The Story Behind Trappist Beer
The origins of Trappist breweries date back to the 17th century when the Trappist order first began. One of the fundamental principles of the order was that each monastery should be self-sufficient, while also looking after others. As part of this many monasteries incorporated breweries as a way of feeding the community. Unfortunately World Wars and the French Revolution caused the demise of many of these monasteries so that now only a few exist.
In total there are 11 Trappist breweries worldwide (six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, with one each in Austria, Italy and the US). This has increased from eight Trappist breweries in 1997. Each brewery's beers carries the International Trappist Association logo, indicating that they meet the following criteria:
1. The beer is brewed within the monastery’s walls, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.
2. The brewery is secondary in importance to the monastery. Its business practices follow the values of the monastic way of life.
3. The brewery is not a profit-making venture. All income simply supports the monks and their charitable causes.
Trappist Beer Styles
There are a number of different Trappist beer styles, all are perfect for enjoying with a hearty meal or paired with dessert. These include:
Pater Beer – this is the ‘monks beer’, a lower alcohol brew (approx. 5% abv), that is designed to be consumed by the Monks during festive occasions. Expect spicy, yeasty notes in this very drinkable style.
Dubbel – a darker brew (6-8% abv), that has aromas and flavours of dark fruits (raisins, prunes, dates). Expect sweetness from the malts, with a dry finish.
Tripel – typically gold in colour with a higher alcohol level (8-10% abv). You’ll find a lighter sweetness than the Dubbel, with more flavour and ester notes imparted from the yeast used in the brew.
Quadrupel – the strongest of the Trappist beers (10%+ abv). Expect spicy and ripe fruit flavours in this excellent sipper.
To understand the why the beers had such names check out our blog Double, Triple & Quadruple Definitions in Beer.
Each brewery also has a unique chalice or goblet glass designed specifically for consumption of their beer. The goblets are typically a thinner and more delicate stemmed glass, while the chalices are heavy and thick walled.
Of all monastic breweries, Westvleteren is probably the most sought after. They produce such a small amount each year (470,000 litres compared to 1.2 millon litres for Chimay) and are regularly rated among the top beers in the world. Purchasing from the brewery is almost as hard as it is to buy from other sources; you need to call 24 hours in advance, you drivers licence and car number plate will be recorded, and you have a purchase limit of just 24 bottles per month!
Abbey Ales vs Trappist Beers – determining the difference between Abbey Ales and Trappist beers can be confusing; all Trappist beers could be considered Abbey Ales but not all Abbey Ales can be Trappist beers. Trappist brewed beers are those made from the official 11 Trappist breweries, while Abbey Ale can be used by any brewery as a reference to any beer that is a Dubbel, Tripel or Quadrupel in style.