There are currently seven officially recognised Trappist breweries - La Trappe, Achel, Westvleteren, Westmalle, Rochefort, Orval and (probably the most well known) Chimay. La Trappe (aka Koningshoeven) is the only one not in Belgium, being situated across the border in the Netherlands. To be accredited by the International Trappist Association the brewery has to meet some strict criteria. The beer has to be brewed within the walls of a monastery, and although members of the laity are allowed to work in the brewhouse, the monks must be in control of the brewing process and all decisions regarding production. Money made from beer sales must be purely for the upkeep of the monastery or abbey or for other philanthropic reasons (in other words, not for profit).
The monks of Westvleteren take this to extremes by producing no more than is necessary to run the monastery regardless of demand, and demand is high. Westvleteren 12 is frequently voted Best Beer in the World. Furthermore, they don’t sell to wholesalers or distributors. If you want a bottle of this famed brew (never had it myself) you have to visit the monastery, but don’t expect to simply roll up in your car and haul off several crates of the stuff with dollar signs in your eyes and eBay on your mind. You have to phone in advance to reserve your beer and it’s strictly rationed, both in terms of how much you can buy and how often you can buy it. The monks have stated quite clearly that they will only brew enough beer for the upkeep of their monastery, and they frown upon reselling.
Trappist beers shouldn’t beer confused with ‘abbey ales’ brewed by commercial breweries. Although the two are the same in terms of beer style (dubbel, tripel, patersbier etc), commercial abbey ales are not made by monks. Even the name can cause confusion. St Bernardus, for instance, is not a true Trappist brewery even though they make abbey ales and there’s a picture of a jolly-looking monk on the label, holding a chalice of fine beer. St Bernardus was once an abbey but the monks are long since gone.
True Trappist beer has for a long time been recognised as a product of superior quality, and after several failed attempts to curb misuse of the description by non-Trappists, the International Trappist Association was founded in 1997 with the intention of putting a stop to the practice, and not just for beer but for all Trappist products.
Back to current events. Last month there was a rumour that a French abbey - Mont des Cats - was going to be the eighth Trappist brewery, and the first in France. Mont des Cats had, in fact, had a brewhouse until the early 20th century but the abbey was all but flattened during the First World War, and although it was rebuilt brewing never resumed.
There will be new beer with the Mont des Cats label, but for the time being it’s going to be produced at Chimay. This wrinkle means that, at the moment, Mont des Cats can’t use the ITA logo, even though the beer is being produced by a bona fide Trappist brewery because the beer isn’t being brewed within the confines of the abbey whose name is on the label. The ITA is looking into the possibility of accrediting Mont des Cats, but this could take more than a year.
However, another rumour surfaced a few weeks ago that a second Dutch Trappist monastery, the Trappistenabdij Maria Toevlucht near Zundert, plans to set up a brewery with the intention of having beer ready by the end of 2012. Two new Trappist breweries? Now that’s something to look forward to!
Jim Hughes, Head Beer Nerd, Alamo South Lamar
“If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink… I’d spend it on drink.” ~ Sir Henry Rawlinson