#66 Monastery Breweries

Written by Food Non-Fiction November 2, 2017
Westvleteren abbey beer
Westvleteren beer [credit Trappist Beer Travels]

This is the story of the 11 Trappist brewing monasteries in the world. The monks at these 11 brewing monasteries are part of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance and the term “Trappist” is a casual way to refer to the monks of this very strict Roman Catholic order. The Trappists were inspired by the Rule of Saint Benedict - a text of guidance for monasteries. Basically, the teachings can be summarized by the motto, “ora et labora”, which means “pray & work”. So the Trappists don't just pray - they also work. They support themselves and the monastery grounds by producing products, such as beers, cheeses, chocolates, etc. 

To get the label of “Authentic Trappist Product”, a monastery has to already be a member of the International Trappist Association. Once you apply for the Authentic Trappist Product label, then there is a lengthy evaluation process to make sure that criteria and standards are met. Trappist products must meet 3 criteria:

  1. The product is produced within the walls or vicinity of the monastery.
  2. The monastic community oversees the production, with the monastery benefiting from the production, and must be in accordance with the business practices proper to a monastic way of life.
  3. The profits from the product provide for the needs of the community or for social services.

History of Monks & Beer

Rochefort bottling line
Rochefort bottling line [credit Trappist Beer Travels]

Nowadays, when you think of beer you don’t really think of monasteries anymore. We might have forgotten the connection between beer and monasteries, because commercial breweries diminished the importance of monastery breweries. As demand for beer grew over the years, more and more commercial breweries emerged. Demand grew for a variety of reasons - for example, back when more merchants began travelling between towns - inns and taverns started popping up, and these establishments sold food, rest, and of course, beer. Nonetheless, monks have been brewing and drinking beer for a very long time. Back when available water was really unsanitary it was safer to drink beer, because beer was made from boiled water, and the boiling process killed bacteria. Furthermore, beer supplemented the monks' meagre diets with extra calories and nutrients - this is why they call beer "liquid bread". So monks drank beer and they also gave it to travellers and the poor. In fact, there is a famous architectural drawing dating all the way back to the year 820AD, and in this drawing, there is a design of a monastery brewery. The architectural drawing I’m referring to is The Plan of Saint Gall and it is an architectural treasure from the Middle Ages.

Monastery Breweries Today

Trappist Book Travels authors
Trappist Book Travels authors [credit Trappist Beer Travels]

In more recent years, monastery breweries have become more popular, because there’s international interest. The authors of the book "Trappist Beer Travels" travelled to all 11 Trappist monastery breweries. We invited the author Caroline Wallace (who authored the book "Trappist Beer Travels" along with Jessica Deahl, and Sarah Wood) to tell us this incredible true story. 

"Basically, we had appointments lined up at every abbey. So we would meet up with a local interpreter, we’d kind of pre-arranged to have accompany us and we would talk to oftentimes the monks, the brewers, the brewery directors, kind of a mix of the monks themselves, and as they call them layman personnel or laypeople who are non-monks employed at these abbeys in various capacities. So we took the journey, we found incredible bits of history at each, tried amazing beers, kind of the first leg was starting with the 6 Belgian abbeys, which are Westmalle, Achel, Rochefort, Orval, Chimay and Westvleteren. As well as the 2 in the Netherlands, which are Zundert and Koningshoeven, more commonly known as La Trappe in terms of the brewery. Then we drove across Germany to a remote abbey just across the border into Austria, called Stift Engelszell, and met there with their abbott and a few different people - their brewer and a great woman who kind of runs the whole operation. And from there we took an overnight train to Rome to visit Tre Fontane which is the newest authentic Trappist brewery. The abbey itself, it’s in the heart of Rome, and it actually goes back to the dawn of Christianity - it’s a very old abbey but they had just started a brewery in recent years to become kind of this newest authentic Trappist monastery brewery. From there we took a flight back to United States and visited the last of the 11 which is Spencer brewery at St Joseph’s abbey, which is about an hour or so outside of Boston in Spencer, Massachusetts. That was a really interesting way to cap off the trip. The abbey itself was established in the 1950s, but the brewing program is only a few years old so they have this really interesting kind of newer American perspective on Trappist brewing which was very interesting."


Westmalle was the first Trappist abbey to sell their beer commercially.

"It was actually 1856 that Westmalle became the abbey to make the first commercial sale of their beer. So to sell it beyond the monastery gate to be served elsewhere or to be taken home and not just to be drank at the abbey. That abbey is now one of the largest Trappist breweries. They have a very state of the art facility and they sell beer all over the world. They also have a cafe on site that you can go visit across the street and try their beers."


