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The Brewing Monks: A Brief History of the Trappist Order and Monastic Brewing

the-trappist-breweriesUpdated & Edited 03/07/2014

The Trappist Decade

The last few years have been very active ones for the Trappist breweries.  Chimay celebrated its brewery’s 150 anniversary in 2012 with a special beer.  Stift Engelszell joined the ranks of Trappist breweries by achieving its certification in 2012 making it the 8th official Trappist Brewery.  Westvleteren sold a world-wide release of their famous 12 to raise much-needed funds.  Earlier this year, Orval announced that it would promote its Quality Assurance director to head brewer, making Anne-Françoise Pypaert the first Woman to head a Trappist brewery.  Chimay, in 2013, announced it would release its Dorée to limited accounts in Belgium as a test before seeking broader release.

2013 ended with the 9th Trappist brewery joining the fold when Zundert in the Netherlands released their Zundert Trappist Ale.  The 9th was quickly followed by the 10th when Spencer Abbey in Massachusetts released their Spencer Trappist Ale in January of 2014.

All this news surrounding the Trappist breweries has generated huge, world-wide interest in these Monasteries and their beers.  But what makes these beers and breweries so special?  How did they come to symbolize the highest quality in brewing?  Join me as I delve into the unique history of the Trappist order and its famed beers!

The Order of Cistercians

St Benedict
Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine Order

The Order of Cistercians was founded in 1098 when monks from the Benedictine abbey of Molesme left to form their own monastery in nearby Citeaux, France (Cistercium in Latin), feeling that things were too lax in Molesme.  They wished to return to a more strict adherence of the teachings of St. Benedict which called for austerity and manual labor.  The monks sought to return to a quiet life of prayer in which they lived by the fruit of their labor.  Their constitution emphasized love, work, prayer and self-denial as their primary identity.

From a very early stage, the Cistercians acquired lands to develop and farm with their own hands.  Many of these included vineyards.  As the order spread, each abbey was largely autonomous except for the guiding charter which all abbeys of the order followed.  Hoping to attract Cistercian Monks to their lands, various nobles would offer the order undeveloped land in hopes that the monks could turn the wild into a social/economic hub for their areas.  By 1152, there were 333 Cistercian Monasteries in Europe.  By their peak in the 1300’s, they were the most powerful religious order in Europe.  The Cistercians reached the zenith of their influence in 1335 when a former Cistercian was elected Pope, Benedict XII.

After this, the Cistercian order began a steady decline which was accelerated by The Reformation and the French Revolution which nearly ended the order.

The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance

Monk Testing Wine
A Medieval French Monk Testing Wine

With the main group of Cistercian abbeys going into decline, La Grande Trappe Abbey in Normandy, France began to institute reforms under their abbot starting in 1664.  The reforms, like the initial reforms of the Cistercians in 1098, intended to return the wayward order to a truer form of Benedictine monasticism.  Those following in the footsteps of the La Trappe monks became known as “Trappists” (the nuns were referred to as “Trappistines”).

Like the main Order of Cistercians in France, the French Revolution and the rule of Napoleon created chaos as church lands were confiscated and the monks were forced to flee.  The Trappists scattered around Europe trying to find safe harbor but failed as Napoleon spread across Europe.  This wandering helped to spread the Trappists into Belgium and into the new world of the newly formed United States.  After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the monks began returning to France.  Those that stayed in Belgium, however, eventually separated from the rule of the French monks to form their own Belgium congregation.

In 1892, the Trappists officially parted ways with the Cistercians when their independence was recognized by the Pope.  The old Cistercians were then known as “The Order of Cistercians of the Standard Observance” while the Trappist were official known as “The Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance.”  Today, the Trappists have grown to nearly 170 monasteries and convents world-wide.

The Trappist Breweries

While monks led a solitary life of work and prayer, they also believed in hospitality and charity.  Monasteries were renowned as places of refuge for travelers seeking a safe, clean place with decent food and drink.  The monks grew or traded for their food and made their own drinks, thus beer and wine were readily available at the monasteries.  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.

In 820, the Saint Gall monastery designed what would become the template for the medieval monastic brewery.  The design designated the construction of 3 breweries: one to brew beer for paying customers and travelers, one to make the monk’s own beer, and one to make beer for the poor (charity beer).  Each brewery brewed a different quality of beer, with the charity beer being the one made from the least desirable materials.  This eventually led to the multiple running system.

Monk Brewing Beer
A medieval monk, most likely Cistercian (they wear white habits), brewing beer.

