Monkless Belgian Ales: Science and Tradition in the Oregon High Desert

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Monkless Belgian Ales was born out of necessity.

After 11 years of business travel in Europe, Todd Clement had developed a taste for the bold, complex beers of Belgium. But no one in Bend, Oregon seemed to be making the beer to scratch that itch.

So instead of buying another 750ml bottle of imported beer, Clement and his wife Robin decided to take matters into their own hands and open a Belgian style brewery. It helped that as a process chemist with a PhD in organic chemistry from University of California - Davis, his job was literally to make small batches of pharmaceuticals and then scale them up to production capacity. So he took the same approach with his brewing, testing out small batch homebrew recipes.

“Nobody was putting any capacity locally toward the beers I love,” Clement said. “As a process chemist, my goal was to take a chemical process, streamline it, make it better and get more yields. It was pretty much a direct relationship with brewing.”

Before putting his skills to work on Trappist-style ales, he was mixing up industrial-sized batches of medications like Tamiflu. But then his homebrewed Belgian beers started winning over his friends, so in 2014 he decided to go all in on a one-barrel commercial system and open Monkless Belgian Ales.

Monkless quickly gained a reputation, including the respect of Portland’s Abbey Bar, whose owner Bristol Kelley started buying as many Monkless kegs as she could get.

“Her clientele go there for Belgian-style beer and they have discerning tastes,” Clement said. “The fact that my beer was selling there was a good portent for me.”

But closer to home, Todd and Robin are making a splash on the Bend Ale Trail with tourists and have a reliable group of regulars tipping back a few. Nestled in the new urban brewer’s district of northeast Bend, Monkless opened in one of the densest beer towns in the world. With a population of just 90,000 and nearly two dozen breweries in the surrounding area, central Oregon is spoiled for choice.

But instead of a cutthroat environment, Monkless has found a welcome mat.

“There’s not been any pressure at all from other brewers,” Robin said. “It’s been so beautiful in regards to the level of collaboration. I think it helps that we are doing something very different, we aren’t in direct competition with anyone.”

The day Tavour spoke with the Clements, they were getting a delivery from fellow Bend brewery Boneyard.

“We’re buying a 40-barrel fermenter from Boneyard,” Clement said. “And they actually asked me if I was ok with them dropping it off at our location. Those things aren’t easy to move.”

When another Oregon brewery wants to create something Belgian, Robin said they usually come calling.

“We get calls asking for yeast strains so they can brew a Belgian,” she said. “We both come from relatively corporate backgrounds. This is way more fun.”

Despite being one of the oldest brewing styles in the world, many Americans are not yet knowledgeable about Belgian-style beers, so Monkless sells more tasting flights than anything else. That makes a lot of sense when you consider their wide range of winners.

Monkless’s flagship beer is Meet Your Maker, a Belgian Dark Strong with notes of raisins, dates and chocolate. At 9% ABV, it’s no pushover. Pour Pour Pitiful Me is a massive Belgian Quadrupel aged and fermented over cherries to produce a ripe and full-bodied flavor profile. It pairs with rich tastes, like fig and brie or decadent cheesecake.

Perhaps the beer Todd is proudest of is Friar’s Festivus, a winter seasonal Monkless worked on over several batches to get the spices just right. A Belgian Winter Ale, it sings with candi sugar, stone fruit notes and is balanced on the precipice of spicy and sweet thanks to the double influx of Belgian and Witbier yeasts.

As for the name, it should be obvious by now that the Clements are no monks. But Todd and Robin did feel a sense of obligation to those cloistered men of the abbey.

“Trappists brew to support their works at the monastery. We feel we can do something similar with our community,” Robin said. “We’re using some of our beer to kick off a fundraising series [to support the] things we love in Bend.”

The Samaritan Saison will be the first such beer, with funds going to a yet-to-be-determined charity, likely dealing with environmental causes.

While Monkless may only have opened its taproom last summer, it’s clear that the Clements are making strides in the beer world. At March’s Oregon Beer Awards, Monkless walked away with a Gold (for Friar’s Festivus *in the Flavored Beer Category) and a Silver (for the Dubbel style *Dubbel or Nothing in the Belgian Beer Category). Oh, it was also Monkless’s first ever beer competition.

So it’s safe to say that Monkless is starting to take the Oregon brewing world by storm, and with an open taproom and packaged bottles, it looks like Todd and Robin are just starting to show what old world and new world can do together.

“I love the Rochefort 10, the St. Bernardus Abt 12, the Westmalle Tripel,” Clement said. “I want to make something like those that people are going to want again and again. I’m pretty happy with how we’re doing so far.”

For more about Monkless Belgian Ales, visit their website at Monkless.com.

Written by Ryan Murray

Featured image courtesy of Monkless Belgian Ales

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