Saint Benedict’s Brews

A Taste and History of Trappist Beer in Four Parts

An Introduction

Sure, most of us have heard of Chimay, the Belgian ale served in those wine-sized  bottles and the best-known of the Trappist beers.  But what does it mean for beer to be Trappist?  More importantly, what does this little noticed and often misunderstood designator mean in the greater world of both Belgian and European beer varieties?  Over the next several days  I’ll discuss these questions in a four part series.

Part one will focus on Trappist beer’s history.  Part two will address the Trappist name’s protection as applied to its beer.  Part three will focus on my endeavor to find all the Trappist-approved beer.  And finally, in part four,  I will write about the fruits of my search.

So please, sit down, settle in, and join me on this journey back through monasteries, world wars, and globalization, beginning in Medieval Europe and ending in modern suburban Virginia.

While you read, remember the Trappists’ words: une bière brassée avec savoir se dèquste avec saqesse –  a beer brewed with love is drunk reasonably.

Part 1: Prayer, Work, and Protection 

Belgium produces a seemingly endless number of beers given its small geographic size and understated history within greater Europe.  Britain, France, and Germany – Europe’s traditional Big Three – do produce more beer per capita, but many consider tiny Belgium the true home of European ale.

Situated in a quiet northwest corner of the continent, Belgians – like their German neighbors to the east – have also maintained breweries during the past millennium.  Breweries that continued to produce throughout times of war, pestilence, and upheaval were located in monasteries and abbeys, thereby protected by their self-selected removal from secular society.

Year after year, the monks and nuns of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance – more popularly known as Trappists (and Trappistines) – focused on two priorities: ora et labora – prayer and work.  Work consisted of manual labor as well as economic activities meant to sustain the abbey and provide community service.  Members of the Order produced numerous varieties of products: foods such as breads, chocolate, cheese, and honey; beer and a few liquors; and cosmetic salves and oils, religious candles, Eucharistic breads, and liturgical vestments.

As centuries passed, the Trappist monasteries and abbeys became known for their long-standing brewing expertise.  Early in the 20th Century, commercial brewers quickly realized they could exploit this reputation by labeling their product as an abbey-ale when it was in fact, not.  Pictures of drinking monks soon began appearing on bottle labels, which stood in marked contrast to their cloistered and pious lifestyles.

Individual monasteries decided it was time to protect their religious order’s name and reputation.

Part 2: The ITA and Trappist Beers

The 20th Century brought Belgium’s localized brewing industry into the modern era.  Two world wars exposed European and North American soldiers to unheard of beers.  Monastic and abbey names, like the Trappist name, were casually and liberally applied to Belgian beers to increase sales.

Although efforts to protect the Trappist name and reputation began prior to the 1940s, it was only after World War II that Trappists decided their namesake and related products required protection from corporate attempts at duplication.  It was the Orval monks, understanding the economic value their name conveyed to the beer, cheese, and other items their monasteries produced, who initiated creating the International Trappist Association (ITA).

In late 1985 the association received Belgian commercial court backing, which agreed that “customers attribute special standards of quality to products made by monastic communities, and this is especially true of Trappist monasteries.”  The ITA then in turn created a distinctive product label “to ensure the consumer of the origin and authenticity of these products, especially in the beer market.”

Of most importance are the three criteria necessary to receive an “authentic Trappist product” label: first, “products which carry this label are produced within the walls of the monastery or in the vicinity of the monastery”; second, “the monastic community determines the policies and provides the means of production.  The whole process of production must clearly evidence the indisputable bond of subsidiary, with the monastery benefiting from the production, and must be in accordance with the business practices proper to a monastic way of life”; and third, “the profits are primarily intended to provide for the needs of the community or for social services.”

The ITA’s legal protection distinguishes Trappist from abbey or abbey-style beer.  Some abbeys brew beer and others do not; abbeys that don’t often sell licenses to use their name.  Thus, an abbey beer can be connected to a religious order in name only while Trappist beer is directly produced by one.

Would the ITA’s strict production requirements make it difficult to find Trappist beer?  I was determined to find out.

Part 3: Tracking Down the Seven

Following centuries of brewing experience, those monasteries participating in the International Trappist Association (ITA) finally possessed exclusive control of the Trappist name.  The ITA’s legal blessing in 1985 provided brand exclusivity to the food, drink, and goods produced by the participating monasteries.

The ITA is comprised of 15 monasteries of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, located in Belgium, the Netherlands, Austria, and Germany.  Of those Trappist and Trappistine monasteries, seven produce 23 authentic Trappist beers: Achel; Chimay; La Trappe Koningshoeven; Orval; Rochefort; Westmalle; and Westvleteren.  All are located in Belgium aside from La Trappe, which resides in the Netherlands.

