I’ve noticed monasteries make exquisite artisanal products: the cheeses at St. Benedict Abbey in Quebec, the chocolate bourbon fudge at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Bardstown. So it makes sense monks produce some of the world’s most sought-after beer styles. These are known generally as Trappist ales.
There are myriad theories about how monks got started brewing, including the feudal legend that since monks gave up bread for Lent, they began making “liquid bread” to stave off hunger. The fact is the Order of Cistercians has a long brewing tradition. The Cistercians started in France when a group of Benedictines left to form their own community. These monks wanted a life of prayer and to live by the fruits of their labor. These communities often included vineyards. At the height of their influence, the Cistercians had more than 300 monasteries, but the Reformation and French Revolution marked their decline. Then Napoleon stripped the French monasteries of their lands.
Some monks fled to Belgium (and America) where they reconstituted their communities. Since growing grapes in the Low Countries was difficult, they started making beer. Along the way, the Trappists (named for the French town of La Trappe) split off and began making beer to sell for the support of their Abbeys and for charitable causes.
Today, Trappists are revered brewers with their own brand identity. To make a beer carrying the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo, the beer must be brewed within a monastery or have monks supervising, and the brewery’s purpose is subservient to the monastery’s and subject to monastic business practices. Profits must be used for upkeep and any excess donated to the monastery’s charitable ventures. The monks also monitor quality.
Currently, 11 breweries are in the fold. These include the beers of Achel, Chimay, La Trappe, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren and Westmalle; plus the beers of Stift Engelszell (Gregorius and Benno), Zundert (Netherlands), Spencer (USA) and Tre Fontane (Italy).
What about style and taste? Let’s take some of the more popular brands and styles:
Orval: This high-fermentation Belgian pale ale has a distinctly fruity and bitter taste that’s become a benchmark for the genre. It’s dry-hopped and uses a semi-wild yeast to give it a firm body and fresh acidity.
Chimay: Once known for its dark, sweet brews, this Belgian brewery decided in the 1960s to make a drier beer and Cinq Cents (five cents) was born. Five Cents has a fluffy body, hints of malt and an intense orangey, juniper dryness at the finish.
Westmalle: This brewery produces a popular Dubbel (double). Dubbel was a stronger version of what the monks brewed for themselves, so they named it “double.” It’s a malty, chocolaty brew with hints of banana and passionfruit on a dry finish – perfect for holiday gatherings- even with the dessert course.
Westvleteran: The monks at one of the smallest monasteries were overwhelmed when RateBeer.com selected their Westvleteran XII the best beer in the world (2014). That was a special edition, but 8° (Blue Cap) is more accessible. Blue Cap is very robust, suggesting plum wine or brandy. It has an almond dry finish and begs to be paired with sweet soft cheeses like Port Salut or Havarti.
So break out some monk beer this holiday season and toast the Trappists’ code: Ora (prayer) et labora (work).