The iconic hexagonal “Certified Trappist Product” logo signifies an appellation extended to only seven monastic brewing facilities in the world; only six of which make their beer available for export.
Trappist Monks and their Trappistine sisters belong to the Cistercian order of strict observance. Certified Trappist Products must adhere to three criteria: they must be produced on the grounds of a Trappist abbey; monks must oversee the production; and the majority of the profits from the sale of the product must go to social work
Going back to the days when brewing served primarily as a means to make water potable, the fifteen-hundred year history of Monastic brewing is filled with wonderful fables and stories that can never be refuted or corroborated. In sitting down to write about Trappist beers, it is easy to get lost in the romance, the lore and the legends. However, focusing on the more ethereal aspects of these beers can obscure the fact that even today – with new and ambitious brews springing forth from all corners of the globe – Trappist facilities are still responsible for many of the best experiences one can find inside a glass.
Meet The Trappists!
Saint Benedictusabdij de Acheles Kluis – Achel – The most modest of Belgium’s Trappist Certified Brewing Facilities, Achel, which is basically a monastic brewpub, remains an undiscovered treasure among even seasoned Belgian beer enthusiasts. In terms of the quality of the product however, Achel’s catalog of three beers can go toe-to-toe with any of its bigger more celebrated Trappist brethren.
“The Achel 8 Blonde” (sometimes referred to as Achel’s Tripel) is the standout for me. With a honey and candy sweetness balanced by piercing bright carbonation, Achel 8 Blonde tastes something like the bastard product of an orgy between your favorite childhood bubble gums, a great glass of natural Italian sparkling wine, and a slice of canned pineapple. This beer should be a game-changer for fans of Unibroue’s La Fin Du Monde, Chimay White or Delirium Tremens.
Abbaye Notre Dame de Scourmount – Chimay – The antithesis of Achel, Chimay is in many ways the face of Trappist beer around the globe. The monks and others behind the Chimay brand hustle their beers, and the Trappist brand as a whole, with the zeal and creativity we Americans only encounter among independent southern rap artists.
Of the three Chimay products available in the states, the Red labeled “Premiere” is my choice. Clocking in at somewhere between 7% and 8% ABV, and featuring a delightfully decadent first sip flavor that calls to mind toffee, caramel and raisins, Chimay Premiere has come to be the prototype for the Belgian Abbey Dubbel style.
Abdij O.L.Vrouw van Koningshoeven – La Trappe/Koningshoeven – Located in the town of Tilburg in The Netherlands, the brewery at the Abbey Schaapskooi is sometimes considered a certified Trappist facility, and sometimes not. Today this abbey is the only Trappist Certified brewing facility operating outside of Belgium’s borders. The beers brewed here will sometimes bear the label “La Trappe”, and other times “Koningshoeven.”
Whatever it wants to be called, this place produces the largest variety of beers of any Trappist facility. All of which seem to feature a signature lush sweetness that reminds me of a gingerbread cookie after being dipped in a caramel latte. It is the balance of baking spice and dessert sweetness that make Koningshoeven beers, which might otherwise be on the syrupy side, extraordinary. Nowhere is this more evident than in the elegantly rich, “Koningshoeven Bock.”
Abbaye Notre Dame de Orval – Orval – It is not chic for someone in my position to say they have a favorite beer. I have two. Moonlight Brewing Company Death & Taxes is one, and the only product made widely available by the Abbey Notre Dame de Orval is the other.
Simply called “Orval”, this brew takes you from honey to apples to a signature funky finish of wholegrain mustard and lemon pepper. Like all of the best things in this world Orval remains delicately cultured while never losing track of its defiantly wild nature. The driest and most complex of all the Trappist beers, Orval can be the hardest to fall for at first, but take it from me: once she has you, you are hers and all the others seem like they are wearing too much make-up.
Abbaye Notre Dame de Saint Remy – Rochefort – There was a time before the advent of the modern Tripel when all Abbey beers were dark. Rochefort never got the Tripel memo. Rochefort 6,8, and 10 are all dark beers with no interest in hiding the obvious incorporation of caramel syrup into the brewing processes. Rochefort creates drinkable essays on how to produce a beer that is both sweet and dry at the same time.
