What is it that makes the monk-crafted beer from a specific group of ten breweries among the most respected in the world? Is it the quality of beer that they make or the rich, centuries-long history that informs their brewing processes? The answer is likely both — which is why we’ve taken a look at the ten official Trappist brewers and the monks who are behind these venerated beers.
The Trappists originated as a branch of the Cistercian Order, an austere Roman Catholic Monastic Order that was founded in 1098 in its namesake abbey, the Cîteaux Abbey, in the Burgundy region of France. When the Cistercians appeared to grow more lenient in their attitudes, the monks at La Grande Trappe Abbey in Normandy sought to return to their stricter ways in 1664. Their followers become known as Trappists, known for their self-sustenance, who later officially split from the Cistercians in 1892. They are now officially known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.
Today, the International Trappist Association recognizes ten breweries across four countries, all of which produce beer that is made exclusively by Trappist monks. The beer sold is used only to support the monasteries and various charities.
Amongst beer enthusiasts, the Trappist label is especially sought after, with its enviable stamp of authenticity. Whether these Trappists monks do in fact make superior beer is a matter of taste, but you won’t know until you try them out.
Where: The Abbey of Saint Benedict is located in Achel, Belgium. Established in 1686, the Abbey was destroyed during the French Revolution but was subsequently rebuilt. Brewing was halted during World War I, when the monks briefly fled from German occupation. Finally, in 1998 the monks began brewing beer again (thank goodness). It’s the smallest of Belgium’s Trappist breweries
What: Achel is probably best known for its Trappist Extra Brune (9.5% ABV). This Belgian brown ale is a Trappist specialty, which BeerAdvocate gives a (world class!) rating of 95. There’s also an 8° along with two varieties of a blonde.
Where: Chimay Brewery is located in the Scourmont Abbey (Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont) in Chimay, Belgium, where brewing first began in 1862. This gorgeous abbey is nestled in the Hainaut province in the western region of the country.
What: While they typically feature four different kinds of beer, their signature is the Chimay Red Cap, their oldest beer — a dark dubbel beer. Dubbel is a Trappist-brewed brown ale (it originated at the Westmalle Brewery in 1856). The Red Cap is a full-bodied, dark beer with fruity aromas and mild hops. Chimay also has six different kinds of cheeses that pair perfectly with their beers.
Stift Engelszell Brewery
Where: Engelszell is the only Trappist brewery in Austria, located at the Engelszell Abbey in a small village in a remote northern region of the country. Though originally founded in 1295, the abbey was re-built in the mid-eighteenth-century. In 1939, it was confiscated by the Gestapo, and by the end of the war, very few of the monk community remained there. The Abbey is built in the Roccoco style and features impressive frescoes and paintings inside. In terms of beer production, Sift Engelszell is the smallest of the Trappist breweries.
What: The beer to try from here is the Gregorius, a dark, bittersweet ale (9.7% ABV) made with honey and local hops. Their second beer is the Benno, a light-bodied, golden ale with a pleasant, hoppy aroma.
Where: Just last year, Spencer Brewery became the first certified Trappist Brewery in the United States, which is based at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. Besides beer, the Abbey is also known for its delectable jams and preservatives, which come in 30 different varieties. Another notable fact: several of the Abbey’s monks have been involved in the development of the centering prayer movement, a contemplative prayer practice which focuses on interior silence.
What: The brewery currently makes only one beer: the Spencer Trappist Ale. It’s a full-bodied, fruity blonde ale with a light hoppy bitterness. Though most of the ingredients are from the U.S., Spencer uses the same Belgian yeast as the other Trappist breweries. Hopefully, they’ll begin to make different kinds of beer as they grow in size.
La Trappe (De Koningshoeven) Brewery
Where: La Trappe Brewery, founded in 1884, is situated in the Onze Lieve Vrouw van Koningshoeven Abbey in a small village not far from the city of Tilburg in the southern region of the Netherlands.
What: Beers made by La Trappe include a Blond, Dubbel, Witte Trapist, Tripel, and a Quadrupel. The Witte Trappist is the only Trappist white ale, while the Quadrupel is the brewery’s heaviest ale that also comes in an oak-aged variety.
Trappistenbrouwerij de Kievit (Zundert)
Where: This Dutch brewery is located in the forests near Zundert, not far from the Netherlands-Belgium border, at the Maria Toevlucht Abbey. The Abbey was established in 1899 and is currently the home of 21 monks.
What: Less established than other Trappist breweries, the Abbey currently makes only one beer, the Zundert Trappist, a pleasant brown, golden ale (8% ABV).
Where: Orval Brewery is located at the Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval in the Gaume region in the south of Belgium. While brewing dates back several hundred years, the current brewery was officially founded in 1931. There’s also a guesthouse — and the website quotes St. Benedict: “Let all guests that come be received like Christ, for he will say, ‘I was a stranger and you took me in.’”
What: Orval, like the other breweries, features a well-regarded Trappist ale, that’s both fruity and, as one reviewer has put it, “profoundly hoppy,” in part due to Orval’s use of unique kinds of yeast. This Trappist ale can be bottled up to five years. Orval also has its own cheese factory, employing its centuries-old recipes.
Where: Rochefort Brewery, situated at the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy near Rochefort, Belgium,has been brewing beer since 1595. Founded in the thirteenth-century, this comparatively cloistered Abbey was restored in the eighteenth-century.
What: Rochefort produces three beers, all brown ales: the Rochefort 6, the Rochefort 8, and the especially regarded Rochefort 10. Unusual for a Trappist brewery, Rochefort does not produce any Dubbels or Tripels. The Rochefort 10, a rich and heavy beer, is the general favorite of the three.
Where: Founded in 1836, the Westmalle Brewery is located in the Antwerp province of Belgium. The Westmalle Abbey, which dates back to 1794, is also a dairy farm, with about 100 cows. Apparently, when milked, the abbey’s cows are given “pleasant music” to listen to! Such is the monastic way.
What: Westmalle produces three beers: a Dubbel, Tripel, and the Westmalle Extra. The Tripel is a golden-yellow Trappist ale, first brewed in 1934. The Dubbel, the Trappist trademark, is Westmalle’s oldest brewed beer, and is a dark, reddish brown beer with a fruity, bitter finish. Additionally, Westmalle, with its own dairy farm, makes its own cheese.
Where: The brewery of the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren is located in the town of Vleteren in West Flanders, Belgium. The Abbey has a guesthouse (a ‘Christian silence center’), where you can spend up to a week in cloistered quietude!
What: Westvleteren produces three different beers. There’s a blonde, in addition to the Westvleteren 8 and the Westvleteren 12, both dark ales. Both the 8 and the 12 have particularly long shelf lives.