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  Trappist beer 

Last Updated : 10/06/07


On God’s orders?

The state of the Trappist breweries of Belgium.


hate the media, me – well, most of them.  I hate the misinformed gits who recycle what they’re told and don’t bother to investigate it, hoping that we’re too stupid to argue and accept it as gospel; the alleged Iraq weapons of mass destruction were a prime example of this – they were there because Tony BLiar said they were there so the media said they were there so they were there.  Erm… or no, they weren’t, as it happens and this attitude of laziness towards doing what journalists are supposedly paid for – investigating things – is what really gets on my tits.

What’s brought this on, I hear you ask, and why the politics lesson – isn’t Scoopergen a beer site?  Well yes, it is, but it’s also my site and if I want to talk politics I will; you don’t have to read it!  There is a reason for my ranting, however, and it actually is beer related too!  Read on and I will tell…

Recently, several newspapers and journals (I’m not naming names, but it was some popular and well-known ones) ran a story about the Westvleteren Trappist brewery in West Flanders, Belgium, having run out of ale because their 10% “Abt” beer was named “Best beer in the world” on the American beer scooper’s website www.ratebeer.com.  For those who have never sampled this nectar of the gods (or god?) and don’t know what a Trappist brewery is, let me enlighten you in the ways of holy beer as brewed in Belgium.

A Trappist brewery is (or was until around 20 years ago), basically, a real monastery (yes, one with blokes in brown robes wandering around) which brews it’s own beer to contribute to the upkeep of the monastery, good causes, and god’s word in general.  This may seem like some type of theme-park scenario to you but that’s because, in Britain, the link between church and alcohol has been almost totally severed – mainly by Henry Viii’s antics with regards to monks.  In Belgium, and several other European countries, the making of beer by monks still goes on and, in fact, it’s going on more and more every year as people take to what they assume is a pure, unadulterated, and even blessed beverage – surely it must be, being made by those jovial fat blokes in robes?

Hah, naïve peasant! This is a popular misconception, as I will explain here.  As befits living in a consumerist society even the holy fathers have looked outside their abbey and realised that there’s money to be made.  Not for them, obviously, as they don’t have any material possessions inside the abbey.  No, money could be made to guarantee the upkeep and ensure the viability of the abbey and make a bit on the side for some good causes locally so everyone wins – the locals thinks the monks are great for supporting the local charities, the monks have somewhere to live and do whatever it is monks do, and the beer drinkers get a pure, delicious beer to enjoy.  What could go wrong with this business plan?

At first, nothing.  The problem was that the Trappist breweries started to get greedy after realising that the “Trappist” brand was being thought of as good, wholesome and unadulterated beer by ordinary drinkers who drank more and more of it.  Some of the abbeys were reaching their production limits and soon a cap would have to be put on sales as, simply, the monks wouldn’t be able to produce enough beer to keep up with demand.  This caused a problem which wouldn’t have been insurmountable if the day-to-day operation of the monks’ breweries hadn’t been taken over, on the whole, by what I’d call “outsiders” via the back door.

One of the major problems monks have is to persuade young people that being cooped up in a draughty old gothic pile, not being allowed to say anything except prayers and eating turnips is a good career path when they can go and become merchant bankers and the like and earn loads of material wealth like good little capitalist boys and girls are supposed to.  So, the monks employ what are called “lay” people to do a lot of the jobs in the monastery and, predictably, brewery.  The running of the breweries was also changing; they were now usually run by a committee comprised of mainly outside people, with some of the monks in an advisory capacity, and the emphasis shifted to making maximum money from the beer rather than making the best beer for the money.  Some abbeys, such as Koningshoven in the Netherlands, even farmed out it’s brewery to a totally external company but kept the Trappist logo for a while, whilst Westvleteren kept brewing a small amount of beer but licensed a local secular brewer to market beers to the same recipes as the abbey.  (The Trappist logo is only allowed to be carried by products which are made in abbeys by, mainly, monks; any beers made by secular companies which pretend to be monastic are usually termed “abbey” beers which, when you think about it, is very confusing).

Predictably, the quality of the beers soon began to deteriorate.  You know they story; it’s happened in the Czech Republic, here in the UK, and just about everywhere else too.

First they used cheaper ingredients to save a few Francs – hop extracts instead of real hops, wheat starch instead of malted barley.  Next came the decision that if they had reached the limit of beer they could make, then they would simply shift the goalposts somehow; quick-fermenting yeasts, warm fermentations, conical fermenters and moving non-core tasks (such as bottling) out of the monastery – as long as the beer is brewed there, then it can carry the Trappist logo – enabled the throughput of beer to reach new levels and, with that, more profits for the abbey.  Simple – what could possibly go wrong?

The problem was that some beer drinkers were starting to notice that the beers they were drinking now were not as good as the “same” beer they’d been drinking a few years back and, worse still, they started complaining about it.  I suppose the monks must have heard about these complaints but chose to ignore them as, with so many new customers trying Trappist beer every day and, more importantly not knowing how good it used to taste, they could have probably lost those disaffected drinkers and replaced them with new recruits and not lost any sleep over it.  It was only when some respected beer critics started to voice their concerns (some, however, still swear blindly that Chimay is as good as ever!) that more people started to take notice of what was being said.

