Written for the Burlington Free Press by Jeff Baker http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/story/life/food/2017/03/31/trappist-monks-hold-high-bar-beer/99542896/
It’s not every day that I find myself reading a science article about the discovery of new planets which also mentions beer.
According to a recent CNN article, a new planetary system was discovered by a team of Belgian scientists who revere the Trappist monastic breweries. The system, TRAPPIST-1, is some 40 light-years away from the closest monastery (that we know of), so how did the scientists come up with the name?
Turn out it’s named after the telescope used in the discovery: TRAPPIST (“TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope”). And according to CNN, the scientists had nicknamed each planet in the system after Trappist breweries, bottles from which decorated their control room.
Now I’m not a scientist, but I do know a thing or two about beer. TRAPPIST-1 is a little too far away for a field trip, but if you wanted to have a taste of the heavenly beer that inspired its name, you need look no further than Vermont bottle shops and beer bars.
There are currently only 12 breweries on this planet that are allowed to use the term “Trappist” on their labels and only 11 of them are allowed to use the “Authentic Trappist Product” seal. More on that in a moment.
Trappist monasteries make products such as beer, cheese and preserves which they sell to help support the monastery and those in need in the surrounding communities. They have banded together and formed the International Trappist Association, which regulates product quality standards and protects the interests of these Cistercian abbeys.
To qualify as a Trappist brewery, monasteries must apply to the ITA. They must prove, through a lengthy process, that their beers are of the highest quality and that they conform to the following guidelines:
- The beer must be brewed within the walls of the Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision. (This is what excludes Mont des Cats from using the seal. Its beer is brewed at another monastery.)
- The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery.
- The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture. After covering expenses, whatever remains is donated to charity.
In Vermont, we have access to seven of the Trappist breweries. Below is a short primer on their products.
Achel (Belgium) – Located on the Northeastern border of Belgium, almost in the Netherlands, the first brewery at the Saint Benedictus Abbey of Achel opened in 1850. The brewery was destroyed in World War I and wasn’t rebuilt until 1998. According to its U.S. importer’s website, Achel is the smallest production of all the Trappist breweries. Three beers are occasionally available in Vermont: a strong golden ale called “8˚ Blond,” a strong brown ale simply named “Bruin” and “Extra,” a Belgian strong dark ale.
Chimay (Belgium) – The Abbaye Notre Dame de Scourmont, was founded in 1850 on Belgium’s southern border with France, and the first beers were brewed in 1862. Three beers are regularly available in Vermont and they are often referred to by the color of the cap on the bottle: “Première” (red) is a Dubbel, a strong brown ale; “Cinq Cents” (white) is a Tripel, a strong golden ale; and “Grande Réserve” (blue), a strong dark ale. “Dorée” (gold) was just released to the U.S. market and a small shipment of kegs has arrived in Vermont. The cheeses of Chimay are also occasionally available at City Market in Burlington, Cheese and Wine Traders and by special order at Healthy Living, both in South Burlington.
Stift Engelszell (Austria) – Nestled along the northern Austrian border with Germany, the original monastery was founded in 1293. In 1786 it dissolved during a period of upheaval and wasn’t re-established until 1925. Two beers are occasionally available in Vermont: a pale farmhouse-style ale called “Benno,” and a strong dark ale called, “Gregorious.” Both beers are fermented with local organic honey and an Alsatian wine yeast.
La Trappe (Netherlands) – Previously known in the U.S. as “Koningshoeven,” the brewery at the Onze Lieve Vrouw of Koningshoeven Cistercian abbey was established in 1884. La Trappe brews the widest variety of styles of any Trappist brewery. Beers available regularly in Vermont include: a crisp, un-spiced wheat ale known as “Witte;” “Isid’Or,” a strong amber ale first brewed to honor the 125th anniversary of the abbey; and a strong dark ale known as “Quadrupel,” the world’s first ever Quadrupel beer. You might also spot the rare oak-aged version of Quadrupel in high-end bottle shops. La Trappe also sends kegs to Vermont, so keep an eye out for it at your favorite beer bar.
Orval (Belgium) – Founded in 1070, Notre Dame d’Orval monastery is located in the Luxembourg province of Belgium. The abbey garnered a name for itself during the middle ages both for its exceptional beer and its ironwork. It was destroyed in the French Revolution and construction on the current brewery was completed in 1929. Orval only exports one beer, simply named “Orval Trappist Ale.” It’s a singular beer and is hard to describe. Loosely speaking, it’s a bone-dry, bottle-conditioned Belgian pale ale with Brettanomyces. A truly unique experience, Orval is heralded as many a brewer’s favorite ale.
Rochefort (Belgium) – The Abbey of St-Remy was founded in 1230 in the southern part of Belgium and monks first started brewing beer there in 1595. The beers from Rochefort are named after its original gravity measured in “Belgian degrees” – a brewing scale no longer used today. All three of the Rochefort ales are dark beers. It’s version called “6˚” is roughly a Dubbel, “8˚” is a strong dark ale and “10˚” is a Quadrupel. All three are brewed with dark candi sugar and kissed with a small dose of coriander.
Westmalle (Belgium) – Founded in 1794 near Antwerp, the Abdij der Trappisten van Westmalle “invented” two styles of beers that are now brewed around the world: Dubbel and Tripel. “Dubbel,” a strong brown ale, was first brewed in 1836. “Tripel,” a golden-hued strong ale with high carbonation, was first developed at Westmalle in 1931 and first commercially available in 1934. Both of these are widely agreed to be the benchmarks for their respective beer styles.
Spencer (Massachusetts) – Located at St. Joseph’s Abbey, Spencer is the only Trappist brewery in the United Sates. The beers are not currently available in Vermont, but you can find their “Trappist Preserves” at natural food markets around the state.
The balance of the breweries are not currently available in Vermont: Tre Fontane (Italy), Westvleteren (Belgium), Zundert (Netherlands) and Mont des Cats (France).
Jeff S. Baker II is the Curator of the Curriculum for Farrell Distributing. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @aPhilosophyOf. Jeff co-hosts the “It’s the Beer Talking” podcast found on iTunes and Soundcloud. More info at www.burlingtonfreepress.com/news/podcasts.