The Holy History of Trappist Beers

Typically each issue I cover the history and details behind a specific style of beer, hence the column name, Style Profile. This issue however, the topic in question isn’t a categorical style at all, but rather more of a genre of beer. Instead of specific cues like those found in stouts, IPAs, or wheat beers, Trappist beers are more about where and how they’re brewed and less about what their specific taste and flavor characteristics are.

There are a few general style similarities that all Trappist beers share, but before getting into that, it’s worth taking a look at the history of these monastic beers and how they came into being.

What is a Trappist?

Let’s start off with an easy one. The word Trappist refers to a branch of the Cistercian Order, a monastic community of both monks and nuns which are referred to Trappists and Trappistines, respectively. In other words, a Trappist is a monk.

When it comes to defining a Trappist beer however, there’s more than a little bit of confusion on the matter, and for good reason. It’s quite common to hear the terms Trappist, Abbey, and Belgian all used to describe or name a beer, and while these designations often overlap, they all have a unique meaning.

Starting with the broadest of these, let’s take a quick look at what it takes to make a beer earn the designation of Belgian. As you can probably guess, for a beer to be called Belgian, it has to come from, you guess it, Belgium. As Brooklyn Brewery’s own Garret Oliver said, “Belgium is to beer what Cuba is to cigars.” The country, which has gained much of its history and personality from its location stuck between France, Germany, and the Netherlands, has held onto more of their traditional brewing practices than any other area in the world. As for Belgian beers as a style, Garret Oliver also says:

“If you ask three Belgian brewers what defines Belgian beers, it’s likely that you will get thee different answers.”

While very true, the one tie that seems to bind most Belgian beers together is their type and use of yeast.

It’s worth stressing at this point that even though we need to understand what Belgian beers are to really “get” Trappist beers, not all Trappist beers are Belgian, and not all Belgian beers are Trappist. As I mentioned earlier, they overlap quite a bit, but they’re most definitely not the same.

So what is a Trappist beer then, if not solely Belgian? With all this vagueness, you’re probably expecting an even more nebulous answer here, but you’d be wrong. Trappist beers are very strictly defined and far less prolific than you may expect.

In short, for a beer to be officially called Trappist, it must meet three specific criteria. Those are:

  • The beer must be produced within the walls of the monastery.
  • The monastic community determines the policies and provides the means of production.
  • The profits are primarily intended to provide for the needs of the community or for social services.

Or to put it more simply, a Trappist beer has to be made by Trappist monks, in a Trappist monastery, and the profits of said beer must go to the monastery or the community to do good deeds.

Unlike typical breweries, you can’t just build a Trappist monastery and start brewing your own Trappist beers. Currently there are a total of eleven* Trappist breweries in the world including six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, Italy, and even the United States. See, I meant it when I said they’re not all Belgian beers. The breweries, in order of their opening, are:

  1. Brasserie de Rochefort – Belgium, 1595
  2. Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle – Belgium, 1836
  3. Brouwerij Westvleteren/St Sixtus – Belgium, 1838
  4. Bières de Chimay – Belgium, 1863
  5. Brasserie d’Orval – Belgium, 1931
  6. Brouwerij der Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis (Achel) – Belgium
  7. Brouwerij de Koningshoeven (La Trappe) – Netherlands, 1884
  8. Stift Engelszell – Austria, 2012
  9. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, United States, 2013
  10. Brouwerij Abdij Maria Toevlucht – Netherlands, 2013
  11. Tre Fontane Abbey – Italy, 2014

*Note: The International Trappist Association (ITA) lists twelve Trappist breweries, as they separate Zundert/De Kievit Trappist Brewery from its parent brewery, Brouwerij Abdij Maria Toevlucht. It’s a small distinction, but worth mentioning for the sake of correctness.

To quickly review, a Trappist is a monk, Trappist beer has to be made by monks, in a monastery, and the money must be used for good in the community or monastery, of which there are a total of eleven around the world.

It’s worth noting that Trappists aren’t the only monks in the beer game. The brewing of beer has a long history with religion, especially in the area we now know as Belgium. Beers that are tied to a religious order that isn’t Trappist are referred to as “Abbey” beers, and are obviously much more prolific than official Trappist beers.

