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The Almighty Trappist Ale

Few beers remain holier in the eyes of the drinker than Trappist ales. Revered for their heavenly attributes, these beers find beauty in simplicity, serving as a reflection of their makers. While the Trappist monks who brew these illustrious ales live under the straightforward Rule of St. Benedict – known for the Latin mottos “pax” (peace) and “ora et labora” (pray and work) ‒ there remains considerable confusion around the subject of these holy brewers and their creations. From henceforth, we shall codify the history and habits of the nuns and monks, as well as the range of blessed elixirs that emanate from their abbeys.

Trappists are followers of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (OCSO: Ordo Cisterciensis Strictioris Observantiae). The OCSO is a Catholic religious order made up of “cloistered contemplative monastics” (monks and nuns) who follow the Rule of St. Benedict. Written in the sixth century, St. Benedict’s work guides Trappists by outlining the principles of ‒ and rules for ‒ monastic life. Monks are referred to as “Trappists” and nuns “Trappistines.”

The name “Trappist” was born in the Cistercian abbey of La Trappe, located in Soligny, France (not to be confused with the Dutch La Trappe beer line by Trappist Brewery Koningshoeven). In 1664, La Trappe’s abbot decided that the Cistercian order had become too liberal and reformed the abbey rules to follow a stricter order. These days, the rules are a bit more relaxed, but the core tenets remain.

The “Strict Observance” refers to the aim of following St. Benedict’s Rule after taking the three vows he describes: stability, fidelity to monastic life and obedience.



While the Trappist monks who brew these illustrious ales live under the straightforward Rule of St. Benedict – known for the Latin mottos “pax” (peace) and “ora et labora” (pray and work) ‒ there remains considerable confusion around the subject of these holy brewers and their creations. 


A common misconception is that these monks have taken a vow of silence, but the truth is that Benedict simply discouraged chit-chat because it interrupts a disciple’s “quietude and receptivity, and may tempt one to exercise one’s own will instead of the will of God.” Thus, a Trappist will only speak when necessary. Forbidden speech includes that which leads to “unkind amusement or laughter.” So, while Trappists may smile sublimely after imbibing an ale, they likely won’t be telling too many jokes.

Unsurprisingly, Trappist monks and nuns have developed their own unique form of sign language, which more or less makes up for their lack of speech. Mealtime is quiet, too, so rather than passing their compliments to the chef and creator after a meal, a monk or nun might give a thumbs-up, or the monastic equivalent.

As for what Trappists eat, they mostly stick to a vegetarian diet, choosing to consume fruits, veggies, beans and grain. Some may branch into pescatarianism (eating fish), but they strictly abstain from “four-footed animals.”

Generally, the Trappists eat what they can grow themselves and drink what they can collect on their own … or brew themselves.

Monks of different orders have brewed beer for their own consumption since the Middle Ages, choosing hearty ales that help tide them over during fasts. These ales would also serve to support the community and provide a reliably clean source of hydration.

For Trappists, the brewing tradition is said to have begun with the original French La Trappe Abbey, which is on record as having a brewery as early as 1685. From there, Trappist breweries spread throughout Europe, though many original monastery brewhouses have since been destroyed in Europe’s numerous wars.

You’ve more than likely had a Trappist beer before, but what gives it the holy prefix?

Trappist beer is a beer brewed by a Trappist brewery, allowing it to bear the mark of an “Authentic Trappist Product,” as determined by the International Trappist Association. There are around 170 Trappist monasteries in the world, with about two-thirds in Europe, and the rest split fairly evenly between Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Of these monasteries, only 12 produce and sell beer and can display the Authentic Trappist Product logo – six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, Italy, the U.K. and the U.S.

Among these 12, there’s a newcomer to the group ‒ the U.K.’s first true Trappist ale. Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire, England, was accredited by the ITA earlier this year, and has just begun selling Tynt Meadow, a 7.4 percent ABV English Strong Ale with a full body and notes of chocolate and rich fruit in nose and flavor, with a peppery, boozy finish.



Trappist beer is a beer brewed by a Trappist brewery, such as Westmalle Brewery (above), allowing it to bear the mark of an “Authentic Trappist Product,” as determined by the International Trappist Association. 


To become accredited, Mount Saint Bernard had to meet the same standards the other 11 breweries did, which are laid out as follows:

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 follow business practices proper for 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.

For a time, the terms “Trappist ale” and “abbey beer” were interchangeable until the International Trappist Association officially defined what a Trappist ale was. In doing so, it also laid out the terms for what qualifies as an abbey beer:

Produced by a non-Trappist monastery — e.g. Cistercian, Benedictine; or

produced by a commercial brewery under an arrangement with an extant monastery; or

branded with the name of a defunct or fictitious abbey by a commercial brewer; or

given a vaguely monastic branding, without mentioning a specific monastery, by a commercial brewer.


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Comments

DrGMG's picture
Beautiful.
BlackSox's picture
I believe that La Trappe Quadrupel is the Beer in God's Refrigerator©.
Editorial Dept.'s picture
DrGMG and Blacksox, We appreciate the feedback and are glad you both enjoyed the piece! Also, the Beer in God's Refrigerator is an amazing phrase that we would definitely steal if not for that pesky copyright symbol ;-)

Comments

DrGMG's picture
Beautiful.
BlackSox's picture
I believe that La Trappe Quadrupel is the Beer in God's Refrigerator©.
Editorial Dept.'s picture
DrGMG and Blacksox, We appreciate the feedback and are glad you both enjoyed the piece! Also, the Beer in God's Refrigerator is an amazing phrase that we would definitely steal if not for that pesky copyright symbol ;-)

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