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The Brewing Monks: The Trappist Breweries (Part 3)


In the first part, The Brewing Monks: A Brief History of the Trappist Order and Monastic Brewing, we covered the basic history of Trappists and how monasteries became associated with brewing.  In The Brewing Monks: The Trappist Breweries (Part 1), The histories and beers of Rochefort, Stift Engelszell, Westmalle, and Westvleteren were explored.  In The Brewing Monks: The Trappist Breweries (Part 2), we looked at the beers and history of Chimay, La Trappe, and Achel.  In this segment, I’ll look at the origins of Zundert, Orval, & Spencery Abbey.  Where available, I’ll link the beers to reviews I’ve written and will continue adding in links as I post the appropriate reviews.  In subsequent segments, I’ll look at a few Trappist breweries in the works as well as non-Trappist monastic breweries that are currently producing beer.

Abdij Maria Toevlucht (Zundert) – Klein Zundert, Netherlands (Est. 1899, Brewery Est. 2013)

Zundert Brewery
(Zundert’s new brewery and brewing equipment. Picture from

The monastery at Zundert was founded by monks from Konigshoeven in 1899.  Since its founding, the monks have continued to grow their monastery and develop its unique culture.  In the 1970’s, the abbot instituted a program of Zen meditation after becoming interested in yoga and Zen practices while studying in Rome.  The monks still practice and host Zen Meditation/Prayer sessions to this day.

Zundert Trappist, Trappistenbrouwerij De KievitIn the last decade, the abbey has reduced the intensity of its farming practices to convert to more ecological cattle farming methods until 2011 when it was fully discontinued.  To help fund their monastery, the monks decided to install a brewery beginning in October of 2012.  The first beers should roll off the lines in the fall of 2013.  When they do, they will carry the official “Authentic Trappist Product” label. The first beer that will be brewed is described as a “copper blond beer of 8% alcohol.”

Zundert’s brewery was officially opened on December 6th, 2013 and they received official approval as a Trappist Beer on December 10th, 2013.  Currently, the brewery only has one beer.

Zundert Trappist Ale – A unique, yeast Amber Ale of 8% ABV.

Zundert is currently not imported into the US.

Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval – Viller-devant-Orval, Belgium (Est. 1124/Modern Est. 1928, Brewery Est. 1931)

Orval Blue Logo

The most famous legend associated with Orval involves the origins of the monastery.  Sometime during the 11th century, the widowed Mathilda of Tuscany was visiting the area and lost her wedding in a lake.  She prayed for the return of her ring when a trout emerged with her ring in its mouth, returning it to her.  She declared that this was truly a Valley of Gold(Val d’Or), giving rise to the name “Orval.”  This also is the origin of the famous fish and ring logo used by the Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval.  With the recovery of her ring, she gratefully provided funds for the founding of a monastery.

The area where Orval sits today has played host to a religious community off and on since the Merovingian Dynasty (A Frankish dynasty that lasted from the 5th-8th centuries CE).  In 1070, a group of Benedictine monks settled on the current site but moved some 40 years later.  In 1124, a group of monks adhering to the Canons Regular order settled here and dedicated and consecrated the chapel. In need of additional aid, they sent for help from the newly formed and growing Cistercians who sent several monks in 1132 who merged with the Canons Regular monks who then converted the Abbey to the Cistercian Order.

The Ruins of Orval
(Picture from

Disaster struck the abbey in 1252 in the form of a devastating fire that took the monastery nearly a century to recover from.  The fortunes of the monastery waxed and waned over the centuries with the various wars and plagues that ravaged Western Europe until the final blow came at the hands of the French Revolutionary Army in 1793.  During the 17th century, the abbey converted to the Trappist order but reverted back in 1785  before the abbey was destroyed a mere 8 years later.

The modern history of Orval begins in the late 19th century when the Harrene family acquired the lands that contained the ruins of the Orval abbey.  In 1926, they donated the lands to the Trappist order so that a monastery could once more thrive on the spot that had hosted monks for over a millennium.

The Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval was founded in 1928.  Within 4 years, Orval produced its first beer.  Although the original abbey had hosted a brewery for most of its history, Orval’s beer was an original creation.  Instead of recreating an old style, or emulating the other Trappists, they decided to brew something entirely new.  The beer is believed to hold a lot in common with the Walloon region’s saisons, which at the time were influenced more by the wild yeast Brettanomyces than today’s saisons.   In 1934, Orval trademarked their fish and ring logo.

Orval fans fall largely into two categories: fresh beer and aged beer.  When the beer is fresh, it’s similar to a well hopped pale ale.  Give the beer time in the bottle, and the Brettanomyces begins to change the beer creating a deep and earthy character.  The beer is brewed with 3 varieties of pale malt and 2 varieties of crystal malt, Styrian Golding and Saaz hops, and clear liquid candi sugar.  The most important part of the Orval character comes from its yeast.  The first round of fermentation is brewed with a standard ale yeast.  It’s during the second round of fermentation that a new mix of yeast is added to the tanks.  The brewery uses a mix of “local” yeasts that includes the wild yeast strain Brettanomyces.  This is also when the brewery dry-hops the beer, making it the only Trappist beer to go through this process.  The beer is centrifuged and then dosed with the primary yeast during bottling.  The process leaves enough Brettanomyces in the beer to allow it to exert its influence over time.

Petit Orval – A 3.4% ABV version of Orval that is served at the abbey as a table beer.

Orval – A Belgian pale ale that is dry-hopped and finished with Brettanomyces with an ABV of 6.9%.

Merchant du Vin is the US importer of Orval.

St. Joseph’s Abbey – Spencer, Massachusetts (Est. 1950, Brewery Est. 2014)

St Joseph's Abbey
(Picture from

St. Joseph’s Abbey can trace its lineage to the monks who came to America to escape the French Revolution.  These monks were further bolstered when monks from St. Sixtus (Westvleteren) came to Nova Scotia at the Abbot’s invitation in 1857.  Several large fires ravaged the monks’ lands in the 1890’s and forced the monks to reconsider their situation.  They decided to move to Rhode Island.

There they flourished until another massive fire devastated their buildings in 1950. Fortunately, they’d recently acquired lands outside of Spencer, Massachusetts.  The fire, coupled with the encroachment of post-war economic development, pushed the monks to move their home once again.  Since then, they have prospered in Spencer.  Currently, the monks produce and sell jellies and jams to sustain themselves.

Spencer Trappist AleIn 2011, however, they began filing applications with the local government to expand and install a brewery.  Here’s a link to a PDF of the town zoning board proceedings describing the expansion (scroll to page 6).  Their eventual goal is to get to 10,000 bbl of production.  The monks have been brewing for a while on a very low scale for their own needs so they aren’t completely inexperienced.  Once they began working to create a more commercial brewery, they enlisted the help of fellow Trappist monastery and brewery Chimay to consult and provide technical expertise.  With the launch of their beer, St. Joseph’s became the first American Trappist Brewery.

Spencer Trappist Ale back labelSpencer Abbey released their beer to the local Massachusetts market in mid January, 2014. 

The first beer is in the vein of a traditional “Pater” or table beer.  At 6.5%, this is slightly above what most of the Belgian versions are, but still within reason.  The back label describes the beer as light in color, dry, with a nice but light hop crispness.  The most important piece of information on the back label, though, is the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo.  This indicates the full status of this beer as a 100% Trappist beer.  As of yet, there is no word on when or if there will be other beers.

Spencer Trappist Ale – An Abbey-style Single Ale of 6.5% ABV.

Spencer Trappist Ale is currently only available in Massachusetts.

Continue on to: 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 looks at 2 Trappists that are collaborating to make beer and could eventually add a brewery.

The Brewing Monks: The Benedictine Breweries (Part 1) – A look at some of the Benedictine Monasteries producing beer commercially.

The Brewing Monks: The Benedictine Breweries (Part 2) – A look at some more of the Benedictine Monasteries producing beer commercially.


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)

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