Ora et labora, pray and work, is the reductive essence of the Rule of St. Benedict, who founded a monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy in the sixth century. Fifteen centuries later, it’s still the essence of life for monks and nuns who follow the Cistercian Order.
Those who follow the Strict Observance of Cistercians are called Trappists, or Trappistines. Their life is lived in monastic enclosure, often silent, dedicated to prayer and manual labor.
What you may not know is that manual labor has resulted in a number of Trappist products—cheeses, jams, liquors, breads, meats, olive oils, and even beer. The latter of which, history suggests, has been done since the first century. Clearly, they’ve figured out how to do it right.
In more recent history, the monks at the Westmalle Abbey in Flanders began brewing in 1836 and started to sell beer at the abbey gates by 1856. Its immediate popularity led to brewery expansions and other monasteries establishing their own breweries.
Today, there are eleven such endeavors that, under the watchful eyes of the International Trappist Association, are entitled to market their beer as an Authentic Trappist Product.
To be labeled as such, the product must abide by the three conditions of the business model. First, the beers must be produced within the abbey walls, under the supervision of the monks (even if lay people are employed in the brewery operations, as they often are). Second, the brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastic community. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the end goal cannot be the pursuit of profit. Yes, income can be made (and in reality it must), but once expenses are met the remainder is earmarked for the community’s maintenance and the abbey’s charitable works.
Trappist beers are found all over the world, from Belgium and the Netherlands to Italy, Austria, and now the United States—St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts released its first beer in late 2013.
Most recently, a monastery from the U.K., Mount St. Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, has been approved as the 12th Trappist brewery. The first official brew was in March and should be released later this summer.
The three beers of Chimay, from the Scourmont Abbey in Belgium, were probably the first Trappist ales most American drinkers became familiar with. They’re still the most readily found today.
Despite its name, the beer-importing company Merchant du Vin is big on Trappist ales, putting selections from four monasteries on U.S. shelves: Rochefort, Westmalle, Orval and, by August, Zundert from the Abbey Maria Toevlucht in the Netherlands.
Other Trappist ales aren’t the easiest beers to find in the U.S. (You can also try the website Belgian-Style Ales for some selections.) The breweries aren’t that big to begin with, and some don’t export the beer at all, like Westvleteren in Belgium. The monks barely sell the three beers made there beyond the Saint-Sixtus Abbey gates, except in a café across the street.
The scarcity can be provocative; for a number of years members of several beer rating websites voted Westvleteren 12, the brewery’s strong 10.2% ABV ale (alcohol by volume) the best beer in the world. When the monks needed to raise some additional capital expenses, they briefly marketed the beer in the U.S. Predictably, it began to slip in the rankings.
Whatever its standing it’s a lovely beer, as are most of the varied offerings from the monasteries.
Stylistically, they can’t be easily categorized. They tend to be above average in strength, with great depth, complexity of flavor, and general excellence. They’re usually bottle-conditioned, capable of being aged for years if not decades. Monks don’t fool around.
But a beer like Westmalle Dubbel, with its dark brown color, deeply fruity and estery nose, its malty sweet palate giving way to a satisfying dry finish, truly wonderful in its own right, couldn’t be more different than Orval, from the Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orvalin Belgium’s Gaume region.
Orval makes only one beer, but it’s one of the world’s most unique. Thanks to dry-hopping and a dose of the wild Brettanomyces yeast along with its regular yeasts, Orval is lightly orange in the glass, with a suggestive citric character. It has whiffs of perfume and clove, a tart but not puckering palate, and a bone-dry finish. Some have called its funky aroma and flavor redolent of horse blanket, and can’t abide it. Those who have come to appreciate it believe otherwise, that Orval does indeed display a heavenly touch.
Relatively easy to find nationwide, these three Trappist Ales are an immersive introduction.
Chimay Grand Réserve
A strong and complex dark ale at 9% ABV, the Chimay Grand Réserve has rich caramel malt character and a depth of flavors that can easily grace any dinner table.
Found only in 11.2 oz. bowling-pin-shaped bottles, Orval is worth buying in batches and then aging for up to five years to appreciate its changes, namely how the hop bitterness and notes of the Brettanomyces yeast rise and fall over time.
From perhaps the most beautiful brewhouse in the world, lit by stained glass windows at the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy in Belgium, the Rochefort 10 is another rich, dark strong ale with earthy notes of figs, raisins, spice, oak and molasses.