Among beer aficionados, the mystique of Trappists beers is unique among brewers. While there are, nowadays, countless micro-brewers making craft beers, no other group has such a long and respected history of brewing as Catholic monks, most notably the the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, more commonly known as the Trappists.
Monks have been brewing beer for centuries. While monks led a solitary life of work and prayer, they also believed in hospitality and charity. In keeping with their rule, the monasteries were self sufficient; they grew their own food and made their own drinks. Monasteries were known as a place where a traveler or pilgrim could depend on finding a safe environment, with quality food and drink.
At this point in time, water was unsanitary and carried a whole host of diseases. The act of brewing beer sanitized the water and added many important nutrients into the beverage. Beer (and wine) were safe to drink and an important part of everyone’s everyday diet.
Why are Monks so good at brewing beer?
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As the Trappist beers grew in fame and popularity, non-Trappist brewers started to use the term “Trappist.” The monks finally resorted to legal action in 1962 to prevent non Trappists form using the appellation. In 1997, the 6 Belgian Trappists, 1 Dutch Trappist, and 1 German Trappist monastery formed the “International Trappist Association,” known as the ITA. They created a special logo that can only be used by Trappist monasteries on the products they produce. This includes cheese, bread, wine, beer or whatever else the Trappist monasteries produce.
Of all the beers in the world, only twelve may carry the name “Trappist”: the beers of Achel, Chimay, La Trappe, Orval, Mont des Cats, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Westmalle, Mont des Cats Stift Engelszell, Zundert (NL), Spencer (USA) and Tre Fontane (IT).
A “Trappist” beer has to satisfy a number of strict criteria proper to this logo before it may bear this name:
- 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.
- Trappist breweries strictly comply with all health and safety standards as well as consumer information standards. Their advertising and communication is marked by honesty, soberness and a modesty proper to the religious setting in which the beer is brewed.
To learn more visit the International Trappist Association