I don’t personally know any monks. I imagine them as guys in robes who are constantly being chased around Italy by Tom Hanks like in The Da Vinci Code movies. (Full disclosure: I’ve never seen any of the Da Vinci Code movies.) I do know, however, that monks are known for fantastic Trappist beer, a style only brewed at eleven monasteries in the world (six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one each in Austria, Italy, and the United States).
You’ve probably heard of some of the Belgian breweries, which include Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren, and Achel. Yet, though we all know this beer is awesome, if you’re anything like me, you probably have a few questions about what makes it so good -- and how religious monks ended up brewing it in the first place. And since I knew I’d probbbbbably have a tough time getting a monk to talk to me, I reached out to Luc “Bobo” Van Mechelen, a jovial Belgian-born guy and the President of Manneken-Brussel Imports, Inc. He’s even pals with a monk!
Bobo happily answered all of my burning monk-related questions:
Who are the Trappist monks?
As Bobo explains, the Trappists are “Catholic monks who are part of a Cistercian order.” Cistercian monks are split into Benedictines, Franciscans, and Trappists. “Trappists came from Normandy, France, where there was a monastery called La Trappe.” According to Encyclopedia Britannica, in 1664, Armand-Jean Le Bouthillier de Rancé became the abbot of La Trappe and instituted “the balanced rule of silence, prayer, manual labor, and seclusion from the world.” Those tenets still hold true today.
So how did those Trappists end up in Belgium? “Napoleon kicked out all the French clergy and confiscated their real estate,” Bobo says. “That’s why a lot of monks moved north to Belgium. Because if they went any farther north, they’d be with the Dutch, [who] are Lutherans. Since we don’t have any grapes in Belgium, I guess they decided to brew beer!”
While most of the monks at Chimay are Belgian, there are also “guest monks,” who were persecuted in other parts of the world and needed a new home. Fortunately, Chimay has been successful enough to be able to host them.
There are over 150 Trappist monasteries in the world, and 10 in the US. Outside of Europe, the only one that brews beer is Spencer Brewery in Spencer, Massachusetts. Despite opening just a couple of years ago, it’s already been receiving accolades. Yeah, those monks are good.
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How does someone become a Trappist monk?
First step to becoming a Trappist monk: give up all your earthly belongings. Yup, even all those baseball cards you bought in middle school that are totally going to be worth something someday. And then you first have to go through a five-year process and become a priest. Monks don’t get caught up in greed, and Chimay doesn’t either. “Chimay gives 90% of their net proceeds away to good causes -- and this goes for most of the Trappist breweries in Belgium,” says Bobo.
What are some common misconceptions about Trappist beer?
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Not all Belgian beer is made alike. “If you see a picture of a monk on a beer label, you know you’re dealing with an Abbey beer, [not a Trappist beer],” Bobo explains. “In order for a beer to be Trappist, it has to be brewed inside the walls of a monastery. [The brewery cannot have] commercial investors. And you have to give 90% of proceeds away.” How about that: Drink a Trappist beer, and you’re automatically a philanthropist!
So do monks actually make the beer?
If you’re picturing monks in robes pouring hops into boiling wort, that’s not exactly how Chimay gets made. “They don’t all brew,” Bobo tells me. “In the case of Chimay, there’s one brewmaster. That’s the monk in charge of the brewery. In smaller monasteries, you’ll see the monks working on the bottling line. But at Chimay, since they’re fairly well off and [the monks] are getting older, one monk is in charge of the brewery, and he hires laypeople to work for them.” Is it weird that I kind of want to see monks working a bottling line? Monks: they’re just like us!
And do they drink it?
Duh! I mean, how could they not drink the delicious stuff? Chimay was first brewed in 1862, after the monks complained about dehydration and lack of food after working long hours in the fields. “One of the monks had the idea to brew beer because it has many of the [same ingredients as bread], and good vitamins. They also thought it would hydrate you because it was liquid.” Oops!
The monks’ beer of choice is Chimay Gold, a 4.8% ABV brew that was once only for monks and their guests. Now it’s available in bottles. “It’s a mix of a tripel and a Belgian witbier,” Bobo tells us. “But we use less sugar, and add coriander and orange peel. It’s a great summer beer.” And Chimay’s not the only monastery to make beer solely meant for the monks. “All Trappist monasteries brew a [beer] for their own consumption to drink with their meals. If they want to have a beer, that’s what they drink.”
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What are some good Trappist beers to seek out?
Bobo’s been drinking Trappist beer his whole life, so we got his top three picks!
“This is my favorite from Chimay, which brews four beers. I like my beer a little drier. That’s why I like the tripel -- you get the right amount of hops in the beer, not too much. It’s not too bitter.”
“This is the beer I drink when I go back home. They only make one beer. I love it because it has a little Brettanomyces, which gives it a little funky taste. I like the ones I drink to be [aged] at least a year.”
“I like this style! It’s kind of similar to the Chimay Tripel. Some other Belgian beers I like are Duvel and Brasserie Dupont’s Saison Dupont. I’m a little more inclined to drink drier beers.”