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Trappist Tales

Monks squeeze centuries of history into each gulp

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When any discussion of great beer gets going, you can be sure the topic of Trappist beer will come up. Beer brewed by Trappist monks is lauded as among the best beer in the world. Indeed, Westvleteren XII from the Belgian St. Sixtus monastery is often referred to as the best beer in the world. It also happens to be one of the most difficult to obtain. The beer brewed by monks in the 14 Trappist breweries around the globe is not only good, it’s a time-honored institution that goes back centuries.

“Trappist” refers to monks of the Order of Reformed Cistercians, a Roman Catholic religious order that follows the Rule of St. Benedict. The name comes from the monastery from which the order originated: La Trappe Abbey in the French region of Normandy. The Rule of St. Benedict is a long document written by Benedict himself; among many other things, it enjoins monasteries to be self-sufficient through their own hard work. It also requires monasteries to provide food, drink and shelter to travelers, especially pilgrims.

All of this brings us to Trappist beer. As a means of self-sustenance, beer became a popular beverage for monks to brew. Not only did it help keep them hydrated in a historical period when water was dangerous at best and deadly at worst, it also provided nutrients during times of fasting, when eating was forbidden. Oh, and the monks were authorized to sell excess beer to help support the monastery.

In 1997, six Belgian monasteries joined forces with one Dutch and one German monastery to form the International Trappist Association, whose main goal is to curb the use of the Trappist label on beer not produced by Trappist monasteries. A logo was created and is now added to the labeling on all beer and other products sold by certified Trappist monasteries. 

To obtain the right to use the logo, Trappist monasteries must conform to several strict rules. According to the ITA website, Trappist beers must be made within the immediate surroundings of the abbey; their production must be carried out under the supervision of the monks or nuns; and the profits should be intended for the needs of the monastic community, for purposes of solidarity within the Trappist Order, or for development projects and charitable works.

Beer was so important within the Catholic faith that brewers adopted a bevy of religious celebrities to be their patron saints. One of the best known is St. Arnulf of Metz, also known as St. Arnold. The good saint was bestowed his status as a patron saint of beer after his death. The story goes that the parishioners of Metz so adored St. Arnulf that after his death and burial at a distant abbey, they asked for dispensation to exhume his body and reinter it in Metz. The parishioners transported ol’ Arnulf’s remains during a particularly hot season, and plenty of beer was consumed on the journey. Before long, their beer supply had nearly run out. Then one of the parishioners cried out, “By his powerful intercession the Blessed Arnulf will bring us what we lack.” Moments later, it was discovered that their beer supplies had been miraculously replenished.

In recent years and with the help of the craft beer renaissance, monasteries are returning to the old ways to raise funds. Breweries are popping up in monasteries all across the globe. To determine a true Trappist ale, be sure to look for the ITA seal of approval, and give thanks for the monks who perfected the craft.

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