Known for their golden silence, and famous for their beer, the Trappists descend from the order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a religious order of monks and nuns.
Beer has been brewed in religions contexts for centuries, often to feed local communities but also for the personal consumption of monks and nuns. The Trappists–their name deriving from La Trappe Abbey in France where the order was founded in 1664–though had an added interest in beer as it provided further nutrition during periods of fasting and meat abstention: common among the Trappist order. In fact, beer or wine historically often accompanied meals in place of water, since they were safer to drink than potentially contaminated water.
During the French Revolution, monasticism in France and Belgium was practically exterminated, as was Trappist brewing. Consequently, the majority of today’s abbeys were either founded or restored in the 19th and 20th centuries, when the Trappists returned to brewing beer for their own use, and then, fortunately for us, for sale. Nowadays, for the most part, Trappist breweries produce beer in order to financially support the monastery and other philanthropic causes.
Despite the gradual decline in number of Trappist monks since the 1940, the emergence of new monasteries and productions has helped stabilize their beer production. Other than the six historical Belgian Trappist breweries, monasteries in the Netherlands, Austria, the USA and Italy have now begun producing beer.
Their Belgian Trappist beers are now famous throughout the world, from the unique Orval and the celebrated Chimay to the more recent Achel and the classic Wastmalle. Some of them have induced a new culture of brewing, while others represent the stylistic canon of beers that have spread beyond the borders of Belgium.
The production of Orval has increased dramatically owing to increased worldwide demand; however this has caused problems due to the Rule of St Benedict, where Trappists are not permitted to derive profit from a vocation. As such, the monastery has now capped production.
The popularity of the beers is patent: Westvleteren ale produced by the Saint Sixtus abbey in northern Belgium is considered by many to be the world’s best beer, but still the monastery refuses to produce in-excess of 4,750 hectoliters a year. The Trappist Chimay brewery, on the other hand, has received special dispensation to increase production to help bolster the local area, which is blighted by high unemployment.
However, the smallest Trappist brewery, Achel, is in difficulty. With only six monks remaining in the monastery and the majority approaching old age, the next generation of brewers has yet to be identified. Similarly, Orval’s community has been reduced to just 12 monks.
In response to this decline in monasticism there is hope that Trappist-brewing traditions will continue. With public enthusiasm for this style of beer and the exportation of the brewing process beyond the borders of Belgium proving fruitful, there is no reason to believe that these historic labels will disappear from our glasses.
If you’re interested in pairing Trappist beers with cheeses, sign up for our Taste Workshop The World’s (New) Trappist Beers at Cheese 2015!