Eventually, the monks figured out you could run water through the mash multiple times to get more use from the grains.  This was first discovered (documented) by the Jesuit brewers who offered a 5% to travelers and used the 2.5% second run beer for themselves.  The next big step came when they realized that people would pay a lot more for a stronger beer, more than the cost of the extra grain.  This allowed even bigger beers with more runnings.  The first runoff would be the richest and brew the best beer.  The second would be next best, and the final running would be the weakest.  Again, the first would go to the guests and be sold to help maintain the abbey.  The second would be for the monk’s use.  The last runnings would be for the poor.  This is also the likely origin for terms “single,” “double,” “triple,” and “quadruple.” (To learn more about this, read my piece on the subject at the Q & Ale section of this blog at this link).

This tradition of self-sustainability coupled with hospitality continued into Belgium as the “Trappists” spread across Europe in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.  Since the monks couldn’t really grow wine grapes effectively, and the Lowlands (Belgium and Netherlands) were beer dominated cultures, the newly established monasteries focused on beer as way to maintain their abbeys.

The next big step in quality started in the early 20th century as the influx of lower alcohol, foreign beers began to gain a following in Belgium.  Belgian breweries were going out of business at fast pace.  At this time, we begin to see the Trappists stepping to the fore by offering beer that was higher in alcohol and more flavorful than the competitive beers.  This was also exacerbated by the 1919 law banning liquor sales in Belgian bars.  The Trappists were poised to take advantage of this law.  Without a high alcohol liquor option, patrons turned towards the high alcohol beers mainly made by the monks.  As more breweries went out of business, the demand for the monks’ beer grew steadily as other alternatives left the market.  While being largely conservative in regards to change, the monks were fast to adopt new techniques and equipment to ensure the quality of their product continued to grow.  The monks believed that since they’re essentially working for God and in his name, they should make the best product they possible could.  This has been the driving principle throughout the history of the monastic orders.

Trappist ProductAs 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.  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.

The rules that govern the  legally-protected rights to use the label are:

  1. The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery and be brewed by or have the brewing be supervised by the Monks.
  2. The brewery must be of secondary importance and be subject to business practices commensurate with that of a monastic life.
  3. The brewery isn’t for making profits.  The money is to be used to  pay for the upkeep of the monastery and its monks.  Any excess money is to be used for the monastery’s charitable ventures.
  4. The quality of the beers are subject to quality monitoring.

As of 2014, there are 10 recognized Trappist breweries that can use the Trappist labeling (and several others who use the label on other products).

In the second, third & fourth parts of this article, I’ll discuss the individual histories of the 10 Trappist Breweries and the beers they make.  In the fifth part, we’ll look at the non-Trappist monastic breweries of the world.  The sixth part looks at some of the Benedictine Abbeys that are making beer commercially.  There will also be additional pieces as more brewing monasteries are uncovered or begin to brew.

The Brewing Monks: The Trappist Breweries (Part 1) – The first portion of the individual histories of the Trappist Breweries, encompassing: Rocherfort, Stift Engelszell, Westmalle, & Westvleteren.

The Brewing Monks: The Trappist Breweries (Part 2) – The Second portion of the individual histories of the Trappist Breweries, encompassing: Achel, Chimay, & La Trappe.

The Brewing Monks: The Trappist Breweries (Part 3) – The Third portion of the individual histories of the Trappist Breweries, encompassing: Zundert, Orval, & Spencer Abbey.

The Brewing Monks: The 11th Trappist Brewery – Tre Fontane – The history of the Italy’s Tre Fontane which became an official Trappist in 2015.

The Brewing Monks: Almost Trappist – A look at the Trappist Monasteries about to add breweries or who are collaborating to brew beer.

The Brewing Monks: The Benedictine Breweries (Part 1) – The first part detailing the history of and developments in Non-Trappist monastic breweries: The Benedictine Order (Part 1).

The Brewing Monks: The Benedictine Breweries (Part 2) – The Second part detailing the history of and developments in Non-Trappist monastic breweries: The Benedictine Order (Part 2).


Journey to the source of Chimay Trappist Beer, by Francis Groff and Marcel Leroy, (Acacia, 2011)

Great Beers of Belgium by Michael Jackson, (Brewers Publications, 2008)

brew like a monk by Stan Hieronymus, (Brewers Publications, 2005)

The Oxford Companion to Beer, edited by Garret Oliver, (Oxford University Press, 2012)




74 thoughts on “The Brewing Monks: A Brief History of the Trappist Order and Monastic Brewing

    1. @The Alemonger… if you haven’t already discovered this, the Abbey you are referring to is of a different order. They are Benedictine monks, not Trappist (Cistercian.) Having enjoyed Trappist Ales for 30 years, I should have known this fact, but I forgot about it! Chris (the owner of I Think About Beer) schooled us on that fact!

      Read more on that here:

  1. I see no mention of the long brewing process. The multiple organisms and open vat fermentation. The magic of the monk beer is mentioned nowhere on any site.???

    1. The brewing process and organisms (Orval) are mentioned in various posts under the Brewing Monks title. Most all are brewing with standard brewing yeast. Orval does add Brett. And at this point, none of the abbeys is using open fermenters. They’re all pretty modern.

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