For many, the image of monks is limited to a brown-robed, sandal-footed, Friar Tuck type of person, with a shaved head encircled by a narrow fringe of hair. That colorless being spends his days working and praying before returning to his bare cell of a room, maintaining his vow of silence throughout. Some, through a chance encounter while playing tourist in Europe or elsewhere, may have a vague idea that monks sell things, from fragrant candy to fine liqueurs. Like most stereotypes, this image contains some element of truth, although it just skims the surface of the richness of monastic tradition. In this article, we will explore the particular sect of monks called the Trappists and focus especially on their tradition of brewing excellent beers. Trappist practices and traditions have allowed the production of high quality beers, but those same practices and traditions may limit the future chances of survival for these fine beverages.
Brief History of Monks and Monasteries
A monk is a person who has dedicated his life to religion and who separates himself from those without the same life purpose. The goal of an individual who has chosen this path is to be closer to God by separating oneself from society. The daily activities of a monk consist of worship, hard manual labor, and prayer, along with rest and food when necessary. A common misconception is that monks take a vow of silence, which is incorrect. They do carry out their day calmly and quietly, but that is so as not to disturb others as they search for God.
Monasteries have arisen from a desire to seek spiritual fulfillment apart from the general society while still being part of a community. The history of such organizations is very long. The idea has been present pre Christianity. Siddhartha Gautama rejected his life of wealth in order to search for enlightenment and founded the Buddhist order of monks. Christian monasticism started in the deserts of Egypt and spread across Europe. One of the first well known western monks was St. Benedict who developed Benedictine Rule which provides and outline for the lives of most monks today.
Connection of Brewing to Monk Life
Monks live a lifestyle balancing religion and hard work. They produce goods that they sell to support the continuing operation of the monastery as well as money for charity. Trappist monks make and sell candy, caskets, wine, jams, and fudge. There is no rule requiring these monks to abstain from alcohol, and so brewing beer is one of the most well-known of the goods the monks make and sell to support themselves. There has long been an association between Trappist monks and beer production.
Trappist monks have been brewing beer for centuries. Heavier beers were often prepared for times of fasting to provide needed sustenance to the monks in place of solid food. Despite this tradition, only a limited number of these monasteries distribute their beer today.
International Trappist Association
Trappist beers are considered the gold standard by many beer connoisseurs. After the popularity of these special Trappist beers rose, other breweries tried to take advantage of their reputation and call their beers Trappist. To protect the “brand”, the International Trappist Association was formed to distinguish the legitimacy of these claims. All the Trappist Abbeys are invited to join, but financial commitments are too great for most to handle. Of the nearly 200 Trappist monasteries, only seven belong to this group today. This is the reasoning behind the low levels of distributions of these beers.
Unlike Abbey beers, which may have a link to a monastery or merely the license to use the name of a monastery, a “Trappist” beer has to satisfy a number of strict criteria proper to this logo before it may bear this name. The Trappist Brewing Association lists the following requirements for a Trappist beer:
- The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.
- The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and it should witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life
- The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture. The income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Whatever remains is donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need.
- Trappist breweries are constantly monitored to assure the irreproachable quality of their beers.
(Taken From the Trappist Brewing Association)
Of the seven monasteries that distribute their beers to the general public, six are in Belgium and one is in the Netherlands. The six in Belgium are Orval, Chimay, Westvleteren, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Achel. The one monetary distributing its beer from the Netherlands is LaTrappe. All of these export to the United States except for Westvleteren.
Trappist Beer Styles
The two primary styles of beers are lagers and ales. The difference between the two types is that ales use yeast that ferments from the top and at a higher temperature, while lagers ferment at a much cooler temperature with yeast feeding from the bottom. Trappist monks brew ales. The styles of ales they brew are primarily dubbels, tripels and quadruples, with the names loosely based on the amount of hops used in the recipe. All Trappist beers are fairly high in alcohol content, ranging from around 7 up to 14 percent alcohol by volume. They have consistently low hop character, relying on malts, fruits and other spices for flavor and aroma.
The Brewing Process
The process for brewing Trappist ales is consistent with how all beer is brewed. Mashing pulls the sugars from the malts and grains by soaking the malts and grains in hot water. These extracted sugars will be converted into alcohol during fermentation. The liquid containing the sugars and other flavors that is strained off, called wort, is first brought to a boil. Hops are added at this point for bittering and aroma. The wort is then cooled down and transferred to a fermenter where yeast is added. The yeast feeds on the sugars and converts them into alcohol and carbon dioxide. After all the sugars are fermented out, the beer can be bottled. Trappist ales are bottle conditioned, which means that more sugar is added to the mixture at this point, and the residual yeast in the mixture feeds off of that sugar. This process is what produces the carbonation in the beer, as the carbon dioxide is not allowed to escape as it did during the fermenting process. This type of beer is considered a live beer, as opposed to most commercial beers which are filtered and pasteurized and are forced carbonated without live yeast. Trappist brews can often benefit from aging, which can add complexity and depth to the product.
The Future of Trappist Brewing
These practices of brewing high quality beers have continued throughout many centuries. It is possible, however, that the same traditions and rules that kept the quality of the product at such a high level will cause the practice to die out. It has always been a requirement of these breweries that a monk preside over the brewing process, but as current monks get older, and the overall number dwindles, the ability for them to continue this practice diminishes. The average Trappist monk is now in his late 60s or 70s, and some communities could die out. In addition, the practice of brewing beer is no longer an endeavor to be completed in a simple hut on the monastery grounds, but instead involves not just meeting Trappist brewing requirements, but also adhering to modern health and safety regulations and modern brewing practices. As maintaining these standards becomes more difficult, monasteries must first determine whether the brewery is serving the community of monks, not the other way around. Keeping the breweries going just because they are profitable is not part of their philosophy. For now, the business picture is positive and the general public can continue to enjoy a high quality beer made under the Trappist motto, “A beer brewed with love is drunk reasonably.”
Sources of information for this article
Brew like a Monk by Stan Hieronymus