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Trappist Beer – Belgium in a Glass

By andrew - June 25, 2012 (Updated: May 9, 2016)

This entry is part 4 of 16 in the series Belgium in a Glass.
Trappist Beer in Belgum

Trappist Beer in Belgum (photo via wiki)

Trappist beer is probably the most recognized type of Belgian beer. Although it isn’t exclusive, Belgium is home to the majority of Trappist brewers. Made by monks in an abbey, Trappist beer has an element of mystery and nostalgia. But what makes a beer Trappist and what Trappist beers are available?

A Short History of Trappist Beer

The name ‘Trappist’ originates from the Cistercian abbey, La Trappe, in Normandy, France. Cistercians are a branch of the Benedictine order who believe in a more strict observance of the Rule of St. Benedict, including a return to manual labour.  However the monks at La Trappe Abbey believed in an even more severe version of St. Benedict’s rules, so they created a new branch called the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance. Today monasteries following this new order are commonly known as Trappist.

One of the fundamental beliefs of Trappists is the need to be self-sufficient. As per the rules of St. Benedict, this is normally accomplished through manual labour, especially field-work.  In some cases, this has resulted in monasteries producing and selling goods such as cheese, bread, various types of alcoholic beverages, clothing, and even caskets.

Trappist Breweries

Authentic Trappist Product (ATP) designation

The “Authentic Trappist Product” (ATP) Logo

Today there are close to 170 Trappist monasteries and convents around the world. Very few produce beer.  In fact, there are only 7 Trappist monasteries producing beer that qualifies for the “Authentic Trappist Product” (ATP) designation as defined by the International Trappist Association (ITA).

To be labeled an Authentic Trappist Product, a brewer must conform to the following restrictions:

  • The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery.
  • The brewery must be secondary to monastic life.
  • The brewery must not be for profit; any surplus must be used for charity.
  • The beer must be constantly monitored to assure high quality.

Like wine from an Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), these rules ensure when you buy a Trappist beer you have some guarantee of the product’s legitimacy and quality.

Orval Trappist Abbey Belgium

Notre Dame d’Orval produces one of 6 Belgian Trappist Beers

Belgium has the tremendous fortune to be home to 6 of the 7 Trappist beers (see table); the seventh is located in the Netherlands, confusingly branded ‘La Trappe.’ There is also a Trappist monastery in Austria which just released its first beer and is likely to gain the ATP designation sometime in 2012, which would make them the 8th Trappist brewer.

Table of Breweries and their most typical beer

Brewery Colour, Alcohol (Name/Label)
Bières de Chimay Dark, 7% (Red Label)
Blonde, 8% (White Label, Tripel)
Dark, 9% (Blue Label)
Brasserie d’Orval Amber, 6.2%
Brasserie de Rochefort Dark, 7.5% (“6”)
Dark, 9.2% (“8”)
Dark, 11.3% (“10”)
Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle Brown, 7% (Dubbel)Blonde, 9.5% (Tripel)
Brouwerij Westvleteren (St Sixtus) Blonde, 5.8% (Green Cap)
Dark, 8% (“8”, Blue Cap)
Dark, 10.2% (“12”, Yellow Cap)
Brouwerij der Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis (Achel) Blonde, 8% (Blonde)
Brown, 8% (Brune)
Blonde, 8% (Extra Blonde)
Brown, 8% (Extra Brune)

To make things more confusing, there are a few beers labeled as Trappist that are not Authentic Trappist Products. An example of this is the beer produced by Chimay for the French abbey of Sainte Marie du Mont des Cats. The abbey has no brewery onsite, but it is still produced by Trappists, therefore they can call their beer Trappist.

Trappist Beer

In general, I find Trappist beer to be mildly sweet with a bitter after taste. The blonds tend to be more neutral in flavour but with a distinct bitter finish. The dark and brown ales are more full bodied, with a bit more caramel flavour. On a sunny day you may want something lighter, but I typically prefer the darker and stronger ales, such as Chimay Blue and Westmalle Dubbel.

Trappist Beer

Trappist Beer: Chimay, Orval, Westvleteren Abbey, Dutch Trappist beer La Trappe (photos via wiki)

In my opinion, Westvleteren’s dark beer is the sweetest of the Trappist beer, especially their strongest which has lots of creamy caramel flavours.  It is also one of the most difficult beers to buy. It is only sold at the abbey itself through pre-order. Some specialist stores or bars in Belgium will have a bottle or two, but it is not a certainty.

As a final note, Trappist beer are typically “bottle-conditioned,” meaning they are either not filtered or they have yeast added to the bottle so fermentation continues after they are sealed. The result is Trappist beer can be stored a long time and may even improve with age. So if you buy a case, just put it somewhere dark and cool so you can enjoy it later.

CheeseWeb Recommends:

  • Westmalle Tripel – A blond to start the evening, this tripel is creamy with a touch of citric sourness in the finish. It’s best enjoyed on a sunny terrace.
  • Chimay Bleue – This is probably the most available Trappist beer both in Belgium and abroad. It is not too strong and has a touch of spiciness with a hint of caramel. It’s great when the evening starts to cool off.
  • Rochefort 10 – A bit stronger; it is heavier than Chimay Bleue but the honey smoothness is a nice finish to an evening.

Have you tried these Trappist beers? What was your favourite?

Want to visit a Trappist Abbey? Read about our trip to Notre Dame d’Orval and our guest post on Rochefort beer.

