The Trappist ales of Belgium and the Netherlands, produced in breweries attached to abbeys, are world famous. They include Chimay, La Trappe and Orval, the most widely exported beers. They are produced by monks who help maintain their churches and fund their work in the community with the sales of their beer.
In 1997, the monks met to discuss how they could protect their brewing tradition against the tide of “abbey beers” made by commercial brewers.
A division in the ranks of the Trappist breweries in the late 1990s caused considerable damage to the good name of an iconic and singular family of beers. That split has now been healed and all lovers of traditional beer styles can raise a glass in benediction.
There are six Trappist breweries in Belgium, with a seventh (La Trappe) at the abbey of Koningshoeven, near Tilburg in the Netherlands. In 1997, the monks met to discuss how they could protect their brewing tradition against the tide of “abbey beers” made by commercial brewers.
Such brands as Leffe and Grimbergen (owned respectively by InBev and Scottish & Newcastle) are the best-known abbey beers, but there are many more. They often carry images of abbeys and other religious artifacts on their labels; that confuses drinkers, many of whom may think they are enjoying genuine monastic beers.
At their meeting in 1997, the monks agreed to create the International Trappist Association (ITA), which would give an authorized logo declaring “Authentic Trappist Product” to beers and other products. Two years later, the logo was summarily withdrawn from the La Trappe beers when the Dutch brewing group, Bavaria, took a stake in the brewery at Koningshoeven and made commercial beers alongside the monks’ brews.
The loss of the logo was felt keenly by the monks and it caused enormous distress to those who love the Trappist tradition and want it to survive in a harsh commercial world. I was delighted to hear last year that the Trappist logo had been restored to La Trappe. In January, I traveled to the abbey to discover how the monks’ brewery had been allowed back into the Trappist brotherhood.
I met the new abbot, Dom Bernardus, aged just 37 and chosen as the abbot by his fellow monks. He explained that La Trappe had never been expelled from the ITA and he had continued to attend its executive meetings. It was only the logo that had been withdrawn.
He went on to say that in 1996 the monks at Koningshoeven had made the decision to seek a partnership with a local brewery, in order to help them develop sales. They could make beer but―understandably, given the reclusive nature of their calling―they were not skilled in distribution and marketing.
Bavaria is based in the same area of Dutch Brabant as Koningshoeven. It is a large company―it claims to be bigger than Grolsch and second only to Heineken in the Netherlands―but is family owned. It was the family ownership and Bavaria’s determination to stay in private hands (and not to sell shares on the stock market) that appealed to the monks.
Dom Bernardus went to pains to stress that a new contract between the abbey and Bavaria stipulates that the relationship will be terminated if Bavaria goes public. Under the terms of the contract, the monks control the buildings and the brewing vessels. They help in labeling and packaging the beers, while Bavaria supplies brewery workers and is in charge of distribution.
Bernardus is one of two directors of the brewery, with a second director drawn from Bavaria. Only La Trappe beers are now brewed at the abbey.
The abbot said the meeting of the ITA at which La Trappe was returned its logo was a “very emotional one.” The organization had appointed three independent assessors to report to the ITA executive on the relationship between the monks and Bavaria. Their report satisfied the ITA and a damaging breach has been healed.
La Trappe beers are exported to the US, Britain, France, Spain, Italy and Greece. In the US, they are sold under the brand name of Koningshoeven (King’s Meadows), as American monks have registered La Trappe as their trademark.
The beers are Blond, Dubbel, Tripel, Quadrupel, White (wheat beer) and a winter Bock. They are rich, fruity and hoppy, made by warm fermentation. They also contain live yeast in the bottle to prompt continued fermentation and conditioning.
And once again the labels proclaim the authentic Trappist logo. That is an emotional event―not just for Dom Bernardus and his brothers, but also for all lovers of fine beer.