It is easy to confuse the concept of Trappist beers as a beer style, as they tend to have the same high alcohol approach, malty and become notoriously even better when aged. However that would be a misconception, as many Trappist beer come under the category of Belgian Strong Ales. This elite is not a style but a collective of Monasteries, some of which brew some of the best loved beers on the planet. But not just anyone can become a Trappist brewer. In 1997 the International Trappist Association was set up to ensure that the consumer ends up with the genuine product. This means that the beer, descriptions and packaging, as well as other goods such as cheese, has to be made on the grounds of the monastery.
In order to brew under the Trappist name and earn the ‘Authentic Trappist Product’ logo, the Monks need to brew under three conditions.
First and foremost, the beer has to be brewed within the walls of a Trappist Monastery. So if you don’t own one, then you have fallen at the first hurdle. You can always become one, but that does mean being in control of your life and who has time for that? Also the Monks must either brew the beer themselves or supervise those that do. A good example of this would be Saint Sixtus Abbey, whose Trappist beer was brewed by St Bernardus until 1992. At this point they took back the reigns of the beer under the name Westvleteren after the local village, and it is now one of the most sought after beers in the world.
The next box you have to tick to become a Trappist brewer is to dedicate your life to the monastery and make sure the brewery is always second to the proper monastic lifestyle. This is because the monastery and their way of life is considered being as close to God as you can get. Putting the brewery before this is in essence coming between you and God, which is a big no if you want to brew world renowned Quadruples.
Image of La Trappe Brewery
Finally, if you have passed the first two barriers and are itching for a slice of the prestige that comes with Trappist brewing (second to God obviously, but you already know that), then the only thing standing in your way is the corruption of money, which you must also relieve the burden of. For the income that the Monastery receives must only cover the cost of living for the monks, as well as providing general maintenance to the buildings and grounds. Any money you have left over from the fruits of your hard labour will be donated to those in need, as well as charities for social work.
Breweries that abide by the three of these terms are then granted use of the trademark. Any that lie outside of the criteria, will have to settle for calling themselves Abbey, which isn’t a bad title to fall back on. Aside from those conditions, there is a fair degree of freedom allocated to the Trappist Brewers. They are not restricted on what they brew or how they sell the beer. For instance La Trappe, one of two Trappist Brewers in the Netherlands, brews a Bockbier and Witbier, which are unique to the Trappist range.
There are currently 11 Trappist breweries in the world, 6 of them being Belgian. 2 are located in the Netherlands, 1 in Austria, 1 in America and the latest to be added in 2014 is in Italy.
Article by Matthew Keeley-Smith