The Trappist Breweries
In the first part of the article, The Brewing Monks: A Brief History of the Trappist Order and Monastic Brewing, I outlined the origins of the Trappist order and the tradition of breweries within monasteries. In the next part, we’ll look at all the Trappist Monasteries that currently operate breweries. We’ll briefly learn about the history of the individual monastery and then explore their beers. We’ll look at the styles and ingredients that make each brewery and beer unique. Additionally, there are select reviews linked to the beer descriptions with more becoming available as I complete them.
(Please note, I’ve decided to split this into 3 portions. The length was becoming unwieldy. I’ve organized them by the initial founding dates of the monasteries.)
L’Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy – Rochefort, Belgium (Est. 1230, Brewery Est. 1595)
Rochefort’s history dates to its founding in 1230 as a Cisterician convent for nuns. By 1464, the monastery had fallen on hard times. The nuns were ordered out and monks were brought in. During the 80 years war, the monastery was destroyed by invading Protestant armies in the mid 16th century. The monks defiantly rebuilt and included plans to build a the monastery’s first brewery, which went online in 1595. The 17th century wasn’t much kinder as the monastery was caught up in various wars or plagues that reeked havoc on the community. The final blow came in 1789 when the French Revolutionary army invaded. The monastery was sold into private hands in 1798 and destroyed in 1805.
In 1887, monks from the Trappist abbey of Achel bought the land and buildings of Rochefort and began to rebuild the community. A brewery was built as part of the reconstruction in 1899. The initial brewing techniques were very labor intensive and produced inconsistent beer. The solution was to send Father Dominque to the university at Leuven to study brewing. This enabled Rochefort to bottle and sell beer to the local area. But as Chimay, and Father Theodore, increased the quality of their beers after WWII, Rochefort’s beer sales dropped. Instead of stopping sales in the area, Chimay offered to help Rochefort improve their brewery and their beers.
The brewhouse was modernized as were the techniques being used in it. Rochefort sent a monk to Chimay to train in the brewery. The final piece of the puzzle came with the development of new recipes. Rochefort 6 was released to the public in 1953. A beer that would later be called 10 came out shortly after 6. By 1955, Rochefort released the last beer in its lineup: 8. The initial yeast for the retooling came from Chimay but didn’t perform well in the harder water at Rochefort. The yeast is initially pitched in the 6 and is used for a week’s worth of brewing then the yeast is pitched into the 8 for another week’s worth of brews. The yeast finishes it’s run in the 10 for another week’s work.
The Brewery was then expanded again in 1960. Today, capacity is around 40,000 hectolitres (34,000 bbls) but the abbey caps production at 25,000 hectolitres (21,300 bbls) so that the brewing doesn’t interfere with their monastic lifestyle. Despite this limitation, the brewery still is the largest source of income for the abbey.
There are around 20 monks at the abbey with about 5 secular workers. 4 or 5 monks work in the brewery with the secular workers.
Tragedy struck on December 29, 2010 when a fire destroyed a large part of the monastery. Fortunately none of the monks were harmed and the brewhouse was untouched. This will allow the monks to brew beers for sale to fund their reconstruction.
The beers are brewed with barley malt, sugar (typically a caramelized liquid sugar), wheat starch, coriander, and hops. Rochefort is known for its 3 beers: 6, 8, and 10. They named after their gravity based on the old Belgian system. All 3 beers are darker and on the sweeter side.
6 – An amber beer of 7.5% ABV (This is probably the rarest of the 3 and represents only 1% of the volume brewed).
8 – An amber-brown beer with 9.2% ABV (This beer represents the highest volume production of the 3 beers).
10 – A brown beer with 11.3% ABV.
Rochefort is imported into the US by Merchant du Vin.
