The name ‘Trappist’ refers both to a religious order and to the world famous abbey beers that they produce. In Belgium there are six abbeys that belong to the order of the Trappists, otherwise known as the Cistercians of Strict Observance.
They are: Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren, and they all brew beer.
The name Trappist comes from the French abbey of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe where the order was born. Trappist monks live a simple life following the rules laid down by St. Benedict in the 6th century CE.
Their lives are filled with prayer and work, ora et labora in Latin. Their needs and those of their abbeys are funded by what the monks themselves produce, including most famously brewing beer and making cheese.
St Bernard believed monks should ‘live by the work of their hands’, and Trappist monasteries have always strived to be self-supporting. The abbeys also donate a large proportion of their income to charity.
Secular brewers were quick to realize the commercial potential of the abbeys, with their mystical atmosphere and superb high-quality beers. The Trappist name started to jump up here, there and everywhere, usually attached to heavy and dark beers that were not always worthy of the Trappist name.
The appeal of Trappist beers has now spread far beyond Belgium’s borders, and so-called Trappist beers can be found in the most surprising places. Some beers are not what the label would like you to believe they are.
It’s good news for beer lovers that in recent times moves have been made to protect the Trappist name.
There are now authentic Trappist beers being produced in the Netherlands, France, Austria and the USA as well as Belgium.
In the early 1990s the International Trappist Association introduced the Authentic Trappist Product trademark. Beers bearing this label have been brewed within the walls of a Trappist abbey and according to Trappist rules.
The production of Trappist beers is never outsourced to any other brewery. Historically, the monks wielded the brewing stick themselves.
These days this is only the case at the Westvleteren brewery in the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren.
However, the monks are still closely involved with the marketing side of the business. Anything that does not comply with the Trappist spirit gets the thumbs down. For example, a marketing executive once came up with the idea to launch a Westmalle tripel ‘grande réserve’.
He proudly presented his project to Father Abbot, who asked him straight away what was inside this snazzy bottle. ‘Is that our ordinary tripel?’ The marketing chap could only say that yes, it was. ‘So why don’t you just put ‘tripel’ on the label?’ Back to basics.
The rules followed by the Trappists fly completely against the principles of commercial brewery management. If the Trappists behaved like a conventional business they would be able to sell their entire output umpteen times over.
Demand far exceeds supply, especially now that customers abroad have also fallen for abbey beers. But the laws of supply and demand are not part of the Rule of St Benedict.
As an example, in 2005, Ratebeer.com awarded Westvleteren Abt (now called Westvleteren 12) the ‘best beer in the world’ crown. What happened?
The abbey was inundated with enquiries. People were queueing for hours just to get a crate of this wonderful beer. However, the monks did not give in to this explosive demand.
Today, as they have done for so long, they continue to produce around 400,000 liters each year.
This happens to be the volume what is needed to fund the requirements of the abbey and to support its charitable works. After all, the monks do not live to brew, they brew to live. You can only purchase Westvleteren beer from the abbey itself. You call a special beer telephone line to reserve a time when you can collect your maximum of two crates.
In the meantime, you can buy Westvleteren on the grey market at prices that will make you hallucinate.
In contrast, you can buy Trappist Orval beer in beer shops and it’s also served in cafés. Around 7 million liters of Orval are produced each year.
The abbeys have invested in their infrastructure in recent years, but increasing demand from abroad means that Trappist beers are still often out of stock. This success hasn’t come out of nowhere. Just as the Trappist monks are wary of commercial compromises, they will not compromise or adulterate their products in any way. If the beer does not meet their strict criteria it won’t be marketed.
Many Trappist beers are so full of character that they are considered reference beers in their category. For example, Westmalle Tripel, launched in the 1930s to help fund a new brewing hall is called the ‘mother of all tripels’.
The ‘Trappist beer’ name covers a wide range beers - medium to strong, blonde, copper-colored and dark - offering a great variety of aromas and tastes. Like the ‘abbey beers’,
Trappist is not a protected beer style. The name merely refers to the origin – the Trappist abbey – and to the rules under which the beer is produced.
The annual production volume and the marketing of a brewery such as Chimay can give rise to questions about the Trappist principles.
Chimay produces around 17 million liters per-year and is the main exporter amongst the Trappists. In addition to the beer they produce their own cheese.
Why do they want to continue growing their business, albeit gradually?
The answer is that they provide valuable jobs in a region characterized by high unemployment. Westmalle sticks to a production of 12 million liters, most of which is destined for the local market.
Rochefort limits the production of its well-known dark beers to 4 million liters. Achel dangles right at the bottom of the ladder with a production of around 300,000 liters.
At first sight, it would appear that all these Trappists are competing against each other in a single marketplace (though a beer such as Orval is so unique that it attracts its own public).
And it would not be good for one abbey’s success to come at the expense of production that helps keep another alive.
However, the Trappists inspire strong local allegiances.
For example, Westmalle is drunk in and around Antwerp. Rochefort is the Trappist of choice in part of the Ardennes; Orval has a strong presence in other parts of the region.
Trappist traditions tend to filter through into local brewing cultures.
Ask a brewer from the Orval area where he procures his yeast and you can bet your bottom dollar that it will come from Orval Abbey. Many brewers seek help from their local abbey brewery for analysis of their beers.
The Trappist breweries also co-operate closely with each other behind the scenes.
If you delve into a brewery archive you will find that some monk-brewers have done the rounds of all the Trappist abbeys. Once a Trappist, always a Trappist.