Trappist Beer Characteristics

In the beginning of this little history lesson I said that Trappist beers are more a genre of beer than a specific style, and while this is indeed true, there are some specific characteristics that nearly all Trappist beers have in common.

Trappist beers start by all sharing the use of top-fermenting yeast, or ale yeast as it’s also known. Trappist beers are never pasteurized and contain no additives or cost-saving adjuncts (for the sake of solely saving on beer cost). Trappist beers also all have sugar added to the wort in the kettle, and they are all carbonated via bottle conditioning.

Since 1997, all official Trappist beers are denoted with a hexagonal logo on their label from the ITA. This guarantees that the beer in question is indeed a Trappist ale that meets the three key criteria above as well as the general characteristics just mentioned.

Beyond these general guidelines/characteristics, there are some primary styles that are associated with Trappist beers, most of which are also common Belgian beer styles, a few of which we’ll look at next.

Trappist Beer Styles

Beer from a monastery is brewed to give the monks something to drink that’s safe as well as something for nourishment, especially when they abstain from real food for fasting. It’s also brewed to sell to travels and the general public to raise funds for the monastery. Because of this, the styles common to Trappist ales tend to fall into one of these two use cases.

Trappist beers, like their Belgian beer brethren, often fall into a numerical type of style. Starting with a Single, or Enkel, and wrapping up with a Quadrupel. The Enkel style is brewed primarily for the monks themselves to drink. These beers are what we would call a Session beer, or the French often call a Table Beer. They’re low in alcohol and sometimes light in flavor, making them perfect for daily consumption without getting drunk easily.

More common than the Enkel, a Dubbel is often found to be around 7% ABV and features spicy/fruity yeast notes, and flavors of dark fruits like raisins, figs, and prunes. Dubbels are darker in color and are far more sweet than bitter or dry.

Next up is the widely-loved Trippel, a beer that’s slightly higher in alcohol content than a Dubbel but totally different in flavor and appearance. While a Dubbel is dark and sweet a Trippel is light-colored as well as brighter and zestier in flavor. Think less raisin and prune, and more lemon, orange, and bready malt.

Last in the numerical line of beer names is the Quadrupel, or Quad as it’s commonly known. Quads are kind of like the big brother to the Dubbel style. In them you’ll find the same dark, sweet, malty flavors found in a Dubbel, but along for the ride is a much higher ABV typically in the 10-13% ABV range as well as more complex flavors like chocolate, spice, and even a little earthy tobacco (in a good way I promise).

Other than these key styles, Belgian Blondes are found sometimes as are the rare funky/sour variety as is found with Orval.

The Best Beer in the World

A great place to wrap up the topic of Trappist beers is with a specific beer that many claim to be the best beer in the world. While not available in Pittsburgh even when it is sold in the United States, Westvleteren 12 is brewed by Brouwerij Westvleteren at the St Sixtus Trappist Abbey.

This Trappist ale is brewed more to the idea of monastic beer than nearly any other available today. The small brewery sells the majority of this outstanding 10.5% ABV beer simply known by the name “12” and sporting a yellow cap from the monastery, with very little making it to the general public outside of travel distance of Westvleteren. The monks here brew on average once per week and remain implacably noncommercial. In fact, the only “Westy 12” to be officially sold in the United States happened in 2016 thanks to the need for a new roof and other structural maintenance for the monastery.

Trappist Beer Found Here

While you may not be able to get Westvleteren beers in Pittsburgh, there are a number of official Trappist beers that make it to our shores. While we may not have any Pittsburgh Trappist beers, some commonly found examples for you to try include:

  • Westmalle Dubbel
  • Chimay Rouge, Bleue, and Blanche
  • Trappistes Rochefort 6, 8, and 10
  • Orval (my personal all-time favorite beer)

Fear not, as you can try great examples of these beers without the official Trappist designation, just look for Abbey ales or even simply Belgian beers in the Enkel, Dubbel, Trippel, and Quadrupel styles and you’ll have a similar experience.

Trappist beers are about more than specific taste, aromas, and ingredients, they’re like a time machine that takes you back in time to experience beer as it was brewed and enjoyed hundreds of years ago. While we all love the New Beers on the Block (just not Hangin’ Tough with them), there’s something special about beers that have gone mostly unchanged since the Knights Templar were out hiding their treasures.

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