Orval Abbey ruins
Orval Abbey ruins [credit Trappist Beer Travels]

Orval Abbey’s name comes from a legend. The legendary Matilde, born in 1046 AD, is said to have dropped her wedding ring in a spring. When she prayed that she’d find it again, a trout came out of the water carrying her ring in its mouth. In amazement, she called the place a val d’or, as in a golden valley, so "Orval" comes from "val d’or" - the monastery built upon the golden valley.

"And then what’s interesting about Orval is that after a few series of different monastic groups living there and being destroyed at the hands of various wars, the abbey, or the grounds sat dormant with some abbey ruins on them til the 1920s. Then a local family who had come to own the land decided to return it to the Trappist order, so that’s when monks moved back in the 1920s and they started a commercial brewery there. And the monks have always overseen that brewery but they’ve never actually been the brewers there. They had laymen brewers who would work under them and come in and do that." 


"Achel is a little Trappist monastery brewery on the border between Belgium and the Netherlands. It has a very interesting history. It’s been there quite a while. The town is actually known for a lot of activity during WWI. it was occupied. The abbey was occupied, partially destroyed and the monks have rebuilt, and kind of stayed there. The population of monks there is pretty small and aging - they really only have a handful of monks left and a lot of them are in their 80s or 90s, so it’s a really interesting abbey to visit but it’s also one with an uncertain future."


This Belgian abbey makes a beer called "Westvleteren 12" (nicknamed "Westy 12"). It has been rated as the world's best beer more than once on the US website, ratebeer.com.

"That’s an abbey that has really in recent years earned this kind of beer nerd reputation. People all over the world go to visit Westvleteren. It has a long and rich history. There was a lot of really bad combat during WWI and WWII not too far from Westvleteren so it bears some scars. And after WWII, the abbot decided that the monks there, after all these interruptions in their contemplative life due to war, really needed to take some time to get back to their roots and get back to a more contemplative lifestyle. So they actually decided to keep brewing at the abbey in a small amount, but they kind of sold their commercial license, basically a contract license, to another brewery in the area - St. Bernardus - to brew all their commercial beer. They continued to do that at St. Bernardus until the 1980s when Westvleteren finally did an expansion back at the brewery."


Chimay aerial view
Chimay aerial view [credit Trappist Beer Travels]

Another Trappist abbey in Belgium is Chimay. Out of all the Trappist breweries, they produce the most beer. In fact, you probably won’t have any trouble finding this one at a local beer store.

"Chimay also had some troubles in WWI, like many of these abbeys. Something kind of interesting about Chimay is that they brew still in the monastery walls like all these authentic Trappist monastery breweries, but in order to get the kind of distribution that they have all around the world in such a large volume, they actually bottle off-site. They own their own bottling facility, but it’s a few miles away from the brewery in a much more large, industrial, loud building and they truck the beer from the monastery over there to be bottled so that they can still be in accordance as an authentic Trappist monastery brewery, but they can also really have that industrial scale that they need."


Rochefort originated in the 13th century. It’s the only Trappist abbey that really doesn’t have a public attraction, such as a shop or tasting room.

"...[T]he water from the beer is drawn from a well on site so that’s something they really take a lot of pride in, that water. They make 3 beers - Rochefort 6, Rochefort 8, and Rochefort 10 - and they’re kind of just known by the colors of their caps sometimes."

La Trappe

Unlike Rochefort, La Trappe brewery is really visitor friendly. They have a restaurant, a tasting room, outdoor seating, and regular tours at the brewery.

"So Koningshoeven, or La Trappe as the line of beers is known, is a Trappist monastery brew in the Netherlands. Koningshoeven started a brewery at the abbey - the La Trappe brewery - in 1884 or so. It went by a different name at that time, but they’ve been brewing since that time. One really neat thing about La Trappe is they...you’ll notice a lot of Trappist breweries brew like 1-4 beers...pretty limited amount compared to a modern US craft brewery, let’s say where you can make 30, 40, 60 styles in a year. La trappe is more similar to that - they have a pretty good lineup of beers - certainly more than any of the other Trappist breweries. They brew 9 or 10 different styles of beer regularly."


