Trappista! The New Beer On The Block

Whether you are a beer aficionado or just an I-enjoy-a-pint-at-the-weekend person, chances are that whenever you think of Trappist beers, you immediately think of Belgium. And little wonder when you consider that this small country, squidged in between the Netherlands, Luxemburg, Germany and France, and which has been my adopted home for over fifteen years, is home to more Trappist breweries than any other country worldwide. But what is it that makes a Trappist product? And why have Trappist beers come to be renowned as a symbol of excellence within the brewing fraternity? The answer lies in the monastic reforms of 1664, the French Revolution and Belgium’s very own Prohibition Act of 1919.

In 1664, the abbot of La Grande Trappe Abbey in Normandy, France, began to institute reforms designed to halt what he saw as a decline in values and to return the Cistercian Order to what he saw as a truer form of Benedictine monasticism, whereby an austere life of work, prayer and self-denial, surviving on the fruits of their labour, would form their core identity. The La Trappe monks, as well as those who later followed in their footsteps, were officially recognized in 1892 as “The Order of the Cisctercians of the Strict Observance,” though today they are more widely known as “Trappists.”

Despite their life of self-imposed solitude, the monastic beliefs also teach hospitality and charity. Even today monasteries have worldwide renown as places of refuge or sanctuary, where the troubled or the mere weary traveller can find a decent meal or perhaps a safe bed for the night. The Trappists either grew or traded services for their food, and at a time when water was unsanitary and unsafe to drink, they also brewed their own beer and wine. The very act of brewing beer and wine not only sanitized the water, but also added nutrients. Thus beer and wine were widely known as not only being safe to drink, but also as being readily available at monasteries. The monks were also acting, in everything they did, in servitude to God, meaning that they took every care to ensure that whatever goods they produced – including those of an alcoholic nature – were of the highest quality.

In addition to the quality of their brewed product, the Trappists also implemented a system of effectively reusing the grains, a technique which was first documented by the Jesuit monks. In a similar principle to the pressing of olive oil, whereby the first press yields the premium and most flavourful oil, the second less so and the third lesser still, the Trappists would run water through the mash several times with each run being sequentially weaker than the last. The Jesuits documented offering a 5% beer (first run) for travellers and a 2.5% beer (second run) for themselves. The Trappists however, realized that people were prepared to pay a higher price for a stronger beer, a price which exceeded the extra cost incurred of producing such a product. The result was the production of far stronger beers which in turn allowed for more runs. The first run would naturally produce the richest and strongest beer in terms of flavour and alcohol content; the second run less so, with the third and final run being the weakest. Traditionally, the first beer would be offered to guests and sold to maintain the abbey. The second was reserved for the monks themselves and the final run would be what was often termed “charity beer”, in that it was given away as a safe beverage to the poor.

By 1789, however, the Church – specifically in France – was being viewed with ever increasing hostility. The Church owned approximately six percent of French land and many of its institutions, of which the Trappists formed a part, were seen as an all too visible reminder of the wealth and dominance of the Church over society. In spite of the fact that Catholicism was the religion of the vast majority of French citizens, its all too public wealth, combined with the fact that it did not pay tax, meant that trust of the Church was readily and steadily eroded. By the time crowds began to mass in Paris on July 13th 1789, the Church of Saint Lazare and its neighbouring convent had been sacked in search of supplies and weapons. On November 2nd of that year, the Constituent Assembly passed a decree which placed all church property – monasteries and convents included – at the “disposition of the nation”. The irony of this act was that the monks, who had for centuries provided sanctuary and refuge for any who sought it, now felt unsafe in their own land, and so they fled, scattering their number across Europe and into the brave New World of America.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the defeat of Napoleon, many Trappists began a slow return to their homeland. However, many decided to stay on in their adopted countries, continuing to practice their beliefs of manual labour, self-sustainability, prayer, solitude and hospitality.

Those Trappists who remained in The Lowlands (Belgium and the Netherlands), found the cultures to be far more beer oriented than their native homeland, and since the soil was not conducive to the growing of vines, the new monasteries focused on beer as their monastic product of choice and as a way to maintain their abbeys. By implementing the multiple running techniques, the Trappist monks were able to produce a product which was superior, both in flavour and alcohol content, to those on offer from the standard local breweries.

