What is Trappist Beer?
23 May 2016, By Jonny Garrett
Put simply, Trappist beer is beer made by or under the supervision of monks within the walls of a Benedictine abbey. I know what you’re thinking – if only defining craft beer was so simple! But it is a little more complicated than that, and at points the definition of Trappist beer has been no less controversial than the definition of craft beer.
“Benedictine” refers to a section of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance that follows St Benedict’s Rule (try saying that after a few Rochefort 10s). To join the order they take three vows – stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience. Contrary to popular belief they do not take a vow of silence, but talking is discouraged. Thus they eat and drink their beer in near-silence, much like the 11am customers of a Wetherspoon.
But why do they brew Trappist beer?
The term Trappist comes from the abbey of La Trappe in Normandy, where the movement was formed. As always seems to be the case, it started with one man being unhappy with the relaxation of rules and deciding to found his own. So it may seem strange that they have become so famous for the production of that rowdy liquid, beer. The reasoning is that an important tenant of being a Trappist monk is that they work with their hands – thus to fund the monastery inhabitants must do manual labour rather than any other kind. As a result, you’ll find most monasteries out in the countryside, surrounded by fields with livestock and crops.
As should be obvious now, beer is only one of the products they produce. Trappist abbeys are also famous for producing cheese, bread, wool, clothing and even in one case, coffins.
Of the 170 Trappist monasteries in the world, just 11 produce beer but between them they brew some of the most famous and exceptional beers ever made (see below for our favourites). It’s probably not all charity – monks only eat in the morning and evening, so they also brewed a sustaining beer to enjoy at lunchtime and give them the energy to make it through the day while toiling, so the pressure was really on to brew something to look forward to.
To count as a true Trappist beer and to be given permission to use the Trappist logo on bottles, the beer must be produced within the walls of the abbey, by or under the supervision of monks, and the profit must go towards the upkeep of the abbey or charitable causes in the local area. Who is in and out of this exclusive club is decided by the International Trappist Association, who have come up against some issues in the past.
The most famous one was relating to La Trappe brewery in the Netherlands. In 1999, with the average age of its monks rising, the arduous manual work of brewing was becoming too much for them. As a result the monastery essentially contracted out the brewing to megacorp Bavaria, who did the day-to-day work for them. The Association believed this was against the ideals of the Trappist movement, and for 6 years the beers were not allowed to bear the Trappist logo. An agreement was struck in 2005 to allow them back into the fold, in return for the monks supervising the brewing for several hours each day. A monk also staffs the shop and museum attached to the brewery, which makes for a rare chance to meet a Trappist monk.
La Trappe make some great beers, but none of them make our top list. The quality of the products that come out of Trappist abbeys is nothing short of astounding, led by a focus on small batches, quality ingredients and great care taken in looking after beers once made. During a tour of Westmalle brewery, we were amazed to see the precision with which the beers are cared for. Both their dubbel and tripel are lagered for weeks rather than filtered, and stored in temperature controlled warehouses to ferment a second time in bottle before being shipped. This attention to detail is why some of these beers are regarded as the best in the world in their style. And all but one is available on Beer Merchants year round.
You probably won’t love it the first time you try it, but I guarantee you will end up listing it among your favourites. True it is an unusual flavour to those uninitiated in the world of brett – which can give off anything from orange pith to dry cider to farmyard funk – but the depth of flavour it lends this deep amber beers is remarkable, helped out by the dry hopping it receives. Since the brett is added during bottling, the beer is fantastic for ageing too. The brett yeast slowly eats up all the sugar, changing it from a zingy hoppy beer to a deeply ciderous and funky beast over the first 6-9 months.
Known as the “mother of tripels”, when this beer was brewed in the early 1900s it was the first of its kind. This bready, spicy, bittersweet beer is one of the wonders of the beer world, and the fact it was conceived and originally brewed exclusively by monks makes it even more special. Since its conception, thousands of other brewers have tried to make something with the same depth and rounded spicy bite but no one has bettered this stunning, sippable beer.
It may be the XII that gets all the headlines, but we prefer the VIII – a jet black dubbel style beer with huge yeasty esters. If that means nothing to you, think lots of stone fruits and banana, balanced by some dark fruits and just the teeniest hint of toasted bread. Best enjoyed with stews or cheeses, and followed up with a XII.
We rank this beer above the Westvleteren XII, which is often hailed as the best beer in the world. Quite how you can make a claim when beer is so varied is beyond us, but we might try to make a case for Rochefort. At 11.3% this deserves to be treated with respect. It’s almost black, with a treacle colour head and lively carbonation. On the nose you get loads of prunes, dates, liquorice and a slight sherry aroma if it’s been aged well. On the palate it’s sticky dark fruits and a little hint of warming booze, lifted by the bubbles to never become too cloying. It’s fantastic with game, desserts and particularly mature cheeses.
Chimay is the second biggest Trappist brewery after La Trappe, and that’s meant its been able to expand its range and reach all around the world. Recently its expanded into barrel-aged beers which is very exciting, and we were lucky enough to get our hands on the barrel-aged version of their dark dubbel beer, Blue. It sold our pretty fast, but their normal blue is still a classic example of the Belgian dubbel, loaded with dark fruits and banana esters.