What makes a Trappist Beer?

Today’s episode is all about Trappist Ales, but what exactly is a Trappist Ale and why is it called Trappist?

First of all, a Trappist Ale is not a style. Rather, it’s more of an official seal of approval. That being said, most Trappist Ales follow the Belgian styles, which in a broad sense means that they’ll be a bit earthy and citrusy, retain some sweetness, you may get some spicy notes like coriander and grains of paradise, it will be effervescent some what like champagne, and it will finish dry.

All Trappist are bottle conditioned, and fall into one of four Belgian categories categories: single, double, triple or quadruple, which mostly categorizes the strength of the beer. A single, also known as a blonde ale, comes in at 5 to 6.5% ABV, a dubble comes in at  to 7% ABV, a triple at 8 to 9.5% and a quadruple, also known as a strong dark ale, is 10 to 12 percent ABV.

The name Trappist comes from the Catholic Cistercian monks of the Order of the Strict Observerance that brew the beer, who are nicknamed Trappists after La Trappe, France which is where their order originates from.

In 1664, the Abbot of La Trappe felt that Cistercians were becoming too liberal and imposed the rules known as Strict Observance. Many rules were put into place, but were eventually relaxed. However, one fundamental rule has remained: ora et labora, which in English means “prayer and work.” The Abbot meant that the Trappist monasteries should be self-sustaining and that they should work to help others.

Following the foundation of Strict Observance, Trappist monasteries began brewing beer for themselves and then to feed the community. That practice continues today, as the modern Trappist monasteries brew beer and use that money to sustain their monasteries and to fund charitable causes.

In the 20th century, the Trappist style began to grow in popularity and some brewers began using the word Trappist in their beers even though they had no connection to the monks themselves.

As a result 8 Trappist abbeys banded together in 1997 to form the International Trappist Association to secure a trademark and prevent commercial companies from using the name. They also set up criteria for the breweries to achieve the official Trappist logo:

  • The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.

  • The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and it should witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life

  • The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture. The income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Whatever remains is donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need.

  • Trappist breweries are constantly monitored to assure the irreproachable quality of their beers.

Once an application is received, the board of the ITA and the chairman begin an evaluation procedure which lasts months, which includes compiling an extensive dossier, on site visits to check the facility and of course, a taste test. Once the license is granted, it’s valid for five years.

Today, there are 11 active Trappist breweries active: six in Belgium, 2 in the Netherlands, one in Austria,one in Italy and the one we discussed today in the United States: St. Joseph’s Abbey.

If you see a so-called Trappist beer and they don’t follow the Trappist rules, the beer should be called an Abbey beer, meaning that it was produced by a non-Trappist monastery, by a commercial brewer who has slapped the name of a fake abbey on the beer, or the beer has a vaguely monastic branding without mentioning anyone specific. When this happens, don’t forget to alert your nearest Trappist abbey so that one of their monastic enforcers can destroy that brewery with his holy fire.