journal of a self proclaimed beer connoisseur

In-depth: Trappist and Abbey Beers

The title may have lured you to this post; however, allow me to immediately explain the difference between the two types of beer and eject Abbey Beers from the remainder of the discussion.

Abbey beers use traditional recipes for brewing beer and may or may not be associated with an actual Abbey. In Belgium there are some marketing devices in place to help one determine if the beer is actually from an Abbey. The ones that aren’t typical brew the beer of a past abbey under license as the abbey may have ceased brewing sometime in the past.

The types of beer I am interested in discussing are Trappist beers. There are three strict conditions to be considered a Trappist beer:

  • the beer must be brewed within a Trappist Abbey;
  • the brewing must occur under the supervision and responsibility of Cistercian monks; and
  • the majority of the revenue must be dedicated to charitable work.

This, to me, is a very intriguing list. Pair that with the fact that any beer geek can tell you that authentic Trappist beer are consistently some of the absolute best brews attainable…anywhere, and you have a very interesting conversation.

Take another read through that list and answer me something: how many other beer producers you know have any rules even remotely similar to this? All three of these points are going to have a pervasive effect on the beer brewed.

I could go real in depth but let me just highlight a few observations I immediately draw from this:

Restricting the brewing to within the boundaries of the Abbey inherently restricts the space available for the brewing efforts. This is going to have an immediate effect on the max brewing capacity. In fact, some of the Trappist beers are easily the most difficult to obtain in the world. I’ll touch on that more later.

Requiring the brewing to be supervised by and the responsibility of monks ensures that there is consistency in the brewing efforts and that traditional recipes and methods are adhered to.

No macro-brewers will lay their filthy hands on this process and wrench the authenticity out for profits. These are beers in which the producers take great pride. Often marketing is slim to none – the quality and reputation of the product sells itself.

The majority of the profits have to go to charitable work? That has to be the most surprising point. You have the sales of alcohol supporting charitable work. This is an immediate and immense difference from the motivations of typical beer producers.

Typically they are prohibited from producing and selling beer for a profit – so the production is limited to only enough to satisfy their financial needs and charitable work. This translates into a lower supply without affecting the demand.

The price these beers command is immediately higher and the difficulty of obtaining them is also increased. Most of these Trappist beers could easily setup more extensive distribution networks and jack up production and continue to sell every drop they produce. But they don’t.

Trappist beers are consistently rated as some of the best beers in the world. Part of this is because they have been brewing for centuries and no one has every subjected them to Purity Laws in brewing. The result of this is that these beers (and most Belgium) are not trying to adhere to any strict externally-imposed rules but are utilizing more creativity in their brewing. The result is excellent beer.

I started this to be a brief “in-depth” look but have written more than I anticipated.

To end it off, let me provide you with a few beers of the style you can try and seek out:

  • Rochefort Trappistes 10
  • Westvleteren 12
  • Westmalle Tripel
  • Westmalle Dubel
  • Orval

I’ll leave you to your own research devices to dig up the names of the 7 breweries allowed to use the Trappist name. Here is a clue:

You will see on that list “Westvletern 12” also known as “Westy 12”. Good luck with that one. It is produced in the Abbey in Belgium in a somewhat remote locale and that is the only place you can find it a reasonable price. It is pretty much the only place you can find it for retail sale. Period. A supposedly amazing beer I hope to try one day. If you get the chance, savor it – most beer nerds will never get there.


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