Trappists and Abbeys

If the beer world wasn’t odd enough what with the regional varieties out there, there’s one other aspect which beer fans should be aware: that of the Trappist beers.

What’s a Trappist you ask? In short, a Trappist is a nun or a monk. The longer answer is that a Trappist is a member of one of the fifteen monasteries of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, who follow the rule of Saint Benedict. The Order has its origins in La Trappe, France; hence Trappist (probably a derivation of the French Trappiste).

These people of God work under the rule of Ora et labora (prayer and work). This rule means that these members of the Benedictine order have committed themselves to the work of God, and support their commitment by making products that allow them to be productive (as idle hands are the devil’s tool), self sufficient, as well as help a variety of charitable causes.

Some of the products them make include bread, chocolate, cosmetics, candles, and even flags. One of the more popular products they make is beer.

So why beer? Geography, plain and simple. While wine was initially the preferred product of choice for monasteries, not all of the Orders were located in areas where grapes readily grew. Beer, however, can be made anywhere grains are grown. So the monks turned to beer over wine.

The Trappist name soon became equated with quality, and other, more nefarious folk, sought to make knock-off products under the Trappist name. Monks, seeing that these abuses could affect their sales long term, sought legal protection. In 1985, the Commercial Court of Belgium recognized the uniqueness of the “Trappist” name, and soon afterward the International Trappist Association was formed to protect and license the various products made the the members of the Trappist orders. The only locations allowed to use the Trappist labels are as follows:

  • Achel: Belgium -(beer)
  • Orval: Belgium -(beer and cheese)
  • Scourmont-Lez-Chimay: Belgium – (beer)
  • Rochefort: Belgium -(beer)
  • Westmalle: Belgium – (beer and cheese)
  • Westvleteren: Belgium – (beer)
  • Koningshoeven in Tilburg: The Netherlands – (beer, bread, cookies/biscuits and chocolates)
  • Echt – Tegelen: The Netherlands – (liqueurs)
  • Stift Engelszell: Austria -(liqueurs)

How strict is the ITA? Ask the De Koningshoeven Brewery, who, in 1999 handed over some of the brewing production to a commerical company in order to help out the aging monks. The ITA withdrew the Trappist designation for the beer. Only in 2005, after lengthy negotiations that included requiring the De Koningshoeven monks taking back a far more active role in brewing, did the ITA give back the designation.

The beers at these breweries do not have to be any specific style, but tradition is that for the most part, Enkels, Dubbels, and Tripels are all part of the Trappist brewery catalog.

And the Abbey beers? Remember those nefarious folks mentioned above who were keen on aligning themselves with the Trappists? They would do so by using names of Abbeys. The theory being that if they gave themselves a religious sounding name, people would equate them with the religious order of the Trappists. Since the development of the ITA, this has been downplayed a bit, but as the great arbiter of knowledge, Wikipedia, points out:

Abbey beers are either:

  • produced by breweries under an arrangement with an extant monastery that does not meet all of the criteria for a Trappist brewery; or,
  • branded with the name of a defunct or fictitious abbey by a commercial brewer; or
  • given a vaguely monastic branding, without mentioning a specific monastery, by a commercial brewer.

Abbey beers can be in a number of styles, but often include dubbels and tripels, the most recognizable and distinctive Trappist styles.

So while Abbey beers can be quite tasty, if they don’t come from one of the Trappist sites mentioned above, they are NOT Trappist.