Heaven on Earth
Belgium's Trappist Brewing Abbeys
Beer, brewed by monks? The very concept might shock some people, especially in our alcohol-phobic society. But northern Europe has a long history of monastic brewing, stretching back as early as the seventh century AD.
Beer was a staple beverage in the Middle Ages. Since the brewing process kills most of the microbes that might harm people, beer was much safer than water. The everyday beers were likely relatively low in alcohol, similar to the “session” beers of modern times. Just as well, since the quantities consumed were ample for clergy and laity alike. At the Council of Aix Chapelle in the year 813, the canons were allotted 4 liters of ale per day, while some nunneries allowed their sisters up to 7 liters per day. Almost every Benedictine abbey or monastery had its own brewery.
Monks brewed beer for the table and to sustain themselves during the Lenten fast. They needed a fortifying drink to keep their strength up during the 40 days before Easter. Beer, always unfiltered and unpasteurized, was full of nutrients: it was liquid bread.
Monastic brewing also provided a service. Travelers often stayed at inns run by the religious orders, which usually offered amenities like cheese, bread and beer. These guests, in turn, made donations to the order.
First, the Cistercians, Then, the Trappists
In 1098 Father Robertus founded a new abbey at Citeaux in France. The Latin name for Citeaux is Cistercium; thus, these brothers were referred to as “Cistercians.” Reacting against the corruption of the day, the Cistercians adopted an austere lifestyle, taking vows of poverty and obedience. In 1677, Abbot Armand-Jean De Rance of the La Grande Trappe Monastery in Normandy, France, added the vow of silence, which the monks believe brings them closer to God.
The monks at La Grande Trappe fled the French Revolution in the early 1790s but the monastery survived. The term “Trappist” was coined from the abbey name and has remained in usage for members of the religious order adhering to the stern rules first instituted by Abbot Rance.
A Strict Tradition
To be certified as an official Trappist brewery, strict rules must be met: 1) the brewery must be located on the grounds of the abbey, within its walls; 2) the production of beer must be overseen by a monk or abbot; 3) all the profits from beer sales must go to charitable work. When these conditions are met, the brewery can use the Authentic Trappist Product logo. First instituted on December 1, 1997, this “Appellation Controlee” distinguishes the breweries from those that imply their beers are monastic in origin, but in reality are not. It also is used on other Trappist products, such as cheese.
Today, there are six Trappist abbeys with breweries. In Flemish-speaking Flanders, there are Achel (St. Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis, the newest addition to the group); Westmalle (Abdij der Trappisten van Westmalle); and Westvleteren (Sint-Sixtus Trappistenabdij). In French-speaking Wallonia are Chimay (Abbaye Notre Dame de Scourmont); Orval (Abbaye Notre Dame d’ Orval); and Rochefort (Abbaye Notre Dame de St.-Remy).
The Konigshoeven monastery near Tilburg in the Netherlands, commonly called La Trappe after the original monastery in Normandy, brewed authentic Trappist beer until recently. Unfortunately, the beers are no longer brewed under the control of the monks and have lost their certification.
I recently visited Orval, Rochefort, and Westmalle, for a glimpse into this rich cultural and brewing tradition.
The abbey and brewery of Notre-Dame d’ Orval is located in the province of Luxembourg close to the French border. In 1070, a Benedictine community was founded on the site, and beer was very likely brewed then. This may have been the earliest such community in what is present-day Belgium.
During the revolution in 1793, the French destroyed the monastery, its buildings and almost everything of value. No one lived at Orval for more than 100 years, and much of the stone was hauled away.
In 1887, the ancestors of Francois de Harenne, Orval’s present commercial director, purchased the site and surrounding lands, which are located in a beautiful valley in the Ardennes mountains (Orval is referred to as the Valley of Gold—Val d’Or in French). The owners donated the land and ruins to the Cistercian Order in 1926, and monks from a French monastery came to live at Orval. If it had not been for this family’s generosity and sense of history, there would be no Orval beer to drink!
The monks needed a way to support themselves, as the delicious Port Salut cheese recipe they brought with them from France could not pay all the bills. They built a brewery in 1931, and from the beginning employed lay people, rather than monks, as workers. The monks oversee the brewery, but none brew at Orval.
Today, the ruins of a major church dating from the 13th century and the abbey’s famous beers draw 80,000 visitors a year. While anyone can visit the grounds and the ruins, it is necessary to have a professional connection in order to visit the brewery.