Stift Engszell – Engelhartszell an der Donau, Austria (Est. 1293, Brewery Est. 2012)
Oddly enough, one of newer Trappist monasteiesy to join the brewing community has one of the oldest histories. Cistercians founded Stift Engelszell in 1293. As with the main order of Cistercians, its fortune has waxed and waned throughout its 800+ year history. The Reformation saw the first decline of the monastery leading to the monastery falling into private hands. It was reopened in 1618 and lasted until 1699 when a fired nearly destroyed the abbey. This set off another period of financial issues until 1746 when Leopold Reichl, the last “Common Observance” abbot, was appointed. He rebuilt the finances and the buildings of the Monastery restoring it to prominence until 1786 when Emperor Joseph II dissolved it. The buildings of the abbey where then put to private use until the 20th century.
After WWI, a group of German Trappist monks, having been expelled from their abbey in Alsace, made their way to Austria where they occupied and reformed Stift Engelszell in 1925. The monastery prospered until 1939 when the Gestapo seized it and expelled the monks, sending some to Dachau Concentration Camp and drafting others. At the end of WWII in 1945, only about a 1/3 of the original community returned to the abbey. Their numbers were quickly bolstered with Trappist monks expelled from Soviet occupied Bosnia.
Today, there are 7 monks currently residing at Stift Engelszell who make a living off making liquor and cheese (Their liquor has carried the “Authentic Trappist Product” since 2009). By this time, the monastery was in fairly bad shape and the monks needed a way to increase revenues if they wanted to keep their abbey going. Fortuitously, one of the brothers met Peter Krammer; owner of a local, small, family-run brewery, Brauerei Hofstetten. Peter set about helping the monks create their own brewery to help them raise funds. With Peter’s help, they set up a brewery with a 2,500 hectolitre (1,572 bbls) brewery in an unused building near the Monasteries beehives. He started brewing 100 liter test batches trying to create beers that would be unique when compared to the other Trappist breweries. In May of 2012, the ITA approved them to become the 8th Trappist brewery.
Currently Stift Engelszell brews 3 different beers:
Nivard is a special blond beer, a “single” or “patersbier,” 5.5%. The beer is named after Nivard Volkmer who was Abbot from 1989-1991.
Benno is a “Farmhouse” style ale, 6.9% ABV, brewed with honey from the monastery’s bees. The beer is named after Benno Stumpf who was Abbot from 1953-1966.
Gregorius is a dark Tripel style beer, 9.7% ABV, also brewed with honey. It is named after Gregorius Eisvogel who led the monastary from its refounding in 1925 until 1950.
Stift Engelszell is imported into the US by B. United International.
Abdij der Trappisten van Westmalle – Westmalle, Belgium (Est. 1794, Brewery Est. 1836)
The Abbey of Westmalle was founded in 1794 when the Bishop of Antwerp gave land to La Trappe monks who had fled from the French Revolution. Almost immediately, the monks were forced to flee ahead of invading French troops. They returned in 1802 until 1811 when Napoleon closed all Trappist monasteries. The monks returned in 1814. By 1836, the monastery achieved full recognition as a full Trappist abbey.
Fortunately for Westmalle, the second half of the 19th century was remarkably uneventful. Like many of the other Monasteries, the Germans ransacked the brewery for scrap metals and other materials forcing the monks to rebuild after the war. Throughout its history, the monastery has continued to grow and develop.
The work on the brewery began in 1834 and was completed in 1836. The first beer was served on December 10, 1836 at lunch. The first beer was described as rather sweet but light in alcohol. In 1856, they added a stronger dark beer, which is believed to be the first ever Dubbel to be brewed. At this time, the monastery started to sell their beer at their gate to the local community. In 1865, they rebuilt their brewery. By 1921, the monks decided to sell their beer to the trade. Then, in 1933, they built a completely new brewery which was followed by the creation of a new beer in 1934. Westmalle Tripel is known as the mother of all tripels. The last major change to the Tripel recipe was in 1956, since then, it’s been virtually unchanged. The dubbel was also tweaked a bit in 1956.
