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Inside the Abbey Where Monks Make Trappist Beer

Trappist beer is made by or under the supervision of monks within the walls of a Benedictine abbey. Their beer is outstanding and their history of brewing beer goes back to the Middle Ages.

Abbey in Orval Belgium
Abbey in Orval Belgium

It is believed that beer was being brewed in monasteries as early as the 6th century. In its earliest history, beer was preferred over the available drinking water which was often unsanitary and carried a whole lot of diseases.

Beer was considered to have important nutrients that nourished the monks during their fasting periods. It was also shared with the community, in a perspective of self-sufficiency.

Purpose of Trappist Beer

The term Trappist comes from the abbey of La Trappe in Normandy, where the movement was formed. Trappists more formally known as the Cistercians of the Strict Observance are a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church.

The important criteria of being a Trappist monk is that, to fund the monastery and its charitable endeavors, the monks must do manual labor rather than any other kind. As a result, most monasteries are located out in the countryside, surrounded by fields with livestock and crops.

Besides beer, Trappist abbeys are know for producing cheese, bread, clothing and other such products.

The International Trappist Association

In order to prevent non-Trappist commercial companies from using the Trappist name, eight Trappist abbeys got together and formed the 'International Trappist Association' (ITA) in 1997. To become a member of the lTA, prospective abbeys must go through a rigorous application and evaluation period.

Trappist monastery
Trappist monastery
The following is the strict criteria, ITA-recognized breweries must follow:
  • The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by monks themselves or under their supervision.
  • The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and its business practices be conducted in accordance with monastic life.
  • The brewery is not intended to be a profit- making venture. The income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the monastery. Whatever remains is donated to charity and to help persons in need.
  • The quality of the beers are subject to quality monitoring.

There are around 170 Trappist monasteries in the world, but just 11 produce beer; six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, one in Austria, one in America, and the newest one in Italy.

Trappist vs. Abbey

Currently, very few working monasteries brew beer within the order, but many have licensed the production of beers bearing their abbey name to large commercial brewers. These are called 'Abbey ales'.

Breweries, that are not lTA-members cannot claim their beers as Trappist products, so it is very common for 'Abbey' to be used instead. This still denotes the beers are similar in style and presentation to monastic beers, without making false claims that the brewing process is overseen by actual Trappist monks.

You can identify ITA-recognized Trappist breweries by looking for the 'Authentic Trappist Product' logo on the packaging.

Types of Trappist Beer

Trappist beers are all top fermented ales, including La Trappe Bockbier. Trappist breweries use various systems of nomenclature for the different beers produced which relate to their relative strength.

Bottles of Chimay Blue, White and Red beer
Bottles of Chimay Blue, White and Red beer
The best known is the system where different beers are called Enkel/Single, Dubbel/Double and TrĂ­pel/Triple. These terms roughly describe both the amount of malt and the original gravity (alcohol percentage).

In order to distinguish the different styles, the Trappist breweries have used different packaging methods such as Chimay's label coloring system, Rochetort's numbers printed on the label, and Westvleteren's colored bottle caps.

Here is a list of the most well-known Trappist breweries:
  • Achel
  • Chimay
  • La Trappe
  • Orval
  • Rochefort
  • St. Joseph's Abbey ( Massachusetts USA)
  • Westmalle
  • Westvleteren

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