You may think of the religious life as dull. There’s a lot of praying, a lot of silence, a lot of reading - but from the experiences I’ve had of Trappist beers with Belgian monks, they must be drunk all the time.
You see, Belgian monks are the masters of brewing. They are responsible for so much good beer that there are even laws to prevent others claiming to be monk brewers. Every beer that’s made within the walls of a monastery under the supervision of monks is given the label “Trappist”, a name that derives from La Trappe Abbey in Normandy. Currently there are just 10 in the world, six of which are in Belgium.
So what makes a Trappist beer special? Well, to the layperson there should be no reason for it to be any better than any other Belgian beer. The only thing the monks have on their side that others don’t is time – both time to brew, and centuries of brewing tradition. They have their yeasts they have used for years, and arguably taste like no other, recipes they have slowly perfected over decades, and very little commercial pressure. Their profits go to charitable causes or to the upkeep of the monasteries, so any pressure to cut costs is minimal.
Every Trappist brewery is unique, from the tangy, orangy pale style of Orval, to the deepest, dark treacle and figs of Rochefort 10. Most beers come in four main styles – single, double, triple and quadruple. This loosely refers to the amount of alcohol, but also to the amount and kind of malt. Singles and triples are light, full of citrusy, light fleshy fruity pales, often with a hint of caramel sweetness and a little tang. Doubles and Quadruples, meanwhile, are dark and sticky, with lots of spicy yeast character that cuts through the fig, raisin and coffee flavours.
Generally all these beers are pretty boozy. You might get a single at around 4%, but all the other styles will be 6% minimum, often topping 11%. It might explain the amount of singing that monks indulge in. But why did monks ever start brewing? Bizarrely it comes from a movement in 18th century France called “Strict Observance” which, among many other new puritan rules for monks, said all monasteries should be self-sustaining. Thankfully it didn’t ban alcohol, so to the monks the main impact was they suddenly had to brew their own beer, rather than buy it.
Some rules are made to be broken; thankfully, these weren’t. Here are our favourite Trappist beers. For more information on them, watch our in situ Drinks Tube video!
Seen as the godfather of tripel beers, this is an absolutely astonishing drink. A light golden beer with fine bubbles, it’s smooth to the last without a hint of alcohol at 9.5%. It has a herbal aroma with sweet malts poking through, then a rich sweetness with hints of peach and acidity, but a rounded, slightly bitter finish from the hops. Great with creamy desserts and white chocolate.
This is a big old beer. It’s black as a priest’s socks and loaded with dark fig and coffee flavours, as well as a lot more sweetness than you’d expect. That’s because they load it with dark sugars and don’t let it all turn to alcohol (though at 11.3% there’s plenty of it anyway). Due to the amount of sugar and booze it’s amazing with cheese and can be aged just like a fine red wine. The longer you leave it, the better it gets.
Dark and fruity, much like our own Brad. It pours dark with a lovely thick head. This beer has a tiny hit of booze and lots of raisins and figs on the noise and tongue, which makes it the ultimate beer for rich British puddings like spotted dick and Christmas pudding.
This is a truly fascinating beer. When it’s fresh from the brewery it has a light, fizzy body with hints of orange and lots of funky yeast characters – leave it for about 6 to 9 months, though, and it all changes. The brewers add a yeast called Brett to the bottles, which has a farmyard-y edge to it, and it mellows the beer into a maltier, stickier drink. It would be amazing with pickled and spicy food. Try kimchi!
To see us don our finest monastic robes and talk you through all three of the beers above, see below!