The term “Trappist beer” is one that is widely known throughout the craft beer community, but for those who are not familiar with the term, it may sound strange. A Trappist beer is brewed by Trappist monks; a Trappist monk is a monk that follows the Rule of St. Benedict, following three main vows: stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience.
Not all Trappist monks are brewers and not all monasteries are breweries, but instead there are very few that are classified as being Trappist breweries. In fact, there are only 10 monasteries considered to be Trappist breweries, with nine of them being in Europe and, as of 2013, one in the United States: St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.
Of the nine European Trappist monasteries, six of the breweries are located in Belgium: Orval, Chimay, Westvleteren, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Achel; two in the Netherlands: Koningshoeven and Maria Toevlucht; and one in Austria: Stift Engelszell.
The International Trappist Association oversees and protects the Trappist monasteries by producing an official logo to be placed on products from recognized Trappist breweries. This is meant to prevent non-Trappist commercial companies from abusing the Trappist name for profit-making schemes. The main reason the monasteries produce beer is to make enough money to keep the monastery open, not for large profits.
Many of the Trappist beers are available in the United States, with some being easier to get than others. Many of us have seen bottles of Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, and Achel on the shelves at our favorite craft beer stops. However, some, especially Westvleteren, are extremely sought after and very difficult to find in the United States, creating a cult following. (Westvleteren 12 has been discussed on several lists as the “best beer in the world.”)
The style guidelines for Trappist beers are not listed as being one standard style; however, many of the monasteries brew beers categorized into a few specific styles: Dubbel, Tripel, Quad, and Belgian Strong Dark Ale, with notable exceptions as well.
The monasteries also do not create highly colorful or unique labels for each beer, instead relying upon number or color designation to differentiate among the beers. This is visible with Rochefort 6, 8, or 10 and Chimay using Red, Blue, or White.
Orval produces only one beer from the monastery for worldwide sales: Orval Trappist Ale, a unique dry-hopped Belgian Pale Ale that has a characteristic unto itself.
Nearly all of the monasteries produce Dubbels, highly enjoyable Belgian dark ale with high levels of complexity and dark fruit characteristics, such as Westmalle, Dubbel; Chimay, Red; Westvleteren, 8; and Achel, 8° Bruin.
The Belgian Tripel is an extremely popular style with higher alcohol content and lighter fruit notes throughout, and the Trappist monks know how to brew them perfectly. Try Chimay, White; Westmalle, Tripel; Achel, 8° Blond; and Koningshoeven, La Trappe Tripel.
There are also a lot of Belgian Dark Strong Ales and Quads coming from the monasteries that are world-class beers and set the examples for the styles, such as Koningshoeven, La Trappe Quadrupel; Rochefort, 8 and 10; and Chimay, Blue.
Trappist beers are absolute must-haves for anyone who is a fan of craft beers of any style. If you have not yet partaken, then consider this your wakeup call!