The secret of Trappist©

Part 1

The secret

To be clear: Trappist is not a beer style. In the original sense, the beer brewed by monks from six Belgian Cistercian abbeys is neatly spread across Flanders and Wallonia: Westvleteren, Westmalle and Achel in the Dutch-speaking part and Orval, Chimay and Rochefort in the French-speaking part of the country.

Meanwhile, Dutch, French, British, Austrian, Italian and American Trappist beers are also available on the market.

In this series we look for what all these beers have in common, even though they differ widely in beer styles: bock beer, double, triple, quadruple, barley wine, IPA, wheat beer, Weizen, imperial stout, and so on.

First some history. The seeds of the Trappist order were sown by Benedict of Nursia, who, according to historians, founded the Italian abbey Monte Cassino in 529. His sentence was, "Ora et labora". To this day, the lives of the monks who follow Benedict's rule consist of praying and working.

As far as is known, in the blessed year 820, the first Fathers beer was brewed by monks from the Benedictine Abbey in St. Gallen, Switzerland. Soon, beer began to be brewed in other monasteries as well to quench thirsts.

Beer brewing in abbeys was permitted by Benedict's rule, which stipulated that the local drink in the monastery could be made to offer to travelers and pilgrims. In the south it was wine, in our region beer.

Moreover, beer was a completely reliable drink in times of plague and other epidemics. Beer is a boiled drink, so it is free from germs. While contaminated drinking water was commonplace at the time. Finally, beer was still low in alcohol at the time, comparable to our current table beer, and was even drunk by toddlers.

Enter the Trappists. In 1098, Abbot Robert, a Burgundian nobleman, left together with twelve monks his monastery in Molesmes to found a new monastery in Citeaux, Burgundy. According to the abbot, Benedict's rule was less and less observed in the French Benedictine monasteries. He named his new order after Cistercium, the Latin name of Citeaux.

The so-called Strict Observance in the Order of the Cistercians would later also be known as the Trappist Order. The main characteristic of this order was the refraining from meat consumption, which explains why the monks of this order were called 'abstinents'. In addition to abstaining from meat, manual labor was also an essential part of their existence.

Armand Jean de Rancé, abbot of the Norman Abbey of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe, went even further from 1664: the monks had to live in silence. The Trappists got their name from this abbey. It was not until 1892 that Pope Leo XIII recognized the Order of the Strict Observance. From then on, the Trappist Order was an independent order.


Notre Dame de La Grande Trappe

Dom De Rancé initially only allowed pure water as a drink. But when it turned out that the water was often undrinkable, the monks at Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe were also allowed to drink regional drinks such as cider and beer.

At the end of the eighteenth century, during the French Revolution, a group of monks fled the Notre Dame de La Grande Trappe abbey. They wanted to found a monastery in Canada, but since there was no ship to take them there, they eventually settled in Westmalle.

In 1794, the French refugees were assigned a small farm by the bishop of Antwerp. Initially, the monks made butter that was sold at the gate. When the monastery was transformed into a fully-fledged Trappist abbey in 1836, the monks also started brewing beer. The dark, sweet table beer was for private use only. The world's first Trappist beer was born.

Twenty years later, two types of beer were brewed: white table beer and a stronger brown beer. The predecessor of Westmalle double was sold per jar or per ton as an additional source of income, in addition to agriculture, cattle breeding and viticulture (which ended shortly before the First World War).

In 1932, the prior of Westmalle and a year later the Westmalle non-profit organisation registered the Trappist beer brand. Many breweries abused this designation of origin until the 1960s. For example, Cardinal Trappist (Het Anker), Trappist 't Kapittel (Van Eecke), Trappist Stavelot (Moortgat), Trappist van Veltem (Anglo-Belge) and Trappist BMS (Brasserie de Silly) were on the market for a while.

A number of lawsuits ended this. From now on, the name "Trappist" is only allowed be used for beer and other products from a Trappist abbey.

Trappist ATP LOGO

However, that does not mean that Trappist beer is a separate beer type or a demarcated beer style. According to Jef Van den Steen, perhaps the greatest Trappist expert in the world, Trappist beer fits into the Belgian beer culture of heavy top-fermentation beers.

“In addition, Trappists represent a wide range and the differences in smell, color, taste and alcohol content are too great to speak of one type. The name "Trappist beer" refers to its origin, in a way like AOC in France and DOCG in Italy," says Van den Steen in his standard work "Trappist" from 2015.

After the Second War, the monks of Chimay caused a tipping point. They had to rebuild their brewery, which had been destroyed by the German troops, from scratch and wanted to reconcile tradition and progress, Van den Steen knows. "The direction chosen under the direction of Père Théodore and with the help of Professor Jean De Clerck was later also endorsed by the other abbeys and can therefore be regarded as the "uniqueness" of Trappist beers."

Van den Steen claims that Chimay's secret lies in the yeast. "Someone with a good nose recognizes all the beers that are brewed in Chimay by the flavors that the yeast produces. It contains a chemical in which you can recognize a hint of lightly smoked meat, in particular farmers’ ham near the leg."

To find the key to this specific yeast we have to go back to 1946. Père Théodore, who studied brewing science with Professor Jean De Clerck at the Catholic University of Leuven, isolated the appropriate yeast strand with the help of the latter 'with Benedictine patience', to get started in Chimay. As a tribute, Professor De Clerck was the only layman buried in the abbey after his death in 1978.

"Chimay has in common with all other Trappists the constant taste and quality," says Van den Steen. "It is not because they are successful that the abbeys are going to change their way of working. Unlike expansive breweries such as Duvel Moortgat, which are selling more and more beer worldwide, they will not adjust their brewing techniques so that their beer is ready faster."

"For Trappist breweries, quality is therefore more important than quantity. That used to be the case and it is no different today. Most commercial beers float in fashion. When sweet beers became popular, lager also became sweeter. The Trappist abbeys never participated in that. Every Trappist is a rock in that regard. Blue Chimay has been around since 1954 and hasn't changed since. Which brewer can say that?"

Wim Swinnen