I will now get to the point of this rambling essay.  As I originally said, some sections of the press have been reporting a story that Westvleteren, one of the most traditional Trappist breweries, has sold out of beer following it’s “Abt” being voted the best beer in the world on the American www.ratebeer.com beer site.  Anyone who knows about Westvleteren will realise this is an absolute no-brainer of a story – they only produce what they need to in order to sustain the monastery and don’t actually export beer or even sell to cafés apart from their own, In de Vrede, just outside the gates so anyone who wants any beer, café owners included, has to buy it from the sales hatch at the monastery – there’s even a phone number which you can ring that will tell you which beers are for sale that day!  Westvleteren have been selling out of beer as fast as they can brew it for years, and nothing has changed as a result of this win with the possible exception of more American beer lovers wanting to try the stuff, but very few having the opportunity.

Given this is the case, how does it matter that Americans think it’s the best beer in the world when they can’t actually buy any without going to Belgium?  Not a jot – but did that stop some elements of the press putting 2 and 2 together and making 37 when they heard about the award and then heard that, as usual, the abbey are rationing beer to 2 crates per car?  Basically, the abbey could sell 10 times what they currently brew and are having to ration supply to keep up with demand but, thankfully, are not going down the route of mammon and increasing prices, just restricting supply – let’s just hope they stick to this decision and don’t go down the road of conical fermenters, quick yeasts, wheat starch and the like; given past record this would be disastrous for the beer.

The abbey are on record as saying they will not increase production as this is against their principles, so we are stuck with a limited supply of their delicious beers for the foreseeable future.  A shame, but it’s nothing to do with Americans or beer awards, just the quality of the beer making it very popular with the locals of Flanders (and the not-so-locals!), coupled with it’s low production, so there’s no story at all, is there?  It only would have taken a few minutes of googling to find this out, so why are hacks so fecking incompetent?  I’m sure it makes a good story though and, as I said at the start, most people who read it would probably have giggled and thought how funny it was that the Americans had drunk all the beer at a Belgian monastery.  Suckers! 

The serious point to be made is that, despite all Trappist brewers seeing a massive increase in sales, most of them are following the path of mammon not god and taking shortcuts in the making of their beer, resulting in a vastly inferior product.  The only breweries which seem to be holding firm are Westvleteren (well, sort of – they use some hop extract and lots of dark candy sugar) and the new Achel.  I’d love to go on record and say that trappist beer is all great and fantastic and everyone’s happy nowadays, but that ain’t necessarily so – and I don’t beat about the bush when I’ve got an opinion!  Yes, if you can find Westvleteren then try it – it’s a classic brewery making superb beers – but the rest?  Hmmmm, Achel and Rochefort yes, Orval and Westmalle maybe and Chimay; well, try it to see what you think!  To be honest, there are better “abbey” beers made by secular brewers than most of the Trappists can manage, so don’t be fooled by the brand!

The motto? Don’t believe what you’re told, especially by journalists or monks…


Trappist brewery gen.

So, what is the current Trappist brewery situation?  In Belgium, there are 6 Trappist monasteries making beer for commercial sale (with one more in the Netherlands) and here I will list them in roughly the order of their production, greatest first, and my opinion on their beers – right or wrong – you decide!

Westmalle.  These are the people who brought the terms Dubbel and Tripel to the popular perception but, like Chimay, the beers seem to be on a downward spiral into mediocrity and maybe, given a few years, will fall as far as Chimay have fallen.  Still drinkable but nowhere as good as it was.  Share bottles and who knows what else with Westvleteren.

Chimay.  The most forward and commercial-oriented by a long way.  Use huge conical fermenters and the labels used to list “wheat starch” and only hop extract (not even pellets!).  The beers, IMO and an increasing amount of other peoples, are awful – the red is almost undrinkable unless you like the taste of wet cardboard backed with an industrial, artificial bitterness.

Orval.  Used to be a classic bitter pale ale but now just a pretty good one (they only produce one beer for sale and one for themselves).  The characteristic “lambic” mustiness has now been virtually eliminated to, I assume, bring the beer to the palates of those with more delicate tastebuds and, presumably for the same reason, the bitterness has declined too.  Uses conical fermenters.

Rochefort.  Still quite a traditional brewery, tiny by Westmalle’s standards, that makes characterful, dark tasty beers with an elusive coriander note.  Rumoured to be installing conicals which should bring the beers inline with current Trappist beer policy – mediocre.  Hopefully it’s only a rumour…

Westvleteren.  The one that started the fuss that I’m gibbering on about here.  They brew a small amount (around 5,000hl a year) of three beers – a 5.8% blonde with loads of bitter hoppiness, an 8% dark beer with a lovely caramelly, bitter flavour and, the star of the show, the 10% dark brew which won that award.  It’s a classic brew; rich, vinuous, chocolatey and with loads of toasty malt and bitterness which just goes on and on.  One of the world’s classic beers IMO!

Achel.  This abbey only restarted production in the late 1990’s and is still finding it’s way.  The beers are getting better and better and are already of excellent quality – better than most other Trappists then!  One to watch, and definitely the third best IMO.

And the Dutch one…

Koningshoeven.  The famous “La Trappe” abbey is actually in the Netherlands and is no longer allowed to use the Trappist logo, having sold off it’s brewery to the Bavaria company although it is rumoured to be getting the right to use the label back.  We shall see.  The beers range from pretty dire to pretty good but it depends on keeping and batch for all accounts. 

© Gazza 10/06/2007 v1.1.

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