At an unabashed 11.2 %ABV “Rochefort 10” opens with the overwhelming smell of caramel, upon the tip of the tongue the first sip yields cocoa and dates, but the dry body and clean finish allow for the revealing of a mineral and mulling spice personality one would never have expected. It is a pleasure akin to dating a woman because she is gorgeous and finding out on the third date she has seen every episode of The Wire, a reward for something selfless you must have done in the past and can no longer recall.
Abdij der Trappisten van Westmalle – Westmalle – Brewers at Westmalle invented the contemporary Tripel sometime around 1934; at that time it was the only pale Trappist beer.
Today the “Tripel Westmalle” defines its style in a manner similar to the way Chimay Red has the “Dubbel” and Duvel has the “Belgian Strong Pale” or “Belgian Golden Ale.” As the world’s most famous beer evangelist, Michael Jackson, once put it “a good example of a Belgian beer that is a style itself, and widely imitated.” These beers are so iconic that other beers of similar intent are often measured not on their own merit, but rather they are graded on how similar they are to prototype.
To define the contemporary Tripel is to smell of sugar and flowers, to taste of honey, to feel like champagne on the tongue. This is “Tripel Westmalle.” On a day when you feel like treating yourself, open a 750ml and slice into a wheel of Brillat-Savarin cheese.
The Temperature: By and large Americans drink our beer too cold. Think about it, if your water sucks what do you do? You make sure it is really cold and put a lemon in it*. Well good beer does not suck, so keep the fruit out of your glass and drink rich Belgian beer at something closer to cellar temperature (45-55 degrees generally).
The Pour: All Trappist brews are bottle conditioned, meaning they are sitting on top of their spent yeast cells. These will not hurt you, but for appearance sake most people like to keep the yeast in the bottle and put the beer in the glass. To accomplish this pour slowly and evenly making sure that beer is not “glugging” back into the bottle as you pour. Stop about ¼ of an inch from the bottom of the bottle or when you begin to see bits of solid matter in your pour; if done correctly, a large head should spring up and extend out of the top of the glass. This is a good thing. Not only is it majestic and beautiful, but lively carbonation also helps release aroma and aids in the palette cleansing mouthfeel of many of these beers.
The Glassware: Belgians are nuts for proprietary glassware. If you are at a bar that has it, demand it. Failing that, a brandy snifter has always made a good substitute for me. NEVER allow this beer to go into a chilled pint glass. That would be like listening to “A Love Supreme” on laptop speakers.
Where to do this: Naturally, my first recommendation is always to come see me at The Monk’s Kettle in the Mission, but I would be remiss if I did not shout out The Trappist in downtown Oakland. Because the Trappist focuses only on Belgian beers, their fridge temperature can be maintained higher and their glassware game is always on point. If you are looking for a place that does exclusively Belgian beer, the Trappist does it as well as anywhere I have ever seen.
Like all art, great beer needs context: The Trappist beer drinking traditions help to prove my long held belief that beer is to be lived. The idea that a beer can be evaluated in a vacuum is nonsense. What am I eating? Who am I with? Does she listen to Wu-Tang? What are we doing with our day? What’s the weather like? What kind of music is playing here? All of these things factor into the sort of beer I will drink.
Most of these Trappist facilities and many of their secular Belgian brethren produce a low ABV highly quaffable “session” beer strictly for local distribution. This beer is brewed with the intent that it will suit the thirst-quenching needs of the many bicyclists and hikers that happen by local cafes and inns while exploring the Belgian countryside.
At the other end of the spectrum many of the beers we now know as “Quadrupels” (think Chimay Blue Label) were born as winter seasonal releases or celebratory Christmas blends. The high %ABV and abundant sugars and spices in these beers were intended to help Monks and consumers cope with the colder weather.
It is also worth noting that Trappist monks produce delicious artisan breads, cheeses and chocolates as well as beers. Thus altering the age-old adage to a maxim I can much more comfortably stand behind, it is okay to drink alone, but never without accoutrement.