Trappist Beer



A Trappist [trap-istbeer is a beer brewed by or under control of Trappist monks. There are a total of 174 Trappist monasteries worldwide; only seven (six in Belgium, one in the Netherlands) produce Trappist beer and are authorized to label their beers with the Authentic Trappist Product logo that indicates a compliance to the various rules of the International Trappist Association.

The Trappist order originated in the Cistercian monastery of La Trappe, France. Various Cistercian congregations existed for many years, and by 1664 the Abbot of La Trappe felt that the Cistercians were becoming too liberal. He introduced strict new rules in the abbey and the Strict Observance was born. Since this time, many of the rules have been relaxed. However, a fundamental tenet, that monasteries should be self-supporting, is still maintained by these groups.

Monastery brewhouses, from different religious orders, existed all over Europe, since the Middle Ages. From the very beginning, beer was brewed in French cistercian monasteries following the Strict Observance. For example, the monastery of La Trappe in Soligny already had its own brewery in 1685. Breweries were only later introduced in monasteries of other countries, following the extension of the trappist order from France to the rest of Europe. The Trappists, like many other religious people, originally brewed beer to feed the community, in a perspective of self-sufficiency. Nowadays, trappist breweries also brew beer to fund their works and for good causes.

Many of the trappist monasteries and breweries were destroyed during the French Revolution and the World Wars. Among the monastic breweries, the Trappists were certainly the most active brewers: in the last 300 years, there were at least nine Trappist breweries in France, six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, one in Germany, one in Austria, one in Bosnia and possibly other countries. Today, seven trappist breweries remain active, 6 in Belgium and 1 just over the Belgian border, in the Netherlands.

In the twentieth century, the growing popularity of Trappist beers led some brewers with no connection to the order to label their beers ‘Trappist.’ After unsuccessful trials, monks finally sued one such brewer in 1962 in Ghent, Belgium.

The designation ‘abbey beers’ (Bières d’Abbaye or Abdijbier) was originally used for any monastic or monastic-style beer. After the introduction of an official Trappist beer designation by the International Trappist Association in 1997, it came to mean products similar in style or presentation to monastic beers.

With the recent exception of Koningshoeven’s Bockbier, Trappist beers are all ales, that is, top fermented, and mainly bottle conditioned.

Trappist breweries use various systems of nomenclature of the different beers produced, which relate mainly to the relative strength of the beer in the range. The best known is the system where different beers are called Enkel, Dubbel, and Tripel — single, double and triple in English. Enkels are no longer brewed. Colors can be used to indicate the different types, dating back to the days when bottles were unlabelled and had to be identified by the capsule or bottle-top alone. Chimay beer labels are based on the color system, and Westvleteren beers are still unlabelled. There is also a number system (6,8 and 10, as used by Rochefort), which gives an indication of strength, but is not necessarily an exact alcohol by volume. The brewery in Achel combines a strength and a color (of the beer itself — blond or brown) designation.

The ‘Dubbel’ is a Trappist breweries naming convention. The origin of the dubbel was a beer brewed in the Trappist Abbey of Westmalle in 1856. ‘Westmalle Dubbel’ was imitated by other breweries, Trappist and commercial, Belgian and worldwide, leading to the emergence of a style. ‘Dubbels’ are now understood to be a fairly strong (6%-8% ABV) brown ale, with understated bitterness, fairly heavy body, and a pronounced fruitiness and cereal character. Examples are: Westmalle Dubbel, Chimay Red/Premiere, Koningshoeven/La Trappe Dubbel and Achel 8 Bruin, Rochefort 8.

‘Tripel’ (or triple ale), is a naming convention used by Belgian Trappist breweries to describe the strongest beer in their range. Westmalle Tripel is considered to be the foundation of this beer style, and was developed in the 1930s. Achel 8 Blond, Westmalle Tripel, Koningshoeven/La Trappe Tripel, and Chimay White/Cinq Cents are all examples of Trappist tripels, but this style has proven even more popular among secular breweries like Bosteels and St. Bernardus. Tripels as a style are generally beers with an alcohol content ranging from 8% to 10% ABV.

Most Trappist breweries also feature a ‘patersbier’ or ‘fathers’ beer’ that is only available within the monastery. This variety is designed to be consumed by the monks themselves, although it is sometimes offered at the monastery’s on-site café. The term ‘patersbier’ does not designate a style; it is usually a weaker version of the one of the regular beers, and may only be offered to the Brothers only on festive occasions, both of these facts relating to the Trappist tradition of austerity. Examples include Chimay Dorée and Petite Orval.

Enkel, meaning ‘single,’ is a term formerly used by the Trappist breweries to describe the basic recipe of their beers. There are now no Trappist (or secular) breweries using the term. Instead, ‘Blond(e)’ (La Trappe, Westvleteren), ‘5’ (Achel) or ‘6’ (Rochefort) are used to describe the brewery’s lightest beer. An Enkel could fulfil the role of a patersbier, as was the case with De Koningshoeven’s when it was in production.

Quadrupel is the name La Trappe give to an ale they brew which is stronger than their tripel.

Belgian breweries have a tradition of providing custom beer glasses: with Trappist breweries, this often takes the form of providing ‘chalice’ or ‘goblet’ style glasses. The distinction between goblet and chalice is typically in the glass thickness. Goblets tend to be more delicate and thin, while the chalice is heavy and thick walled. Some chalices are even etched on the bottom to nucleate a stream of bubbles for maintaining a nice head.

The idea of visiting Trappist monasteries to sample their beers has become more popular in recent years, partly due to promotion by enthusiasts such as the ‘beer hunter’ Michael Jackson. Most brewing monasteries maintain a visitor’s center where their beers can be tasted and bought (sometimes with other monastic products such as bread and cheese). Visits to the monastery itself are usually not available to the general public. Although you can overnight in some of the monasteries (like Achel), if your purpose is non-touristic.

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