The term “Trappist” refers to the Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, a Roman Catholic order of contemplative monastics, including monks and nuns, who have renounced mainstream society and have chosen to live in silence, prayer and contemplation. Since the Middle Ages, monastery brewhouses have existed across Europe to help sustain their way of life and for charitable causes, thus allowing many of these monk-brewers to perfect their recipes. For the past few years, some friends and I have been drinking Belgian and specifically, Trappist beers, that developed from our fondness and respect for their trajectory, and when the opportunity presented itself to do a pilgrimage throughout the Trappist beer region, I accepted gracefully. Last month, we departed from the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris after a Day of the Dead-type feast with our favorite composer, Frederic Chopin, who is buried in said location. The afternoon was dreary and cloudy, a perfect day for a glass of wine, cheese, and salami while resting upon gravesites and greenery, listening to several of Chopin’s waltzes. After a few hours, we drove northeast until we reached the Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval in the Gaume region of Belgium. The brewery was founded in 1931, although evidence exists they brewed since 1628, and they currently brew two beers, Orval and Petite Orval. The brewery is known for its use of dry hops and local wild yeasts, served in a tulip glass and bottled in the traditional skittle bottle. Like all of the beer-brewing monasteries, they are closed to the public, but can be sampled at nearby locations. Our goal was to visit the monasteries, sample at nearby locations, and engage with the locals since all the Trappist monasteries are in small towns in the outskirts, away from major cities.
After a long night’s rest at a château in Sedan, France, we arrived at the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy in Rochefort, Belgium, some of the group’s preferred beer, although the high 11.3% content of the Rochefort 10, which is malty and sometimes bitter, should prevent abuse of such an outstanding beer. The brewery makes three beers, the 6, 8, and 10, the latter being the strongest, has approximately 15 monks in residency, and has been brewed since 1595. The water used is drawn from the local wells, which we tasted, and we toured the grounds of the monastery without interruption. Next, we arrived in the town of Chimay. One of the most scenic routes ever experienced through back roads, observing castles, livestock, small towns, villages, and endless kilometers of greenery. Located in the Scourmont Abbey in Chimay, Belgium since 1862, they produce three beers, the white, red, and blue, all ales, it was the first beer to use the Trappist designation, they use water from a well inside the monastery, and the solids from the beer mash are given to the same cows from which Chimay cheese is produced. There is a nearby Chimay hotel that maintains the history of the monastery and the brewery, and the beer is usually paired with their cheese, thereby enhancing the experience. Chimay blue, one of my favorite beers, has a 9% ABV, is known as the Grand Reserve, and has hints of pepper and fruit, giving it a bubbling sensation. We drank the Grand Reserve all night at a local pub with local folk, which were some of the friendliest people I have ever met.
The following morning we made our way to Brussels. A beautiful, quaint, picturesque city where we did the common touristy things, drank the more popular Belgian beers like Delirium and St. Bernardus, yet we found the possible 8th Trappist Beer from the Netherlands. The Zundert Abbey almost qualified as a Trappist beer, however, because it is not made within the walls of a monastery, it cannot carry the same classification. I enjoyed the beer, although the rest of the group disparaged it, and soon we found a local store that carried the world’s most coveted beer, the Westvleteren, also a Trappist beer, which we hadn’t tried because it is almost impossible to find in the U.S. As I drank it in the chilling main plaza of Brussels, I was taken back by the unusual taste of any beer I had ever drank. Most alcoholic beverages give your esophagus a pause, a hesitation even, as it goes down your throat before your palate does its interpretation. For me, a great tequila and Chopin vodka are the exception, and this beer did exactly that. It went straight down my throat without qualms and I found it so uncanny that I couldn’t describe it.
The following morning we drove straight to the town of Mechelen, Belgium where the Gouden Carolus brewery is located. Although not a Trappist beer, we did a small detour to visit one of my top beers and one of the better looking bottles in general. Coincidentally, the Cuvée Van De Keizer Blauw (Blue) 11% dark ale, is brewed once a year on February 24th, my birthday, in honor of Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor born there, it has been around since 1471, the brewery has a hotel next door, and it was the quaintest breweries I have ever been to. The staff was extremely knowledgeable and friendly and it was one of my highlights because of the great conversation, laughter and good times.
Next we went to the Trappist Brewery of Westmalle, Belgium. We arrived by night accompanied by rain and the monastery was peaceful and romantic with cats running amok and monks arriving by bicycle. At times it appeared blasphemous to tour the monasteries with our child-like fervor, especially after a few drinks, but our goal was to appreciate their lifestyle and simply observe. The brewery makes three beers, the Dubbel, Tripel, and Westmalle Extra, the first to ever use the word tripel and dubbel, and is speculated they make three beers as a homage to the Holy Trinity. It was classified as a Trappist in 1836, and we had the beer at a local diner that seemed a bit too flashy and out of place. The next afternoon we arrived at the Achel Brewery, the smallest of all the Trappists, which has brewed since 1648. They make five different beers which we tried in their local cafeteria, ranging from 5 to 9% ABV, and although a bit on the weaker side, turned out to be surprisingly satisfying.
Later in the afternoon we visited the only Trappist brewery in the Netherlands, De Koningshoeven Brewery, known as La Trappe, and one of the most commercialized breweries. The brewery has gone through several changes and difficulties, and were even required to drop the use of the Trappist logo for several years due to its commercial and business methods. They brew nine beers, and they have a museum, shop, and bar within the monastery. Although not one of my favorite beers, it must be respected as the only operating Trappist in the Netherlands. Due to its closeness to Amsterdam, we seized the opportunity to visit the charming fluvial city with its endless canals, red light district, smoke and weed shops, bustling nightlife, energetic cyclists, house boats, and ancient architecture. We spent the night in a floating home on the canal, something I’ve always wanted to do, and soaked in the cold and rainy climate. As we concluded our pilgrimage and drove to Vleteren, Belgium, in West Flanders, hops country, we proudly admired our journey and anticipated the international hype of the world’s most coveted beer.
Founded in 1838, the beer has an esteemed international reputation, some judges and aficionados considering it the best beer in the world, which is partially inspired by its lack of commercialization, lack of labeling, and available quantity. In a way you could consider it a traditional underground beer, something that is lost in today’s highly digitized world. It is usually sold in small quantities at the doors of the abbey to individual buyers, by reservation only, and license plate of vehicle must be provided. Most people have and will never experience this beer unless they go all the way to Westvleteren, sit it the cafeteria and have it there, unless they run out for the day. Upon arrival, we were lucky they still had some, but had run out of bottles for individual sale. That was expected, and only made the experience more realistic. The champion beer is the Westvleteren 12, 10.2% ABV brewed since 1940, considered by many as the best beer in the world. And as the reputation gained the abbey a bigger following, the monks reduced production and maintained, “we make beer to live, but we do not live for beer.” As we drank the beer for the second time in our lives, the feeling of euphoria it produced was contradictory to the effect beer usually has. Once again, it gave me the sensation of having a smooth tequila or vodka and a head rush so quick that I immediately acknowledged its potency and beauty. I am no beer judge, but I will say that the beer was worth the finale of our pilgrimage.
Today, two more Trappist breweries have been added to the International Trappist Association. One in Austria, and one in Spencer, Massachusetts, which will have to be visited separately. A pilgrimage is a journey of spiritual significance, and visiting the Trappist monasteries where monks brew beer to sustain their ascetic way of life can be uplifting for those of us trapped in the rat race of the modern world.