It’s every beer lover’s dream, to jump in the Time Machine, spin the dials and travel back to discover what iconic brews were really like centuries ago: the IPAs of Victorian England, the porters and stouts of 18th-century London, and, when the church once held sway, the robust ales made by monks.

But, stop the world, I want to get off. There are still monks firing their mash tuns and kettles, continuing a tradition that was once the norm throughout the Christian world. Today, in Belgium, Trappist monks take time from their prayers to make small batches of ale of the highest quality, ales that are promoted by word-of-mouth, not advertising. To visit a Trappist brewery there is to take that journey back in time, when the pace of life was slower and more thoughtful, and the driving force was the pursuit of communal work, not commerce.

Brewing in the Dark Ages

In an age of global brands and mass advertising, it’s easy to forget that for centuries brewing was confined to the home and the church. The spread of Christianity dampened some of the wilder excesses of the Anglo-Saxon period as the church attempted to regulate drinking and to control the production of ale. Monasteries offered accommodation to travelers while the monks built their own brew houses to supply both pilgrims and priests. At a time when was water was unsanitary, vitamin-rich ale was an important part of the monks’ frugal diet. The usual ration in a monastery was eight pints a day of “small beer”—around 3 percent alcohol—for each monk. Production was prodigious. The malt house at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, northern England, was 60 square feet in size and the brewery made 60 barrels of ale every 10 days.

And the ale must have been of good quality. In 1158, the priest Thomas Becket, later to become Archbishop of Canterbury and famously murdered in his cathedral, took two chariot loads of ale with him on a diplomatic mission to France, “decocted from choice fat grain as a gift to the French who wondered at such an invention—a drink most wholesome, clear of all dregs, rivaling wine in color and surpassing it in savor.”

The power of the church in society and its near stranglehold on brewing was broken in the 16th century by two key figures in European history. King Henry VIII of England and Martin Luther in Germany were contemporaries, living from 1491 to 1547 and 1483 to 1546 respectively. Henry dissolved the monasteries because he needed the monks’ wealth to fill his depleted coffers while Luther set in motion the Reformation that led to the rise of Protestantism. In both countries, trade replaced feudal land ownership as the way of life. As a result, commercial brewing developed rapidly and the monks shuffled off the pages of history.

Sticking to Tradition

But in the countries that remained faithful to the old religion, change was far slower. In Bavaria, for example, now the southernmost region of Germany, the world’s oldest brewery is in the former monastery of Weihenstephan (Holy Stephen), which was not secularized until 1842. In Munich the Paulaner brewery, acclaimed for its bock beer, also remained in church hands until the 19th century. Monks at the Benedictine monasteries of Andechs and Weltenburg still brew, though they have adopted modern lagering techniques.

It’s in Belgium that the ancient tradition of ale brewing by monks still survives. The abbey of Westmalle, a few miles north of Antwerp, is one of six Trappist monasteries in the country that still make beer. The monks find that their exquisite ales are talked about and sought after by a growing number of discriminating drinkers throughout the world. Westmalle is especially highly regarded, as the abbey has given names to its main products—Dubbel and Tripel—that have become recognized styles. The abbey’s double and triple are frequently copied but rarely if ever surpassed.

The abbey’s full name is Our Beloved Lady of the Sacred Heart. An arrow-straight, narrow road from the village of Westmalle leads to the buildings half-hidden by tall elm trees that act as sentinels against the outside world. Away from the roar of traffic on the Antwerp-Turnhout road, you are struck by the silence and solemnity of the majestic abbey and its grounds. The only sound is birdsong. The word “stilte” (silence) appears on many doors—visitors are greeted by the monks with warm smiles and a finger to the lips.

Westmalle is, fundamentally, a place of worship and contemplation. The monks follow the simple edict of St. Benedict: ora et labora—pray and work. A few words are spoken to visitors but silence is the rule. It was a strange experience to eat both supper and breakfast without exchanging a word with my fellow diners. The atmosphere is quickly absorbed and I found myself tiptoeing down corridors and closing doors as though they were made of fragile glass.

One aspect of the abbey was familiar to me: the delicious aroma of toasted grain and yeast that told me beer was being made. At the rear of the abbey, the brewery stands in sharp contrast to the rest of the buildings. The characteristic symmetry and curves indicate that the brewery was designed and built in the 1930s in the Art Deco style of the time.

Look, Don’t Talk

Can a brew house be beautiful? Pale sunshine pours in through high windows, reflecting on two burnished copper kettles. A large mash tun standing proud above them on a raised platform feeds them. All three vessels have tiled bases picked out in a pattern of black, blue and red.

The first brewery at Westmalle opened in 1836. The current brew house dates—as the architecture indicates—from the 1930s. It was upgraded in the early 1990s when the brewing vessels were re-lined but they retain their original, striking appearance.