Nevertheless, the Trappists would have to wait until the early twentieth century and two cataclysmic events, before their position in the highest echelons of brewing royalty were secured. The first of these events was the influx of cheap, foreign low alcohol beers into Belgium. Pricewise the Belgian breweries could not compete and with many losing money hand over fist, it was not long before many of them drowned in the tide of foreign imports. Those breweries who were just about managing to keep their heads above water, soon succumbed when, in 1919, the second cataclysmic was engendered by the government of the day.

Known as the Vandervelde Act, this was Belgium’s prohibition. Beginning around the same time as the Volstead Act in the United States, Belgium’s prohibition law was enacted to stem the tide of alcohol consumption and brought about by the realization that many workers were turning up for work on Monday morning too hungover from their weekend long binges to work efficiently. The government’s plan to introduce a standardized eight-hour workday led to real concerns that workers would have even more time to be in the bars and, combined with the very real health concerns, the prohibitive Vandervelde Act was introduced. Despite its similarity, the Vandervelde Act differed to that of its American cousin in that it was not a blanket ban on all alcohol, but rather only the sale of spirits in bars and public places. It was still possible to buy strong alcohol from liquor stores; however, the new law limited sales to two bottles per customer at any one time. Naturally, the price of strong alcohol such as gin (Belgium’s beloved Jenever) skyrocketed, taking it far out of the reach of the working class. The Vandervelde Act differed too in the fact that whilst America’s prohibition lasted for a mere thirteen years before its repeal in 1933, Belgium’s prohibition was to last sixty-six years, finally being repealed in 1985.

With spirits taken out of their reach, the general working class turned instead to the high alcohol beers brewed by the Trappists. As local breweries went out of business and the low alcohol foreign imports now being generally disregarded, Trappist beer grew in both popularity and quality.

Naturally, as the Trappist beers grew in popularity, some unscrupulous non-Trappist beer brewers began labelling their product as “Trappist”. It became such an issue that in 1962, the Trappists finally resorted to legal action to prevent non-Trappist brewers labelling their wares as such.

By 1997, the six Trappist monasteries in Belgium (Achel, Scourmont Lez Chimay, Rochefort, Orval, Westmalle and Westvleteren), Echt-Tegelen in the Netherlands and Mariawald in Germany, formed the International Trappist Association (ITA). In addition to the creation of association, the monks also created a special “Authentic Trappist Product” logo which can only be used on products produced by the Trappist monasteries. The rules which govern the legally protected rights to use the logo are:

  1. The beer or must be brewed or made within the walls of a Trappist monastery, and be brewed by, or under the supervision of, the monks themselves.
  2. The brewery must be of secondary importance to monastic life and must be subject to the business practices commensurate with monastic life.
  3. The brewery must be a non-profit making venture. The proceeds are to be used to maintain both the monastery and the living standards of the monks, with any excess monies being used for charity.
  4. The quality of the beers in subject to stringent quality control.

Up until the beginning of this year, only ten Trappist breweries worldwide were recognized as being allowed to use the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo. These are the six Belgian Trappist breweries and La Trappe and Zundert in the Netherlands, Engelzell in Austria, and St. Joseph’s Abbey – Spencer in the United States. Now, however, an eleventh has been added to the list.

Despite Italy being more synonymous with wine rather than beer, the Abbazia delle Tre Fontane (Three Fountains Abbey) in Rome has become the newest name in Trappist beer. Earlier this year, the abbey set up its own microbrewery with the intention of brewing a beer with the aroma of eucalyptus (the monks planted a great deal of eucalyptus around 1870 to combat malaria). The first brew was officially tasted by an ITA delegation which, in declaring it to be a Trappist beer said of the product, “The beer has a mild-sweet aftertaste caused by the eucalyptus and this purifies and freshens the taste. The bitterness of the hops balances the sweetness”

I suppose time will tell as to whether or not we will see Tre Fontane on the supermarket shelves here in Belgium (in the UK you can thank AB INBEV for the fact that non-Trappist Belgian beers such as Hoegaarden and Leffe are on your shelves), but one thing is for certain…the next time I find myself in Italy, I’ll be sure to pay a visit to the Abbazia delle Tre Fontane to sample their delicious-sounding Trappist beer. And if you’re thinking of where to go and what to do for your summer vacation this year, I hear that Rome is lovely in summer!

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