Trappist Ale: the tasty potion that’s brewed with devotion

PINTS by Jason Foster

Most everyone knows about the monks who brew beer. Many also recognize the term Trappist Ale. Fewer recognize that Trappist is a special designation that applies to very few breweries in the world.

So what’s going on with these crazy monks and their Trappist beer anyway?

Monks have brewed beer for centuries. There are records across Europe of monasteries brewing their own beer, either to support themselves or to feed the local community. However, in the 1600s the Cistercian Order took the craft to the next level. In an attempt to rid the Order of its more liberal tendencies, the Abbot at La Trappe monastery in France invoked an edict that, among others things, required Cistercian abbeys to be self-sufficient. This, unintentionally and ironically, entrenched brewing as a way to sustain the monastery.

The term Trappist Ale comes from this original monastery.

Over the centuries, other orders slowly ceased their brewing practices, and by the 1800s the only monks who had a consistent tradition of brewing were those of the Cistercian Order. It wasn’t until the early-20th century, though, that the tradition broke into the commercial beer world.

Today, Trappist Ales have a recognizable flavour, one frequently copied by secular breweries around the world. However those styles, which I’ll discuss momentarily, only started to take shape in the 1930s. Before that, much of the monks’ beer was indistinguishable from that made by lay brewers around them.

Because Trappist beer was so unique and flavourful, brewers increasingly began to copycat and hone in on the monk’s reputation. For that reason in the 1990s the brewing monks banded together to form the International Trappist Association to control and protect the Trappist brand.

Currently there are 11 breweries allowed to use the official Trappist designation. They include six in Belgium: Westmalle, Rochefort, Chimay, Orval, Achel and Westveleteren (which is one of the rarest and most sought after beers in the world); two in the Netherlands: Zundert (Abdij Maria Toevlucht) and La Trappe (Koeningshoeven); Austria: Stift Engelszell; Italy: Tre Fontane; and one, believe it or not, in the U.S.: Spencer (St. Joseph’s).

To be eligible for designation, a brewery must meet four criteria.

First, the beer must be brewed within the walls of the monastery with the monks taking an active hand in its production (they are allowed to hire/contract non-monks to assist them). Second, the operation must be strictly non-profit, designed to cover the monastery’s expenses, with any excess donated to community causes. Third, the brewery must be of secondary importance to the monastic life. And finally, there is strict quality control to ensure the beer sold from the breweries is of the finest standard.

Most of the breweries are quite small, producing less annually than your local microbrewer, although some (notably Westmalle, Chimay and La Trappe) do have sizeable production volumes. Their relative scarcity contributes to their desired status among beer fans.

Their beer is an anchor of Belgian-style ales, boasting the instantly recognizable spicy yeast character that makes Belgian ales famous.

While there is diversity, most of the Trappist monasteries produce examples of the classic styles Dubbel and Tripel. A Dubbel is a dark beer with moderate alcohol strength (6-7%) accented by burnt sugar, raisin and earthy spiciness. Tripel is larger (about 9%) but much lighter in both body and colour, offering a delicate grainy malt and a distinct peppery spiciness in the linger.

The terms Dubbel (double) and Tripel (triple) come from a quirky naming convention in Belgium that links the beer to its alcoholic strength. The base beer, Single, is designed as a table beer for daily consumption by the monks. Only the U.S. monastery, Spencer, commercially sells its table beer.

A number of the monasteries produce beers that do not fit that general categorization. All of Rochefort’s beers, for example, are dark. Westveleteren (selectively) sells a Blonde Ale, and Orval beer, if aged, develops a distinct yet attractive barnyard flavour.

You can, of course, get secular versions of these styles from a variety of breweries. Many market them as “Abbey Ales” to create a link to the monks. Some go as far as to create pseudo-Catholic branding to drive the point home. And while the beer might be just as good (and it often is), it lacks the ethos of a true Trappist Ale — which is why the monks felt the need to create an association to protect their unique approach.

So, Trappist is not a style. It is not a trademark. Instead, it’s a recognition of a historical and cultural approach to brewing that is rare in today’s world.

So whether you’re Catholic or not, I’m pretty sure you can warm up to the products of the drunk monks.