The Land of Beer: What is a Trappist?

Summary

Flanders is home to the best beer in the world, and our new guide is here to prove it. This week we learn about a type of brew made under the supervision of the monks

Monastic beer

Trappist monks have been making beer since monasteries began, but the Trappist beer tradition only dates back to 1997, when eight abbeys – six from Belgium, one from the Netherlands and one from Germany – formed the International Trappist Association. Now the logo signifies a real Trappist beer.

Since the inauguration, four more beers have been admitted to the circle, with one more for the Netherlands, one for Austria, one for the US and one for Italy. Mariawald, though a founder-member, hasn’t brewed beer since 1953 and uses the logo for other products, including a liqueur.

There are three rules for being recognised as a Trappist beer, and they are strictly enforced.

  • the beer must be brewed within the confines of a Trappist monastery under the supervision of the monks
  • the brewery must fit into the order’s philosophy of combining the life of prayer with a life of work
  • any income must be re-invested in the monastery and the monks’ charitable and pastoral work

There are many other abbey beers produced by monks, but they do not fulfil the criteria. This can be because the brewers are not Trappist monks or because the original abbey no longer exists and the beer is brewed in a normal brewery. Some abbey beers are produced under licence for commercial brewers. This is the case with Leffe, which is produced in an abbey but for the major brewer AB InBev, and with Averbode, brewed for Huyghe.

The Trappists of Flanders

Westvleteren
Although Westvleteren 12 brewed by the monks of the Sint-Sixtus abbey in Westvleteren, West Flanders, is regularly voted the best beer in the world, they don’t make a lot, and it’s not easy to get. To reserve a crate of 24, you have to call, but it can take two hours or more to get through. They’ll tell you when to come pick up your beer, and it’s not negotiable. You pay for the wooden crate and a deposit on every bottle, which you can return if you choose to go through it all again. The method is the only (legal) way to get a hold of the beer, as pubs and retailers are not supposed to sell it on. 

Westmalle
The brewery at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart abbey in Westmalle, Antwerp province, is more commercial minded, and their lightly hoppy, fruity tripel is a staple in most bars. Also worth watching out for is their dubbel, dark and warm, slightly spicy with notes of aniseed and coffee. It’s one of Belgium’s most popular beers for a reason. 

Achel
The hermitage of Achel in Limburg was founded by monks from Westmalle in 1846 and produced its first beer six years later. The abbey was abandoned to the Germans in 1914, and a new abbey was built after World War Two, but brewing only began again in 1998.

Photo: www.milo-profi.be/Visit Flanders

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Belgian beer

Belgium has a beer-brewing tradition going back centuries and is known around the world for both its beer culture and hundreds of craft brews.
History - Beer culture has been recognised by Unesco as part of Flanders’ Intangible Cultural Heritage. The local beer culture dates to the middle ages, when farmers brewed their own beer from the rich harvests of local grain, later transferring brewing to local guilds and abbeys.
Beer styles - The main styles include lambics, white beers, fruit beers, Trappists and abbey beers. The Trappist beer Westvleteren 12, brewed by a dozen monks in a small West Flanders town, is regularly rated by various sources as the best beer in the world.
Exports - Sixty percent of the Belgian beer production is exported abroad, with France, Germany, the Netherlands and the US the largest markets.
74

Litres of beer annually consumed per person in Belgium

100

breweries in Flanders

19

million hectolitres of beer produced in Belgium in 2012