you run the numbers for their recipes, vessel sizing, volume, etc. you see that the cassonade used is more likely in the ballpark of CSI, Inc. Brun Fonce.

    Again, I’m still with you in spirit here.

    “That assumption begs too many questions, in any case. Which Rochefort 10 should we try to clone?”

    Part of the reason for my writeup and analysis was to answer this question. I never confronted this question directly, but the goal was always to represent what I thought was the most current recipe. This was obviously based on material ranging from 2006 through to 2015, so in my opinion, my writeup and recipes approximate the most recent incarnation (contrary to popular belief, they don’t change much about these recipes once dialed in).

    I appreciate the response and hope what I originally said was misconstrued. I myself have a series of recipes that I brew exclusively that are “Trappist-Inspired” and I follow my own rules and experiences. In that sense, I agree wholeheartedly with the following:

    “Despite appearances, I believe Derek Scott and I may be on the same page here…”

    Feel free to hit me up if you ever want to discuss any of this,


    • Thanks for your interesting response.

      Don’t worry about the “leapt to my defence” thing—that was just a bit of fun!

      I have certainly found it difficult to get a lot of colour in with sugars, which is why I have reluctantly supplemented it with dark malts and gone for ever darker and more caramelised sugars. Brun Fonce looks like it is a few degrees lighter than Billington’s molasses, but not much: I think I would describe it as like a dark muscovado. Anyway, I am definitely going to have a go at using brewers’ caramel in my next iteration.

      My strong imression is that when I use a fair amount of simple sugars in a beer the result is a generous and longer-lasting, pillow-like foam. It could just be a correlation-not-causation issue, as these tend also to be beers fermented with Belgian yeast (although not always made with a protein-rich grist). I thought I’d read some science behind my assumption, but I can’t find any reference to that in any of my books or with a cursory online search… so maybe I dreamt it!

      Anyway, thanks for kicking off an amazing and fascinating thread on the forum. It certainly gave me some food for thought, and inspires me to return to this recipe again…


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