Beer Styles: Trappist Ales

Belgium is a rich storehouse of beers – lambic, white, fruit flavoured, sour red, saisons to name just a few – but it’s the ales made by Trappist monks that are seen by many as epitomising the country’s fascinating brewing culture.

Monks make beer in other countries, in the Catholic south of Germany in particular. But the Trappist ales of Belgium have captured the imagination of beer lovers as a result of the superb quality of the ales and the engrossing history of the monks that make them.

They first made beer to aid their gruelling work and their religious contemplation. Small amounts were sold commercially to help renovate their buildings, enable the monks to develop their missionary work – as far afield as the former Belgian Congo – and establish new communities.

Some of the monasteries have been accused of bowing to the forces of commercialism by selling increasing amounts of beer to the outside market, handing over production to lay workers, installing modern brewing plants, and cutting corners by using inferior raw materials.

In fact, the development of commercial sales following World War Two was on a “survive or die” basis. The monks’ breweries had been stripped of copper and other metals by the invading German forces to help munitions. Many of the abbeys had been damaged or destroyed. Income was desperately needed. Lay workers had always been involved in the brewing process: they are essential in abbeys where the monks are called to prayer, often on an hourly basis. The Orval brewery, for example, was at first run solely by workers from outside the abbey, though this is no longer the case.

Where modernisation is concerned, even monastic breweries get old, start to fall apart and need to be replaced. The monks vigorously deny the charge they are using cheaper materials in their beers and some are willing to break their Trappist silence to reveal the grains, hops and sugars they use.

Visits to the monasteries should give critics pause for thought. The dedication of the monks is awesome. They have stepped outside their cloisters to unite to defend their traditions against the flood of abbey beers made by commercial brewers. They acted swiftly to withdraw the Trappist credentials from the La Trappe brands produced at the Koningshoeven abbey in
the Netherlands when it was bought by a commercial brewery. The credentials have been restored since the abbot at Koningshoeven convinced the other monastic brewers that he was still firmly in charge of brewing operations.

The Trappist tradition is the result of different interpretations of the monks’ way of life, first laid down in the sixth century by St Benedict at Monte Cassino in Italy.

The Benedictine philosophy was reinterpreted in the 12th century by new ideas of stricter observance by St Bernard of Clairvaux at the Citeaux monastery in France: the Latin name for Citeaux is Cistercium and the monks who followed St Bernard were known as Cistercians.

Then monks at the abbey of La Trappe in Normandy argued for even stricter observance of religious doctrine in the 17th century. They became the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance but are better known as Trappists. At the time of the French revolution, the Trappists were driven from their lands and their abbeys were sacked. They found refuge in the Low Countries where they built new abbeys, lived off the produce of the fields, and created small breweries to offer beer to guests and pilgrims, to drink with their simple meals, and sustain them during Lent.

Brewing remains unique to each abbey. The monks are at pains to stress there is no such thing as a ‘Trappist’ style of beer. The only similarity is their beers are all warm fermented, members of the ale family, but each house style has developed in a different way.

In 1997 the monks, concerned by the confusion caused by the growing number of abbey beers, formed the International Trappist Association. The association places a common seal – Authentic Trappist Product – on their beers and also on their cheeses. The seal is an appellation, a guarantee of origin.

Article continues in Beers of the World magazine issue 25

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