"Zundert is the other Trappist monastery brewery in the Netherlands and they just started brewing in 2014. They were the first abbey who visited on our trip who began that recently, so it was a really interesting change of pace to talk to the 2 monks there - brother Guido and brother Christian - who run their brewing program. Because they were there since its inception so they were able to tell us the process of brainstorming and recipe development and why they had the idea to come up with this brewery. They’d been doing farming there and that had been sustaining its monastery for years. So often with many of these monasteries the reason they’ve started the brewery, particularly these ones that started a brewery in recent years, are because they had other industries at the abbey that were getting to not be as commercially viable or as costs go up and time goes on they don’t see the future can be as commercially viable with those businesses, so they’ve looked to the success of these other older established Trappist breweries as really smart commercial ventures for them as well. So that’s what’s going on with Zundert."

The monks at Zundert came up with their signature beer by creating a word map. Basically they wrote down all the words describing what they wanted their beer to evoke. Ideas like “challenge” and “silence” and “hope”. It took them over 2 years to find the flavor that expressed what they wanted to express.

Stift Engelszell

Stift Engelszell
Stift Engelszell [credit Trappist Beer Travels]

"Stift Engelszell is the only Trappist monastery in Austria, and therefore definitely the only Trappist monastery brewery in Austria. They’re just a few kilometres over the border from Bavaria, from Germany, and they’re right along the Danube. It’s a really beautiful brewery. One thing that all Trappist monasteries kind of have in common - it’s kind of something you’ll notice about their worship spaces - is their austerity. It’s a real tenet of the order. The idea is that they want to be as close to God as possible, living the most austere as possible. So their churches and other grounds don’t have these really over the top depictions of saints and colorful idols and that kind of thing that you might see in other Roman Catholic churches. Engelszell is unique because of the history there. It belonged to another order of monks before them - they had built this fabulous, kind of Rococo church on the property. The monks now do a lot of their prayer in a more austere chapel, but this church is a huge tourist attraction at the abbey. In fact, they’re brewing a beer there. Like so many of these, it’s an older abbey, but brewing has only been taking place at Engelszell for a few years. They became an authentic Trappist brewery in 2012."

Tre Fontane

Tre Fontane in Rome is the newest Trappist monastery brewery.

"...[I]t’s a very old monastery and it goes back to the dawn of Christianity. The legend of Tre Fontane is that the prophet Saint Paul was beheaded there on the site of the monastery by order of the emperor Nero. Actually there’s a legend that when he was beheaded, his head bounced 3 times and from the bounces sprang 3 fountains or founts and that’s where the name Tre Fontane, or 3 fountains, comes from. Eucalyptus has actually found its way into the beer. It’s a kind of unique and cool part of the abbey’s history. At one point, eucalyptus was actually thought to cure malaria or prevent malaria because they were seeing that, you know it was back in the Middle Ages, that wherever this eucalyptus grows people seem to not be getting malaria, which was a big problem back then. But what it turns out is that eucalyptus is a plant that requires a lot of water - it sucks up a lot of water, so if you have a lot of eucalyptus on your property, you generally will not have a lot of standing water and thus mosquitoes are not going to populate and thus less of a chance for malaria risk. So this was grown all over the abbey and has been a rich part of the abbey’s story. So when they decided to start a brewing program at Tre Fontane, they knew they wanted to incorporate the eucalyptus in the beer, so the result they only make one beer right now and it’s a eucalyptus tripel - a really unique beer - one of the only beers I’ve ever had with eucalyptus in it and it’s a really well-balanced slightly herbacious, slightly refreshing beer that reminds me of a spa kind of."


Finally, there’s Spencer brewery. This is the only American Trappist brewery and it’s at St Joseph’s abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. They’re actually really well known for quality jams and jellies.

"The community at Spencer is actually from Saint-Sixtus or Westvleteren from Belgium. They moved over and started a new community in Nova Scotia and eventually moved to Rhode Island after a fire and then due to a fire and some other things, like for instance a bar going in across the street from them that played piano all night, they decided to move again to Spencer Massachusetts in 1950. So that community has been there since then. So they were certified by the International Trappist Association as an authentic Trappist brewery in 2013. It’s a really unique brewery because it has really paid homage to its Belgian roots. The first beer to be brewed at Spencer is Spencer Trappist ale, which is a Belgian tables beer. It’s basically a beer that monks will traditionally have with meals. A lot of these Trappist beers are pretty high alcohol and kind of your special occasion beers, but a lot of these breweries will brew slightly lower alcohol beer which the monks drink with more frequency." 

So there you have it, the incredible true story of the 11 Trappist monastery breweries. If you’re interested in learning more, you can pick up a copy of the book, Trappist Beer Travels. It reads like a mixture between a diary, travel guide, and history book.

Special Thanks to Our Interviewee:

Caroline Wallace - co-author of Trappist Beer Travels
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