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What makes Trappist beer unique

There are some very unique places on this world where our food and drink is produced. Whereas a lot of it is manufactured in factories, in industrial areas, some comes from more exquisite places. Some beer for instance, comes from monasteries, where it’s brewed by monks. In Europe, this is a century old tradition and continues until this day.

We recently had the chance to go for a tour at one of the monasteries in the Netherlands that stills brews beer and belongs to the order of Trappists. It’s a beautiful brewery, with inspiring goals with regards to sustainability and product quality.

The Trappists

The Trappists is a Roman catholic order, also called the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. The monks or nuns who live at these monasteries live by the rule of St. Benedict. This is a set of guidelines for how monks and nuns should live and is over a thousand years old.

One of these guidelines in that the monks and nuns should work besides studying and devoting time to God. They should earn their keep. Therefore these monasteries produce a wide range of products for sale to the general public as a way to do so.

Beer is just one of the many products that these Trappists make. Bread, mushrooms, chocolate, jams, cheese and olive oil are just a few of the other examples. Of course, none of this is for-profit. The monks and nuns take what they need and give the rest away to charities and other good causes as determined by themselves.

last few steps of the Trappist brewing process

Trappist products

The Trappist monasteries have come together in an international organization in 1998 in order to protect their name Trappist. There is a simple, but strict set of rules that a product has to meet in order for it to be called ‘Trappist’:

  • The product needs to be produced within the abbey and may not be done outside of its boundaries.
  • The monks oversee and are responsible for the production. (At La Trappe the majority of the work is done by non-monks, but the monks own the recipe, make the crucial decisions and are responsible.)
  • It is not made for profit and as a result part of the profit is donated to charities.

These guidelines make the products unique, not just because they’;ve got a nice story to them. Since the drivers for these products are very different then for a large commercial company, the choices made can be quite different. Monks probably wouldn’t do a lot of cost cutting, for the sake of increasing profits for instance.

former bakery
Bread is a very common Trappist product. During the tour we got to see the former bakery, the old bread tins (they’re huge!) are still there.

La Trappe – A Trappist beer

There are 13 abbeys that brew Trappist beer. One of these is the abbey van Koningshoeven, located in the south of the Netherlands. They organize a wide range of tours to learn more about the abbey.

When visiting them, the first thing that surprised me is that they actually aren’t that old. I had expected them to have existed for hundreds of years, on the contrary. This abbey was only initiated in 1881 when several French Trappist monks fled to the Netherlands.

Shortly after their arrival in the Netherlands, they started brewing beer, in 1884 since the lands themselves wouldn’t earn them enough. Ever since, beer has been brewed in the monastery.

one of the old brewing kettles
One of the former brewing kettles, currently not in use anymore.

Origins of the ingredients

In La Trappe beer is brewed according to the German Reinheidsgebot which means that the only ingredients they use are water, grains, hop and  yeast (and some sugar for fermentation in the bottle).

Water

All water comes from their own water well on their lands. They are working hard on reducing water use for their beer in order to ensure access to this water resource in the future. Over the past few years they have managed to reduce the amount of water for brewing one liter of beer by half. Also, they recently installed their own water  treatment plant and have the ambitious ambition to bring down their water usage ever more. Ideally, they’d like the only water to leave the grounds be in the form of beer, bringing the water usage down to almost 1:1!

Grain

The abbey has a wide array of land for growing their own grains, mostly barley. As a result, the barley they use for their barley comes largely from the surrounding areas. Interestingly the malting of the barley, an essential step  of the beer brewing process, takes place in Belgium since the facilities required are quite specialized.

Hop & Yeast

Hop gives beers some of their more distinctive, bitter, flavours. The hop they use comes mostly from Germany.

During the tour we weren’t specifically told where the yeast, essential for fermentation, comes from but it is also used in very low quantities.

9 types of beer

La Trappe makes the amazing number of 9 types of very different beers, all using these same ingredients. Differences between these beers can be due to the darkness of the malt (a darker malt gives a beer with a stronger flavour), the amount of hop and of course the alcohol percentage.

Bock beer

Bock beer is one of the beers that the abbey makes. A bock beer is originally an autumn beer, although nowadays various breweries also makes it for different seasons. A bock beer is one of those beer with quite a strong flavour since it’s made with a dark malt.

A dark malt is a malt that has been roasted for longer or at higher temperature. Traditionally this was done because the harvest of barley at the end of the year would be of a lower or more mixed quality. In order to still make all of this suitable for beer it was treated a bit more harshly. This does give a dark malt, thus a stronger flavour.

What again is malting?

The barley that is harvested from the land is treated to turn into malt. The barley is germinated first, to up the sugar content and then dried and roasted. Only after this is done can it be used for beer (read more about the whole beer brewing process here).

oak aged tappist
The oak aged Quadrupel from La Trappe.

Oak Aged Quadrupel

The Quadrupel is the La Trappe’s beer with the highest alcohol content (10%). Dspite the fact that this is a beer with a lot of flavour and character of itself, the monks decided to ramp it up even more. A select number of these beers are aged (stored for a prolonger period of time) in barrels, most of which are made of oak. As we discussed in our post on whiskey, aging in barrels gives the drink a lot of extra flavours.

Most beers that are aged in barrels though aren’t aged in new, freshly made barrel. Instead, most of it is aged in barrels which previously contained other alcoholic drinks. Common vats are those in which bourbon or even wine has aged in.

The La trappe Oak Aged beer is aged in different vats for every batch. We had a bottle of batch number 32 and this was aged in white wine barrels (75% of the beer) and various oak and acacia barrels. It gives the beer a highly complex, but very appealing flavour profile. What a little patience can’t do for you!

one of the main buildings of the koningshoeven abbey

Visit the brewery

If you live or are visiting the Netherlands (or any of the surrounding countries, the Netherlands is quite small!) the La Trappe brewery is definitely worthwhile a visit. They give tours regularly (advise to book in advance, in our case the tour was fully booked on a regular Saturday!). During the tour you’ll get to see their new water treatment facility (from the outside), some older brewery tanks and of course the bottle plant (during the weekend it doesn’t run, but still cool to see)!

During the tour you won’t go in the actual abbey, the monks want their silence and privacy of course, but you’re in their living area, so of course they can come by.

Further reading

Why beer is brewed in monasteries, an article in Dutch by NRC

Website of the trappists, visited 15-Nov-18

Website of the abbey De Koningshoeven, visited 15-Nov-18

Website of the association that manages the Trappist label, visited 15-Nov-18

Website of the La Trappe brewery, visited 15-Nov-18


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