The Beers and Brewery Today
Orval produces two beers, only one of which is sold to the public (the other is the “Verte,” or green cap, the monks’ beer). Known worldwide simply as Orval, the beer is a pale, hoppy brew of appreciable taste and complexity. The beer is dry hopped, and develops a noticeable aroma, often described as “horse-blanket,” from Brettanomyces yeast strains which are present in the second (conditioning) fermentation. Orval uses the same single yeast strain for primary fermentation and bottle-conditioning.
Orval typically starts life at about 6.6 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) and, given a few month’s refermentation, can rise as high as 7.2 percent ABV. In Europe, where the law allows beer to be within plus or minus 1 percent of the alcohol listed on the label, Orval is labeled 6.2 percent ABV. In the United States, the same beer is labeled 6.9 percent, the average ABV.
Orval has 32 employees and produces about 42,000 hectoliters of beer per year, about 87 percent of which is sold in Belgium. The brew house, built in the early 1950s, still uses beautiful copper brew kettles, which, sadly, will be replaced by stainless steel in 2008.
Another change, slowly phased in since 1999, is the replacement of the open brewing vessels with conical fermenters that are easier to maintain, a process that is halfway to completion. Orval spent a considerable amount of time experimenting with the new fermenters until the brew engineers determined that the taste between the two was identical.
A recent experiment, which was well received by my tour group, was Orval on draft at the private brewery tasting room. This would be a welcome addition to the Orval lineup, though only time will tell whether the beer will ever be offered on draft to the public.
Located in Namur province, near Dinant, Abbaye Notre-Dame de St.-Remy began life as a convent in 1230. In 1464, the nuns went to live at the abbey at Phelipre, and Cistercian monks from Phelipre came to St.-Remy to help improve the condition of the site and buildings, which had fallen into disrepair.
The first record of brewing at Rochefort dates from 1595. Hops and barley were grown near the abbey, as shown in old engravings. The early beer was not sold to the public.
The brewery is mentioned again in the 1650s, when damage by French troops necessitated repair. The French Revolution took its toll on St.-Remy when troops overtook the abbey and caused the monks to flee in 1794. In May of that year, local people sacked and looted the abbey. Later, secular owners destroyed many buildings.
The lands and ruins at St.-Remy changed hands a number of times until a former chaplain bought the property in 1886. Trappist monks from the Achel Monastery in Flanders soon came to live at St.-Remy and in 1899, after restoring the buildings, restarted the brewery operations.
The early equipment was rudimentary, and beer quality was variable but improved greatly after one of the monks was sent to the Catholic University at Leuven to learn brewing techniques. Beer in returnable, corked bottles was soon sold to visitors, and the brewery prospered until the German army took away the copper brewing vessels in 1918.
Rochefort 6, 8 and 10
With the help of Abbey Notre-Dame de Scourmont (Chimay), new equipment was installed at Rochefort and beer sales rebounded by 1920. By about 1949, the brewery was the primary source of income for the monks, and a shop was added to sell beer and other products. Up to 1952, there were only two brews: the monks’ table beer (“middel”), which was discontinued in 1973, and the forerunner of today’s Rochefort 6.
Rochefort modernized its brewery in 1952 and soon developed the 6, 8 and 10 degree beers that are so savored by beer lovers today. These world-class beers are ruby red to dark in color, somewhat sweet, with a great malt character, and with fruit flavors such as bananas evident, especially in the 10.
Rochefort 6 (7.5 percent ABV, red cap) was first brewed in 1953, and Rochefort 8 (9.2 percent ABV, green cap) in 1954. Rochefort 10 (11.3 percent ABV, blue cap) required the addition of candi sugar, a technique used by other Trappist breweries.
The current brew house at Rochefort dates from 1960. With its gleaming copper vessels and stained glass windows, it has understandably been called the most beautiful brew house in Belgium.
Brother Pierre, who is very amicable and a perfect host, has now taken charge of the brewery, replacing Brother Antoine, the brewer for many years. The brewery employs eight secular workers and a brewing engineer trained at Louvain-la-Neuve. The production level at Rochefort was about 15,600 hectoliters per year for many years, but is now at 18,000 hl. New 500-hl, cylindro-conical fermenters were installed in 2002.
Hallertauer and Styrian Goldings hops from Slovenia are used. Rochefort also switched to hop pellets recently. Pils malt and Caramalt are used. Dark beet sugar and white candi sugar are added to the beers as well. The same yeast is used for first and second fermentation.
