Monks have long played a part in brewing, with evidence dating back to the fifth century. Beer, typically safer than drinking water in those times, was a staple, and even served nutritional needs during periods of fasting—good old “liquid bread.”
But perhaps the first monks who come to mind when discussing brewing are the Trappists. Officially the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, the Trappists are a diverging order of the Cistercians, which were founded by three fellows in Dijon, France who would later be canonized as saints. The monks and nuns adhered to the monastic principles of St. Benedict: poverty, simplicity in prayer and worship, manual labor to support themselves, and avoidance of secular affairs.
The Trappists owe their strict observance of poverty and the simple life to a man who lived quite the opposite. Born into wealth in 1626, Armand-Jean Le Bouthillier de Rancé used family connections to obtain titles at several religious institutions, including “commendatory abbot” at three abbeys (meaning he wasn’t exactly running the monastery, but earning money from it). He lived the high life, even turning down a bishopric, for it would have meant a lower income.
But deaths close to him turned him introspective, and with his spiritual conversion, he rejected his former ways. In 1662, he became Abbot of La Trappe Abbey in Soligny-la-Trappe, Orne, France, a monastery he had once profited from but hadn’t ever seen. He initiated strict reforms to the order, returning them to their hard labor, penitence, and non-worldly focus. Thus, the Trappist order was born. Some of the monasteries chose brewing to satisfy their work requirements, and to contribute to their food needs.
The Trappist Label
Trappist beers have earned a reputation for their quality, and a bit of added value for exclusivity. But the name is not a particular style of beer, but rather an association with the order. To protect that name, eight monasteries formed the International Trappist Association in 1997.
While Trappist monasteries are numerous—there are over 160 worldwide, including 15 in the United States alone—only 12 produce beer with the designation “Authentic Trappist Product.” The rules for the ATP label are simple: The beer must be produced within a Trappist monastery; the process must be performed or overseen by the monks; and the profits must only be used to provide for the needs of the monastery and charitable causes.
You will find other “abbey” beers on the market, some even using Trappist yeasts, but these dubbels, tripels, and other styles are typically brewed by commercial breweries.
Trappists in Belgium
Belgium is home to six Trappist breweries. While the order got its start next door in France, there is only one Trappist beer seller there: Mont des Cats Abbey. But even those brews are made over the border at Chimay Brewery within Scourmont Abbey.
Chimay ales are highly regarded and often referred to by their label colors: red, white, blue, and gold. The blue Grand Reserve, a Christmas ale, is the darker and stronger of them, and also comes in a barrel-aged variety. The white Cinq Cents is a golden tripel. Chimay produces cheeses to pair with them all.
Westmalle Brewery is about as easy to find as Chimay. They produce a dark reddish dubbel (7 percent ABV) and a fruity golden tripel (9.5 percent ABV) that are readily available in bottles. Their third brew, Westmalle Extra, is reserved for the monks themselves—and perhaps a fortunate lunch guest.
Brouwerij Westvleteren is the stuff of legend. Located within the St. Sixtus Abbey, the brewery produces three ales known by numbers and bottle-cap colors: 6 (green), 8 (blue), and 12 (yellow). The latter, Westvleteren 12 (XII), is a 10.5 percent ABV quadrupel that is often billed as the best beer in the world.
The official way to get some? Go to their web store at TrappistWestvleteren.be/en, where you will find a calendar for sale dates and corresponding pick-up times. Production is limited, so it may be months before you can make the purchase, and pick-up must be done in person at the abbey. (Alternatively, you might find it being resold online, often for more than $40 for a 1/3-liter bottle, or in the triple digits for a selection of three or more.)
Trivia note: St. Bernardus Brewery, while not Trappist, counted the Westvleteren brewmaster as a partner when it opened in 1945. The brewery produced the beers for St. Sixtus with the same recipes and yeast strain until 1992. You can find St. Bernardus beers in the United States and they are still similar to St. Sixtus’ in recipe and quality. St. Bernardus Abt 12, a quadrupel, gets a score of 99/100 on BeerAdvocate.com.
Orval Brewery, inside Notre-Dame d’Orval Abbey, brews an eponymous beer created in 1931 by a Bavarian brewer. The dry-hopped, light-colored ale uses Brettanomyces bruxellensis, a special yeast often referred to as “brett,” giving it a touch of sour funkiness. It ferments again in the bottle, so store it cap-up at cool temperatures (the fridge is OK if you plan on drinking it, or about 54 degrees F if you are aging it) or it might explode or foam out when you pour it.
Rochefort Abbey started brewing in 1899, and today, like St. Sixtus, has three numbered brews: 6 (red cap, 7.5 percent ABV), 8 (green cap, 9.2 percent ABV), and 10 (blue cap, 11.3 percent ABV).
Finally, Achel Brewery, the smallest of the bunch, produces six bruin (brown) and blonde beers of varying strengths.
Two Trappist breweries operate in the Netherlands. One is within Koningshoeven Abbey, which produces a brand simply known as La Trappe. The brewery suggests you “Taste the Silence” with nine varieties ranging from a witte beer to an oak-aged quadrupel. Right in the middle is a bock beer, a style I recently wrote about.
Another Dutch Trappist beer is from Trappistenbrouwerij De Kievit. Founded within the Maria Toevlucht Abbey in 2013 as an alternative to farming, the brewery produces Zundert Trappist 8, an 8 percent ABV ale with a light caramel sweetness, finishing dry with a touch of hoppy bitterness.
Tre Fontane Abbey in Rome and Stift Engelszell in Austria started brewing in the last 10 years, and in 2018, Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, England, began producing Tynt Meadow, an English strong ale that is fairly hard to come by except locally. Demand is high, but as the purpose of production is only to sustain the monks, it is unlikely they will increase the volume.
American Trappist Beer?
Spencer Brewery at St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts became the first American Trappist brewery in 2013. Originally, the monastery supported itself by producing and selling preserves, but saw brewing as an improved source of revenue for their charities, as well as a traditional monk practice. A team of brothers traveled to Belgium to consult with the other Trappist brewers and to develop a plan, and the results are some very fine beers.
Their classic Trappist ale, along with a holiday ale and a monks’ reserve ale, may satisfy any Belgian abbey expectations, but intriguingly, they also brew a pilsner, an IPA, and an imperial stout, as well as some fruited beers, which sounds quite in line with the American craft beer scene.
Kevin Revolinski is an avid traveler and the author of 15 books, including “The Yogurt Man Cometh: Tales of an American Teacher in Turkey” and several outdoor and brewery guidebooks. He is based in Madison, Wis., and his website is TheMadTraveler.com