 Thank you to the  International Trappist Association (ITA) for permission to use their logo on this article. 

Find out more about Belgium’s favourite beverage on our Guide to Belgian Beer and Breweries in Belgium page.

Read more from Cheeseweb.eu

Andrew
Andrew is our resident tech-geek and is normally found lurking behind the scenes on CheeseWeb.eu doing things with code that Alison finds mysterious. He comes out of hiding occasionally to write about history and technology. He is also part of the duo that produces Tech Brew, a podcast about beer and technology in Belgium. He loves castles, driving on narrow, twisty mountain roads and relaxing with a glass of peaty Scotch. Follow Andrew on Google+
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14 comments

  1. Comment by Will

    Will June 25, 2012 at 12:16

    This is my favourite part: “The brewery must not be for profit; any surplus must be used for charity.” Ha! So my beer drinking can be considered an act of charity. Got to love that 🙂

    • Comment by Andrew

      Andrew

      Andrew June 25, 2012 at 12:54

      Thanks for commenting, Will! That rule definitely makes drinking Trappist beer seem a bit less selfish! 🙂

  2. Comment by Brian

    Brian June 26, 2012 at 14:54

    We love Belgian beer. Well, that isn’t exactly right. We love beer! And the Belgians just happen to brew it great. Many of these Trappist breweries do a fair amount of export. Something like Chimay can be found almost anywhere. Anyone not familiar with the style owes it to themselves to give it a try.

    While not an Abbey Ale, La Chouffe is probably my favorite Belgian brewer. But we have to get over there to do a proper sampling.

    Bottoms up,
    Brian

    • Comment by Andrew

      Andrew

      Andrew June 26, 2012 at 15:11

      Hi Brian, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! We’ll be getting to La Chouffe one of these days! How about the Belgian “style” beer in the US? Are you sampling any of those on your RV travels?

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 26, 2012 at 15:20

      You’re right Brian, Chimay is available all over these days. We were happy to find it at home in Eastern Canada a few years back. It’s a big contrast to the beer you can only get right at the abbey. And yes! You’ll have to make a trip over for some tasting! We’re thinking about trying some RVing in Europe so we’d love to hear your perspectives!

  3. Comment by Peter

    Peter June 27, 2012 at 05:57

    I drink Chimay almost every week.

    • Comment by Peter

      Peter June 27, 2012 at 05:59

      In Toronto.

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 27, 2012 at 09:01

      Thank you for boosting our economy 😉 Can you get many of the lesser known ones in TO?

  4. Comment by wandergirl

    wandergirl June 27, 2012 at 16:31

    I was in Belgium for one night and our main goal was to have as many beers as possible while still being able to hold our own in Amsterdam the next day…a tricky feat! I think I checked a fair few off the list – some just sips, but it still counts! 🙂

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison June 28, 2012 at 16:06

      I think even just having a sip of every single Belgian beer would hospitalise someone 🙂 It’s a loooong list!

  5. Comment by John

    John October 22, 2012 at 18:54

    I drink Chimay, Westmalle, and Rochefort quite regularly here in the U.S. and enjoy them immensely. I must say my favorite is the Rochefort 10.

    I’m very intrigued by the Westvleteren beers, partly because they are Belgian trappist beer (my favorite), but mostly because the limited availability lends them a mysterious and romantic quality, perceived though it may be.

    Actually, I am coming to Brussels for vacation in a few weeks (November 10th – 17th) and was wondering if you had any suggestions about acquiring some of the Westvleteren brews? I looked at their website and it shows one day a week for 2 hours where you can call and reserve a spot to buy some beer at the shop; however, you also have to give them the license plate number of the car you’ll be arriving in, but since I’ll most likely be in a cab, I won’t know my license plate number ahead of time.

    I would love to buy a case or two of their strongest brew and ship it back home to enjoy over the next few months and share with my other Belgian-Beer-Loving friends.

    P.S. – I’ve been reading the posts on your website lately in preparation for my trip and I am looking forward to my trip even more after reading all the posts. I can’t wait to eat at Dinner in the Sky and Le Coin des Artists all based on your recommendations! Thanks so much!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 23, 2012 at 10:13

      Hi John, Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you’ve been finding some inspiration on CheeseWeb. Unfortunately, part of the mystery of Westvleteren is that it is very difficult to get it. There are a few beer bars where you can order a bottle to drink but if you want to buy some to take home you need to get it at the abbey. Sometimes the abbey cafe has gift-packs of the beer to purchase, but there’s no guarantee. I’m sure if you tell them you are arriving by cab, they would overlook the license plate issue though. As for Dinner in the Sky, sadly it is over now, but I believe the Tram Experience is still running if you are able to book a spot. Definitely give Le Coin des Artistes a try. It’s lovely!

      • Comment by John

        John November 11, 2012 at 23:26

        Well, I was able to get an appointment to buy 2 cases of Westvletern 12! I also reached out to Kurt from Belgium in a Box (http://belgiuminabox.com/shop/) and he has agreed to help me package the beer for shipment. Now I just need to find a way to go get the beer and bring it to Kurt in Antwerp. Thinking of renting a car; that would probably be preferable to lugging two cases of beer around on the train :). Or I may try to find a fellow beer lover who would be interested in driving with me for gas money and a couple of the beers.

        • Comment by Alison

          Alison

          Alison November 12, 2012 at 11:55

          That’s great news John! You could always try posting your request on our Facebook page and/or the expats in Brussels Facebook group to see if anyone wants to share the drive!

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