Being a monk (or nun) isn’t easy. You swear off the opposite sex and dedicate your life to the Lord in prayer and meditation. Monks in most of the orders adhere to vows of not just chastity, but poverty and obedience, too.
The Order of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as the Trappists, puts a spin on the monastic order. They are chaste and obedient like every other order – but they’re not broke!
You see, the 48th chapter of the Rule of St Benedict, the sixth century tome which guides the Trappist way of life, states that “for then are they monks in truth, if they live by the work of their hands.” Trappist monasteries must be self-sufficient and self-supporting.
The Trappists, therefore, don’t sit around on their holy asses in their robes and ask for donations. They try to provide a useful good they can sell so they can finance their monastic existence.
The products they sell are diverse. Bread, cheese, clothing, coffins, wool. A Trappist order in South Carolina, USA called Mepkin Abbey, runs an egg and mushroom business. But Trappist monasteries are most famous and most praised for their beers, so much so that there is an actual beer category known as Trappist beer.
Sounds counterintuitive, if you, like me, thought monks couldn’t drink. Most monk orders can’t or don’t. In the Trappist order, alcohol is not forbidden. The famous breweries Orval Abbey and Westvleteren Abbey brew beers for both the monks’ consumption and the general public. The monk-consumed beers are lower in alcohol, in the under 3.5% range, and available for sale only at the monastery.
The Trappists have their own style of beer making. I don’t mean style like an IPA or Pale Ale or Stout. Trappist monasteries aren’t restricted to a single style in that sense. Perhaps a better word would be technique. Trappists brew with residual sugars and living yeasts. Their beers improve in taste in the bottle over time.
The dedication of these Trappist monks to brewing is so incredible that the quality of product they turn out is world renowned. This has not gone unnoticed by commercial brewing competitors. As the world got smaller in the twentieth century with globalized trade, once regional Trappist delicacies found their way to the lips of drinkers abroad. Naturally, opportunists with no connection to the Trappist order thought they could exploit the word ‘Trappist’ on their own labels to boost beer sales. In 1962, the monks successfully sued one of these shucksters in Ghent.
The Trappists wisened up as a result. If outsiders were making an attempt at piggybacking off the Trappist name, then it was important that the Trappist monasteries unite to safeguard the products they were producing. Their livelihood depended on it. They came up with the Authentic Trappist Product logo. To keep the term from being watered down like a lousy industrial brew, the authenticity label as it pertains to beer is only granted if the beer is brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery and under the control and responsibility of the monk community.
The mission must also be one of social service, not profit. Westvletern’s 12, 10.2% ABV, introduced in 1940, is considered by many to be the best beer in the world. Demand currently far exceeds supply. If Westvletern Abbey were in the beer business to maximize profits, they should brew more or raise the price on the minimal 5,000 hectoliters they do produce annually.
And yet with such limited production, the Westvletern 12 sells for €40 per 24-bottle crate, less than €1.70 per bottle, cheaper than a Kirin at a Lawson’s in Thailand! Buyers could originally only buy a maximum of ten 24-bottle crates, but as the beer became a hit, the brewery had to lower the maximum to a crate or two. The abbey is against their beer being resold; they want the beer to only be available at the two abbey-owned official points of sale.
Does this sound like a normal brewery to you, especially one heralded as one of the finest on the planet? The Father Abbott said on the opening of the new brewery that “We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks.”
Of the nearly 170 Trappist monasteries worldwide, there are currently only 11 Trappist breweries recognized by the International Trappist Association Six are in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, one in Austria, one in Italy, and one in the United States.
St. Joseph’s Abbey, in Spencer, Massachusetts was the first Trappist order outside Europe when it was established in 1950. At first, St. Joseph’s became self sufficient selling jellies and preserves. In 2005, the monks there produced 1.7m jars of preserves in 26 different flavors.
But selling fruit preserves wasn’t enough to meet the increasing costs of maintaining the abbey, so in 2010 St. Joseph’s turned to the industry which had kept the European Trappist breweries afloat for centuries: brewing. Their European counterparts were skeptical the American Trappists could make a go at beer, but gave recommendations nevertheless, and today this Trappist monastery produces a 6.5% blonde ale.
Brewing a Trappist beer doesn’t mean that everyone involved has to be part of the order. Secular labor can be and is hired. The beer must just be brewed within the monastery by or under the supervision of the monks. St. Joseph’s Spencer Brewery employs a skilled brewing engineer. Orval Brewery hires 32 secular workers.
In 2007, the world famous brewery Chimay sold more than $50m worth of products. After taking enough for the monks to live on and maintain the Scourmont Abbey, the bulk was donated to charities and for community development in the area. This is the closest thing to non-profit beer you’re ever going to find; and the one time that telling yourself you’re drinking for a good cause might actually be true.