Today, the monastery houses about 22 monks and employs around 40 secular workers. The beers are brewed with malted barley, Belgian candi sugar (caramelized liquid sugar for the dubbel), and whole cone hops. They currently brew 3 beers:
Westmalle Extra – a paterbier or “single” brewed for consumption by the monks. It has the lowest alcohol of the 3 at 5% ABV. It is gold in color and is light and dry.
Westmalle Dubbel – A Double ale with 7% ABV. It’s reddish-brown in color and is malty and rich.
Westmalle Tripel – A “Tripel” golden ale with 9.5% ABV. It’s hoppier and crisp.
Westmalle is imported into the US by Merchant du Vin.
De Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren – Westvleteren, Belgium (Est. 1831, Brewery Est. 1838)
Although this area of West Flanders has a monastic tradition dating back to the time of Charlemagne (806 CE), the various orders (none were of the Benedictine type) have come and gone over that period until a hermit was joined by some monks from Catsburg in 1831. They setup the first site for the Trappist abbey of Westvleteren. In 1838, they established a brewery within the monastery’s walls to help fund their continued growth.
The abbey continued to grow throughout the 19th century, adding schooling space as well as a model farm. WWI brought about large change for the monastery as they played host to refugees and allied forces alike (up to 400,000). In 1931, the monks sold their beer to public for the first time. WWII brought further hardship that would result in a bit of a closing off in the post war years. Although Westvleteren was the only monastery not to have its copper kettles scrapped for use by the Germans.
In 1945, as the war ended, the monastery decided to reduce brewing capacity to 4,750 hectolitres (2,980 bbls). Westvleteren then granted the nearby Deconink brewery (now called St. Bernardus Brouwerij) license to the St. Sixtus name and the right to brew their recipes for public sales. The beer brewed at the monastery would only be used for the Monks and their guesthouse. This license ended in 1989 when Westvleteren installed a new, state of the art brewing system.
Currently, you can only buy the beer (legally) by making an appointment to buy it directly from the abbey on one of their release days. However, this changed for one brief moment in 2012 when the Monastery announced a special one-time offering to the US, Canadian, and Belgian markets. The offer consisted of a special 6-pack of Westvleteren XII with 2 glasses. The stores who were carrying the beer for the 12/12/12 release were swamped and sold out in minutes. The sales of this special release were to pay for a major and urgent renovation at the monastery.
Of the 3 current beers being produced, the blond is the newest and was developed in 1999 and replaced the old 4 and 6 beers. The blond became the table beer for the monks. The 12 was originally developed around 1930 but has changed some since its original production. There isn’t much in the records to indicate when the 8 was initially developed.
Today, there are around 20+ brothers who reside at abbey. One distinction sets them apart, though. They’re the only Trappist brewery that is completely run by the monks. 5 brothers do the work of brewing (with another 5 during bottling times). They do employ a few laymen, but they only do a few manual labor tasks.
Westvleteren uses pale and pilsner malt, hops (extract and pellets from local hop yards in Poperinge), potentially some sugars (caramelized or not). They are very mysterious about what additional ingredients or techniques they use to achieve the darker color of 8 & 12. They brew using yeast from Westmalle.
Westvleteren Blond – A lower alcohol “table beer” for the monks consumption. It’s fairly hoppy, around 41 IBUs. It’s around 5.8% ABV.
Westvleteren 8 – A Trappist dubbel brewed to 8% ABV.
Westvleteren 12 (XII) – A Trappist Quad clocking in at 10.2% ABV.
Westvleteren is not currrently imported into the US. It’s only available at the door of the monastery.
Continue to The Brewing Monks: The Trappist Breweries (Part 2) to read about the histories and beers of Achel, Chimay, and La Trappe, and Orval.
The Brewing Monks: The Trappist Breweries (Part 3) – The histories of Zundert, Orval, and Spencery 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 adding breweries and the ones who are collaborating to brew beer.
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.
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)