Who would be a monk, eh? A quiet life of contemplation and devotion, unfettered by worldly possessions and worries. And if you're lucky, access to some of the best beer on the planet. It doesn't sound so bad, does it?
Exactly how a small number of Trappist orders came to be great brewers isn't exactly clear, As Trappist monasteries are closed to intrusion from outside, and are traditionally self sufficient, then it is quite likely that brewing is a tradition associated with making water safe to drink. Equally, early brewers lack of understanding of exactly how yeast worked and fermentation occurred led then to dub yeast "goddisgoode" [God is good], because "it came from the grace of God". What better way to worship your maker than to regularly celebrate this miraculous conversion of water into something a little more interesting?
Another tale I have heard refers to beer as "liquid bread", which was used to sustain the monks during their Lenten fasts, which used to last from dawn until dusk. Although food was forbidden, nothing prevented the taking of a sustaining liquid. As most monasteries had working farms, this was probably practical rather than indulgent, and we can see parallels of this in landworkers drinking beer as a restorative after a long day in the fields.
"Trappist" is a protected term of origin, just like Chablis. There are only seven monasteries entitled to use the word on their beer labels. Traditionally, beers were produced in three strengths and styles - single (a "table" beer, around 4% abv), double (dark, around 6% abv) and triple (pale, around 8% abv). These terms refer to the number of X's used to denote the strength, a tradition from the days of poor literacy being commonplace. While many people would have you believe these are the gradations and styles of Trappist ales, I know this to be Simply Not True, as a perusal of the abbeys and their beers below will demonstrate. So, in escalating order of relative rarity, let's have a quick run through the monasteries and their beers.
Three beers from the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmount, simply known as red (7% abv, ruddy and fruity), white (8% abv, pale, peachy and hoppy) and blue (9% abv, deep, dark, rich and port-like), after the crown cap closure and matching label. These are 33cl bottlings, and are also available in corked 75cl bottles, and are then known respectively as Premier, Cinq Cents and Grand Reserve. The corked bottle allows the beers to mature and dry out a little as they age.
The only Trappist brewery outside of Belgium, Schaapskooi brewery in Holland produces three beers in the classic styles - a Double (6.5% abv, dark, fruity), a Triple (8% abv, pale, clean and crisp) and a Quadrupel (10% abv, plummy and brandyish). Soon to be more widely available, as they are now being distributed by Interbrew.
My favourite, from their excellent Double (6.5% abv, dark, rich and chocolatey), to their legendary Triple (8% abv, pale, herbal, citrussy), to their vaguely Masonic looking logo and embossed bottles, everything about these beers oozes class. Not only worth drinking, but worth seeking out as well.
Unusually, Orval only produce one beer, but what a corker it is. In its distinctive skittle-shaped bottle, the peppery, rummy, orangey 6.5% Orval is dry, complex, and great as an aperitif or with food. The abbey is beautiful, their website is great, and I bet the T-shirts in the gift shop are lovely too.
Two beers from the newest addition to the Trappist stable, a blonde (8% abv, vanilla, fruit, spice) and a brune (also 8%, dried fruit, smoky, sweetish). Both are rich and complex, quite dry, with a quality that you would expect from a Trappist brewery.
Producing three beers, 6 (7.5% abv), 8 (9.2% abv) and 10 (11.3% abv), all of a similar style, but with varying degrees of intensity. The Rochefort beers tend to be intensely aromatic (fruit and spice), quite rich on the palate (dried fruit, sweetish) and have a long, deep, warming finish. The Rochefort 10 should obviously only be used in emergency situations.
The holy grail (so to speak) of Trappist beer-lovers. The beers are sold in plain, unlabelled bottles, distinguished only by different coloured crown caps, strengths 6%, 8% and 12%. Virtually unobtainable, this beer is sold only from the monastery on the condition that it will not be resold by the purchaser. Needless to say, some of it is resold, but these beers are very much in the 'rarity' category. I've not tried them, although at the time of writing, I have a bottle of the 12 in the fridge, for review in the "Are You Tasting the Pith?" section of this site.
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