EACH BOTTLE OF St. Stefanus Blonde Ale is stamped with the vaguely impressive ‘anno 1295’ and the flowing signature of its brewmaster, Jef Versele. Where did this 700-year-old beer come from and why have we missed it before now? Is it a gift from the brewing gods, whose cup runneth over, or some newfangled conglomerate licensing scheme? A little bit of both, as it turns out.
On the one hand, the Augustinian order of Sint Stefanus dates back to 1295 in Ghent, Belgium. Its members undoubtedly brewed beer as part of their monastic life and perhaps continued to do so for centuries. On the other hand, the name Augustijn has been licensed to Brouwerij Van Steenberge for commercial production since 1978, giving the company a solid marketing angle and the monks a welcome royalty check. More recently the brand was re-launched for distribution to the U.S. via Tenth and Blake and changed its name to St. Stefanus to avoid trademark dispute with the German Augustiner Bräu. Just perhaps, too, in faint hopes of riding the tremendously successful coattails of St. Bernardus, another latter-day commercial spin on abbey precedent that is arguably the world’s best abbey-style brewer.
Tenth and Blake, meanwhile, is the subsidiary MillerCoors established to compete with (or engage with, as they might prefer to say) the American craft segment. Taking on a Belgian abbey beer of any size is a serious step for a lager-slinging corporation whose closest claim to Benelux majesty is the Dutch Grolsch. They have chosen well, as Van Steenberge is a family-owned company internationally renowned for Gulden Draak and Piraat, among others. Their third-generation owner and sixth-generation brewer? Jef Versele.
So that is how the filaments entwine in this particular web, which can be summarized as such: a brand new name for an old-ish beer brewed by a new-ish company for a very old order. And probably featuring a few recipe tweaks to ensure its production can keep up with MillerCoors’ production schedules and rigors.
Now, relieved that we’ve not overlooked an ancient treasure yet with interest sufficiently piqued, let’s cease the talk and commence the tasting.
This golden ale pours with a weaker head than expected from a Belgian abbey blonde, but otherwise its first impressions are textbook: a deep golden radiance, churning bubbles (90% natural effervescence), and an aromatic wash of peach, light stone fruits, subtle alcohol, a smidge of yeast, and some lightly kilned grain. On the palate its body is medium light early on, smooth nearly like honey before dissolving creamily into the effervescence and mild yeast textures of the finish. A slight phenol edge slices in at the finish along with mild alcohol warmth from the 7% ABV. Versele claims that a wild yeast strain is what makes St. Stefanus unique and there is indeed a faint whiff of sourness, but it is so light as to evade notice without being mentioned.
Indeed, at first it seemed that this bottle might simply be too young for the yeast to have worked through remaining sugars and exuded more distinctive traits. However, the 4-12 marking on the bottle suggests that this sample is at least 18 months old. Its fresher notes (clove, cinnamon, or banana) have faded into a more mature array, but the overall impression is still not as complex as desired. While it’s worth recalling that this is a standard blonde and thus not as robust as a tripel or strong golden ale, at the least a stronger wheat presence would have helped round out the profile with better head retention and spiciness.
St. Stefanus is authentically Belgian, that’s undeniable, and beneath its newfangled branding is a legitimate recipe with some history behind it. Still, with its streamlined form and rounded edges, it’s no surprise MillerCoors felt safe in its company.
Served: 33 cl bottled April 2012