Trappist & Abbey Ales: Part I

KippySipsWine -authentic trapppist beer

What are ‘Trappist’ beers? What’s an ‘Abbey’ beer? How do they differ in style, or are they the same? Where did these delicious brews come from? So many questions! Thank God (pun intended) that there are enough of these types of yummy beers to sip on whilst we #figureitout!

First, we should clarify that neither ‘Trappist’ nor ‘Abbey’ is a single style of beer. Second, we should let you know that we will discuss the different styles and characteristics of both Trappist and Abbey ales in next week’s blog, as we have quite a bit of ground to cover this week- we like to keep you in suspense!

Currently, genuine Trappist beers are protected by the International Trappist Association. Each bare a hexagonal logo which guarantees their authenticity. There are now nine recognized and certified Trappist breweries to date. Six reside in Belgium: Orval, Rochefort, Chimay, Achel, Westmalle, Westvleteren, while Monts des Cats of France, Stift Engelszell of Austria and Koningshoeven of the Netherlands complete the remainder of the beer producing monasteries. How these Trappist monasteries with their infamous brews came to be requires a wee lesson in history dating back to the Middle Ages in Belgium and France.

Modern Europe remains littered with ancient nostalgic pubs and beer halls alongside churches and monasteries. Wait….booze and religion….together?! Yep, you bet! During the Middle Ages when water was questionably unsafe to consume, and beer was boiled and therefore a safer (tastier!) option, a few religious orders and their devout monks stuck to making and consuming their own alcohol (ie. beer) as a sound way of quenching thirst. What a great way to sustain one’s self! If only we could personally thank that genius of a French Monk, Dom Perignon for giving us Champagne!

The name ‘Trappist’ itself originates from the La Trappe Abbey near Normandy, France. The Cistercians were a religious order beginning in the 1100’s who dedicated their lives to the Catholic Church. A group of their cloistered monks branched off and created a sub ‘family’ or ‘community’ who became known as ‘Trappists’. These monks gave rise in 1664 to “The Cistercian Order of Strict Observance”. The faithfully dedicated monks lived by three rules: prayer (of course), silence (quel surprise!) and by the labour of their hands- including the production of brewing beer for their own consumption.

The French Revolution left many Abbaye’s ransacked and destroyed in its wake, and sent monks fleeing and into hiding for their safety for quite some time. It wasn’t until the 1830’s that Belgian Trappist monasteries were slowly restored, and beer production by Trappist monks began once again. In the early 1930’s, Westmalle and Orval opened up the market to make their beers commercially available. Their spiritual and methodic brewing process created a high quality product, and many consumers recognized this.

Soon, other breweries caught wind that these Trappist beers were gaining popularity, and they decided to get on the ‘holy’ bandwagon too, religious or not. Perhaps we could call it the primitive stages of beer marketing, as some of these non-religious breweries were simply slapping a picture of a monk on their bottles, in hopes that their consumers would buy into the illusion of a high quality product. Other breweries grew consciences and built relationships with some of the monks while donating a portion of their profits to some monastic communities.

In 1962, the Belgian Trade and Commerce Court designated only seven Cistercian monasteries as authentic ‘Trappist’ Breweries. Any other breweries mimicking their ‘styles’ (as there are multiple to be discussed next week), or producing beer in the same monastic Trappist fashion, were then referred to as ‘Abbey’ beers. The Union of Belgian brewers in 1999 introduced a logo for certified Belgian Abbey breweries that were granted to brew beer under license to an existing or abandoned abbey. It was expected that a portion of the profits were to be donated to the abbey itself, or to a charity of choice.

‘Trappist’ is not a style of beer, but rather its process and production is governed by its constant monitoring and religious oversight (or ‘monk supervision’). Authentic Trappist beers may only be produced within the walls of the monasteries recognized by the International Trappist Association. These communities within the monasteries determine the policies and means of production and beer profits are strictly to support the needs of these monastic communities as well as providing for the necessities social services. Despite its deliciously divine success, beer brewed by the Trappists is not to be the main focus of the monastery; it’s merely a ‘side project’, if you will.

Abbey beers, (such as Leffe or Corsendonk) although not brewed by Trappists, continue to maintain the integrity of their product, as well as paying back ‘dues’ to the monasteries with their historical recipes that taught them how to brew delicious beer….And we get to reap the benefits, Amen to that!

Read Part 2 of Trappist & Abbey Ales

Written by Kristin Perrin
Originally posted for Brother Bistro Blog

References: The Oxford Companion to Beer, by: Garrett Oliver, At The Brewmasters Table, by: Garrett Oliver

Trappist Beers and Monks, (accessed November 19th, 2013)

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