This is classic ale brewing. Water comes from the abbey’s own wells. It’s hard and the iron is removed before it’s used for brewing. The water is mixed in the mash tun with malt that comes from barley grown in the Beauce-Gâtinais region of France, south of Paris. The mash lasts for an hour as starch in the grain is transformed in to sugar. The spent grains are used as cattle feed on the monks’ farm. The sugary extract or wort is then run into the kettles below where it’s boiled with whole flower hops: The monks feel that the hop plant in its natural form delivers the finest aroma and flavor. The favored variety is the Czech Saaz but some Tettnanger from the Bavarian Hallertau and Styrian Goldings are also used. The hops are added three times during the boil and the kettles are heated by direct flame, a method that leads to some slight caramelization of the malt with a resulting hint of butterscotch or toffee in the finished beer.

Dubbel is brewed with pale pilsner malt and well-roasted dark malt. Dark candy sugar is added in the kettles. Tripel is made with pale pilsner malt only and white candy sugar. Following the kettle boil, the hopped wort is cooled and yeast and sugar are added prior to fermentation in closed vessels. The yeast strain is the original one from the 19th century: I was invited to drink a small glass as—I was assured—it would be good for both my digestion and my skin. It was creamy, intensely bitter and delicious, the perfect pick-me-up.

Primary fermentation lasts for a week. The beer is then filtered and re-seeded with fresh yeast and sugar. It enjoys a second fermentation and conditioning in tanks—three weeks for Dubbel and five for Tripel. The beer is finally blended from different tanks and a further dosage of yeast and sugar is added prior to bottling. Only 5 percent of Westmalle beer is sold in draft form from kegs and the Tripel is never available on draft. Dubbel accounts for the bulk of production but Tripel is catching up fast in popularity.

It’s the attention to detail and tradition—no cheaper grains or pasteurization, and a slow, unhurried production schedule—that makes Trappist beers so revered among connoisseurs and an inspiration to craft brewers everywhere.

The large, modern bottling hall is surprisingly quiet. You are reminded that this is a monastery. Hanging panels in the ceiling deflect and retain noise. The bottled beer is stored in an underground cellar, again designed to minimize sound. The beers are warm conditioned at 21 degrees Celsius. Dubbel stays in the cellar for two to three weeks, Tripel for three to four.

Defining a Style

Nobody at Westmalle knows where the designations Dubbel and Tripel come from. The beers were first called, simply, brown and blond. From its inception, the brewery always made a brown beer. The revered former head brewer, Father Thomas, added blond in the 1950s. The change of names to Dubbel and Tripel possibly reflects the fact that other Trappist breweries produced a lower strength beer called Single and Westmalle was keen to stress the distinctiveness of its own brews.

As the beers are bottle conditioned, they will change and improve over time. A note of banana in a young Tripel will diminish in bottle. Father Thomas believed his beers were at their best between three and six months but were still in good form after two or three years.

Dubbel, 7 percent alcohol by volume, is russet colored, with a chocolaty, spicy aroma and palate. There are hints of coffee and guava and other tropical fruits. For a strong dark beer, it’s surprisingly hoppy and bitter, with a dry finish balanced by rich malt and fruit.

Tripel, 9.5 percent, is a hazy orange color with a floral, Saaz-inspired aroma and tart citrus fruit and banana. It has a tangy, fruity palate balanced by big spicy hops and a long, lingering finish with warming alcohol, resinous hops, a herbal hint and a big punch of hop bitterness. For a beer of this strength, it’s remarkable to find that its bitterness measures between 35 and 38 units. Both beers are available in 33cl and 75cl bottles—the bigger bottles have attractive corks and cradles. Connoisseurs believe the beers improve and mature in different ways in the two bottle shapes.

There’s a third beer brewed at Westmalle. Extra (4.8 percent) is only for the monks’ consumption. Without donning a habit and tonsure, I was permitted a taste and can report that it’s a delightfully hoppy, spicy and refreshing beer.

Westmalle produces 120,000 hectolitres of beer a year—around 72,000 barrels. It’s second in size to Chimay, the monastery in the French-speaking region of Belgium. The monks at Westmalle have no plans for growth. They are satisfied they make sufficient income from their beer to help fund their work in the community, which includes supporting a monastery in the former Belgian Congo in Africa. The size of the brewing operation means the monks have had to hand over day-to-day operations to lay workers, under the supervision of brewery director Philippe Van Assche. But the brothers, led by Father Benedikt, remain firmly in charge: they conduct weekly tastings, while a monthly board meeting discusses production and sales.

Visits to the brewery are permitted but only in small groups. On the main Antwerp road and opposite the entrance to the abbey, the monks own the Cafe Trappisten (487 Antwerpsesteenweg: open daily 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.- 24.00) where visitors can eat robust local dishes and drink the beers. A popular drink in the cafe is “half and half,” a blend of Dubbel and Tripel. The result is an amber red beer, less peppery than Tripel, but fruity with a good hop bitterness and a dry finish. Visitors can also watch a video about the abbey and its brewery.

Westmalle can only satisfy the demand for its beers in Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Britain. At present, the monks have no plans to export to the United States. All you can do is pray… .