Today there are eleven Trappist abbeys brewing beer; Orval, Chimay, Westvleteren, Rochefort, Westmalle, Achel (all in Belgium) Koningshoeven, Maria Toevlucht (both in Holland), Engelszell (Austria), St Jospeh’s (USA) and Tre Fontane (Italy).
To brew ‘trappist’ beer and use the associated logo, there are certain strict criteria to meet;
The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.
The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and it should witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life.
The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture. The income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Whatever remains is donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need.
It has to be flippin’ good. Trappist breweries are constantly monitored to check the quality of their beers isn’t slipping.
If they tick all those boxes, they can legally call their beer ‘Trappist’ and will be granted the logo to prove it.
The Abdij Trappisten van Westmalle, a few miles north of Antwerp, was founded in 1794 and is arguably the most influential of all the Trappist brewers.
A few years before the turn of the 18th century, a group of refugee monks from the French abbey of La Trappe found themselves fleeing the French Revolution. They turned to the local bishop for shelter, who in turn gave them a bit of land. The monks got to work building an impressive abbey and in 1836 they added a brewery on site.
The first brew was pretty easy-going and low in strength (they didn’t want the monks roaming about the abbey spannered now, did they?) but on the brewery’s 20th anniversary, a second brew was born. A heavy, malt forward, brown beer. The Westmalle monks delivered the original ‘double’ in 1856. Legends.
It’s a job to know how much this beer has evolved over the last 160 years or so but it’s easy to see why it was a style that was quickly imitated by the other Trappist breweries.
The deep mahogany brown colour is the first thing that strikes you about Westmalle’s Dubbel. The dark sugar added during the brewing process, along with the highly-kilned dark malt are what we have to thank for that. Give it a sniff and you’ll get chocolate, raisins, a hint of spice and a bit of ripe banana that only a Belgian yeast can provide. It’s not until you take a swig that the magic really happens though. Rich, sweet malts dance with the complex tropical fruit flavours, leading to a long, dry and malty finish. It’s far more drinkable than its 7% ABV suggests. It’s also almost good enough to make you want to be a monk. Almost.