Although the seven produce a combined total of 23 varieties, the requirement to be produced either in or near the monastery understandably limits the production quantity of the beers; Chimay is however, more widely available and thereby more recognizable than the others.

Accordingly, Chimay was not difficult to locate, being available at any number of local DC wine or liquor stores.   Three others were found at a local independent wine and beer retailer: Trappistes Rochefort 6; Westmalle Ale Trippel; and Koningshoeven Dubbel Ale.  Locating Orval Ale took a bit more work but was found a few days later at Westover Market, a hidden gem of a grocery hidden in northern Virginia’s suburbs, boasting over 925 kinds of beer in stock.

That left two.  I decided to consult the experts at Schneider’s of Capitol Hill, a DC landmark with area drinkers.  After relaying my request for Achel and Westvleteren (of any kind), they provided interesting information.  Westvleteren – or Westie – is only served at two places, both in Belgium: the monastery itself and a small tavern across the street.  And while they currently were out of Achel, a friend’s recommendation led to Chevy Chase Wine and Spirits, far up Connecticut Avenue in northwest DC.  Among their 1,200-plus choices of beer, I found Achel Blond.

Barring a last minute flight to Belgium, six out of seven would have to do.  Enjoying them would hopefully match the effort to find them.

Part 4: Delicious, Authentic Trappist Beer

Considering such effort had been expended searching for these six brews, ensuring careful enjoyment was of paramount importance.  Clearly, six bottles of potently strong Belgian ale could not be drunk all at once.  No, each bottle would need to be consumed deliberately slow to maximize the enjoyment.  I had taken special care to find each one of these Trappist beers; I would take special care to drink them leisurely and quietly.

Over the course of a few evenings they were each poured and finished.  Random choice dictated the order in which they were drunk.  First was the Chimay blue, I decided; why not start with the most common and easily available?  The regular size bottle – 11.2 ounces – was complex and refreshing, tasting slightly lighter than the same brew poured from the Magnum three liter bottle conquered a few weeks ago.  An important note – although Chimay receives criticism by being an overly commercial Trappist beer, this fact does not degrade its quality.

An evening later, the cork on the Westmalle Trippel was popped.  Being the largest of the group – the bottle holding nearly two pints – I poured roughly three equal eight ounce portions.  It did not disappoint: it was tart, slightly bitter, and wonderfully hoppy.

I had the Orval the following night.  Its reddish amber color was beautiful by the light of the setting sun and smelled sweet when poured.  The beer flowed thickly from the bottle, and after settling, had a foamy yet light head.  It too was delicious – sweet at first taste and then mildly tart, reminding me of the first time I tried grapefruit.  Even after the bottle was empty, Orval left a fruity aftertaste, allowing me to enjoy the brew a bit longer than expected.

Rochefort and Koningshoeven were enjoyed together a few nights later.  Coincidentally, both were darker and heavier than the other Trappist beers.  The Rochefort 6, a double, was medium bodied and had a thin head, unlike Westmalle or Orval.  It had a reddish, light brown color after poured and possessed a light orange scent.  When tasted, a touch of fruit was present, and it finished lightly, leaving not much of an aftertaste behind.

Koningshoeven Dubbel, the La Trappe beer made at Koningshoeven in The Netherlands, was even heavier than Rochefort and was possibly the strongest and heaviest of the five.  It had a dark amber, even full brown color and conveyed a slightly hoppy amber ale-type taste.  The double had a light to medium body and no head after pouring.  Although Koningshoeven had a low alcohol content compared to the others, it contended with Chimay as the strongest of the Trappists I found.

Because the Achel Blond was located last, it was also the final bottle savored.  It turned out to be an excellent choice to conclude the series.  When poured, the beer formed a thick and dense head similar to heavy whipping cream.  The beer was a dark and cloudy yellow and was light yet slightly bitter tasting.  And the blond finished unexpectedly clean, which provided a wonderful end to the six Trappists.

All in all, the six amounted to a completely delicious variety of medium to dark ales, each with their own tasty qualities.  Although I love Chimay – especially its availability – the Orval was a delightful surprise and perhaps a new favorite treat for special occasions.  To be sure, the history of the Trappists and their beer production absolutely aided my appreciation and enjoyment of the bottles I was able to locate.

Now, only the Westvleteren remains. Perhaps I’ll pick one up just after visiting the monastery – an excellent future epilogue story to this series.

~~~~~~~~~~

This series originally appeared in December 2010.

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Published on December 26, 2010 at 10:46 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article.
    I’ll make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful information. Thanks for the post. I will certainly comeback.

  2. Excellent post. I am going through some of these issues
    as well..


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