There were reported concerns in the last year or so about a chicken farm located at a higher water level than the Rochefort spring. Brother Pierre told our group that engineers were working on this issue so that water quality would not become a problem for the brewery.
The abbey grounds still feature some impressive sites, such as a 17th-century marble fountain, an early door and entranceway from 1530, and a few small buildings that were not destroyed in the past. The 17th-century cellar is still used. There is a good mix here of late 19th-century buildings and earlier traces of architecture.
In 1794, Trappist monks fleeing the French Revolution settled at this site east of Antwerp. They built a small monastery in 1802 and other rudimentary buildings. Rome elevated the monastery of Westmalle to an abbey, Abdij der Trappisten van Westmalle, in 1834. From that point, the monks had to follow all of the rules of the Trappist order, which included adhering to local customs. Luckily for beer lovers, Belgium was primarily a beer-brewing area; the brothers had to brew beer.
In August 1836, brewing began at Westmalle, with a low-alcohol beer similar to the Extra or “monks’ beer.” The dubbel beer was most likely added in the late 19th century, and the famous tripel—first called “Super Bier”—was created to celebrate the opening of a new brew house in 1934.
In the beginning, the beer was available only to the monks and guests of the abbey; none was sold. In the mid-1860s, the brothers started selling bottles of beer at the abbey gates, but only to friends of the abbey. The first commercial brewing did not occur until about 1920.
Due to increasing demand, a completely new brewing facility was built in 1934, which includes the three beautiful copper brew kettles still in use today. The interior of these kettles was replaced with stainless steel in 1992, during an extensive modernization of the brewery.
Today, Westmalle produces three beers. There is the “Extra,” which is 5 percent ABV and rarely seen outside the abbey; the Dubbel, a dark beer, at 7 percent ABV; and the Tripel, a blonde beer containing 9.5 percent ABV. All three beers are unfiltered, unpasteurized, and bottle conditioned. Candi sugar is added to the Dubbel and Tripel but not the Extra.
The Extra, which is brewed only a few times a year, is a light-colored ale, with a surprising hop note. This is a very flavorful and drinkable brew, which could be a fine “session” beer. Such is not to be, however, as there are no plans to increase its production.
The current production level at Westmalle is 120,000 hectoliters per year, the same level as 20 years ago. “It’s a kind of modesty on the part of the monks, to not grow too big,” said Philippe Van Assche, general manager of the brewery.
Tripel Sets a New Standard
Both the Dubbel and the Tripel have had a profound impact on the Belgian beer world. The fact that tripel beers are now expected to be pale or golden in color, somewhat dry, and typically in the range of 8 to 9 percent alcohol is a trend that spread from Antwerp province, with Westmalle Tripel being a prime influence.
The Tripel we know today took shape almost 50 years ago. “In 1956, Father Thomas, who a few years ago started the new Achel brewery, restyled the beer and gave it its fine bitterness,” said well- respected Belgian beer writer Jef Van Den Steen, author of Trappist: Het Bier en de Monniken (Trappist: The Beer and the Monks). “That way, the complex character of the beer was complete: fruity and malty in the nose, malty and hoppy in the mouth, bitterness in the aftertaste.”
Westmalle uses only whole hop flowers from the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Germany. As to the hop varieties used, “It’s a little secret of the brewery,” said Manu De Landtsheer, Westmalle’ commercial representative who is responsible for exporting the Westmalle beers to the United States.
The malts come from Cargill of France and Dingemans of Belgium. No extracts are used. There is no record of exactly when the monks began to use candi sugar in the Westmalle beers, but it is thought to have been quite a long time ago.
There were 20 monks at Westmalle in 2002. Three oversee the brewery, assisted by a board of three lay persons. Westmalle has 40 secular employees; the monks no longer work in the brewery. As always, the profits earned from sales of the Westmalle brews go to the abbey’s charitable works.
Monasteries once shared a tradition of service and hospitality that stretches back 14 centuries across Europe. Today, the monasteries no longer occupy a role as centers of refuge and worship for the general populace, but are a sanctuary for small communities of monks and guests on a spiritual pilgrimage.
Belgium’s six Trappist brewing abbeys now provide beer lovers with about 15 world-classic brews, most of which are benchmarks in the world of beer.
Charles D. Cook
Charles D. (“Chuck”) Cook is a freelance writer living in Baltimore, MD. He has visited nearly 90 Belgian breweries during his 18 trips to Belgium.