For centuries, life in Christian monasteries has been governed by the strict commandments of Benedictine Rule – a set of principles established in 585 by an Italian monk who came to be called St. Benedict. Monks were expected to conform to a strict schedule of prayer, strenuous manual labor and theological study.
As centuries passed, the Benedictine orders split in two and wandered further from the strict guidelines until the abbot of the La Grande Trappe Abbey in France enacted reforms beginning in 1664. The Trappist monks desired to return to a quiet, contemplative life sustained through the fruits of their labor. Though they maintained a primarily solitary existence, they also believed in hospitality and charity. Thus, monasteries became havens for weary travelers with comfortable accommodations and satisfying food as well as a source of assistance to the local poor.
Monks were known to provide safe drink. As water was unsanitary, the drink provided was often beer brewed in the abbey. Monasteries brewed three grades of beer on three separate brewing systems, the highest and richest brew reserved for sale to travelers and guests, the next best brewed for the monks of the abbey and the lowest grade for the poor.
By the early 20th century, Trappist ales were renowned for their quality and high alcohol content. The ales were made even more popular when a 1919 Belgian law – the majority of Trappist breweries were and still are in Belgium – made hard liquor illegal.
With popularity came imitation. To cash in on the growing demand for the monastery-brewed ales, non-monastic brewers began using Trappist names on brews. In 1962, the monks finally took legal action against the imposters. Thirty-five years later, eight Trappist monasteries – six in Belgium, one in The Netherlands and one in Germany – banded together to form the International Trappist Association. Along with the association, a logo was created that could only be displayed on brews produced by a Trappist monastery.
To use the Trappist logo, a monastery must comply with four rules: 1) the beer must be brewed within the walls of the monastery, 2) must be of secondary importance to the monastery, 3) profits must only be used for upkeep of the monastery and its charitable works, and 4) the quality of the beer is subject to monitoring.
Today there are 11 official Trappist breweries including one in the United States. Among the beers produced by Trappists are some of the world’s best, such as the ultra-rare Westvleteren 12, Chimay, La Trappe, Orval and Rochefort. For the beer aficionado, handcrafted beers with roots in mediaeval Europe are the epitome of brewing arts, true labors of love meant to refresh and nourish imbibers’ bodies and souls.
Try some of these locally available Trappist Ales:
Rochefort 10 Trappist Ale
Rich and full of flavors that bring to mind dark fruits, this brew is ranked the 6th best beer in the world by Beer Advocate Magazine.
Orval Trappist Ale
Dubbed a Belgian Pale Ale, Orval is a refreshing, light-colored beer that has a pleasing funkiness imparted by the use of Brettanomyces yeast.
Spencer Trappist Ale
The aromas of vanilla, clove, bread, banana and spices balance with mild hop bitterness in this American-brewed Trappist ale.