When delving into the world of craft beer, the term ‘Trappist beer’ is one that you are sure to come across. But just what is a Trappist beer?
Quite simply, this is “a beer that is brewed by or under the control of Trappist monks”. A Trappist monastery is of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance and the monks and nuns live according to the rule of Saint Benedict. Their motto is "Ora et labora" (prayer and work) and each monk will cover their own living expenses by helping to produce various products – including beer. Any left over money made is used to help others in need.
In many instances, these practices have been happening for centuries. Back in the Middle Ages, monks saw the brewing of beer to be one of their key roles in the community. As water was unsafe to drink, beer was used as an alternative and it was up to the local monastery to create a steady supply.
Today, it is estimated that over 170 Trappist monasteries still exist, but only a handful of these are recognised producers of Trappist beer. This status is granted by the International Trappist Association, with the aim of preventing commercial companies from abusing the Trappist name and misleading consumers.
In order to qualify as an authorised Trappist beer, the Association requires that the beer be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery with the involvement of the resident monks. However, the brewery must not be profit-making nor can beer brewing be the primary function of the monastery. Rather, proper monastic life must always take precedence and the beer used to fund the monastery and its charities.
As of December 2013, this number has risen to ten. The Stift Engelszell Monastery in Austria started brewing beer and was awarded official Trappist accreditation. This was followed by the Dutch abbey Maria Toevlucht, which brews Zundert, and St. Joseph's abbey, located in the United States, which brews Spencer.
While this list reflects beers that may bear the official Authentic Trappist Product logo, there are many more monasteries that still have links to beer brewing. Mont des Cats in France is a Trappist monastery that has recently returned to its brewing roots. While the beer is brewed under the supervision of the monks, it is not done on site, meaning that while it is a Trappist beer, it does not bear the Authentic Trappist Product logo.
Many other craft beers also have links to monastic orders, however are no longer made by the monks themselves. These are known as ‘abbey beers’ and while they have a history that can be traced back to a religious order, are now made by a brewery. St. Stefanus is an abbey beer that was first brewed by the monks of the Sint Stefanus monastery in Ghent. Today, our beer is still made from the same recipe and yeast strain, however it is brewed at the nearby Van Steenberge Brewery. Master Brewer, Jef Versele still has a close relationship with the monks at the monastery and the sales of St. Stefanus help contribute towards the upkeep of the historic buildings.