Week 31 in The Year of Drinking Adventurously. Trappist Ale.
Ok, I couldn’t resist using that old movie line… This has nothing whatsoever to do with that film. But it has everything to do with Belgian beer. If you’ve been following along these many weeks, you will know by now that I am a beer enthusiast. If you read other parts of my blog, you will also have discovered that I love history. This is one of those weeks when two worlds collide, for the history of trappist ale is a fascinating one. At least I think so. You may be bored to tears. I’ll keep it brief. Sort of…
In 1098, a small group of Benedictine Monks made a weighty decision. Dissatisfied with the slow drift away from old traditions that had been the basis of monastic life in the Western World, they decided to return to the old ways prescribed by their spiritual father, Benedict. In the sixth century, Benedict had handed down “The Rule” governing monastic life: obedience, silence, poverty and humility; a monk’s life would be divided into ‘work’ and ‘lento divina’ (studies and meditation). The founders of the movement settled in Citeaux (Cistercium) in Burgundy, France, and thus the Cistercians were born. Over time several monasteries were created and spread out.
Between the eleventh century and the seventeenth century, the order quickly covered much of Europe, but was not without its difficulties. Several monasteries were closed and the strict rule and ‘contemplative character’ of the order was gradually abandoned. This prompted another attempt at revival of “the strict observance” and yet another breakaway by a group of monks desiring to return to the old ways. Led by Abbot Armand Jean Le Bouthillier de Rancé, whose abbey at La Trappe in Soligny (Orne, France) adopted a very austere lifestyle, the first “Trappists” were born.
Now, monks had been brewing beer in their monasteries since the Middle Ages. Weltenburg Abbey brewery (Weltenburger Klosterbrauerei) is by some reckonings the oldest monastic brewery in the world, having been in operation since 1050. The same, of course, was true of The Cistercians and The Trappists who came later.
I drank Westmalle Abbey Tripel for this week’s adventure, so from this point on, I will talk about them exclusively.
The Abbey at Westmalle was founded thanks to The French Revolution. The monks at Our Lady of the Grande-Trappe fled France and took refuge in Switzerland. It was here they decided to move to America where Catholicism was enjoying an expansion. As they traveled through Belgium toward the coast to board ships for the New World, they halted in Ghent. The local bishop convinced them to stay and found their monastery in Belgium, which they did in the town of Westmalle. By 1836, the priory was raised to the grade of Abbey. And there, the monks brewed beer, first for themselves but later to raise money to support themselves. They also have a working farm and a dairy and cheese making operation.
From their website:
Trappist beer is somewhat different to an abbey beer. Out of all the beers in the world, only seven of them can use the name ‘Trappist’: Achel, Chimay, La Trappe, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren and Westmalle. You can recognise them from the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo.
Trappist beer is only given this name if it satisfies a number of strict criteria:
1. The beer is brewed within the walls of a Trappist abbey, by the monks themselves or under their supervision.
2. The brewery must be controlled by the monastery and have a business culture compatible with the monastic project.
3. The purpose of the brewery is not to make a profit. The income takes care of the livelihood of the monks and the upkeep of the abbey site. What is left over is used for charitable purposes, social work and people in need.
The Trappist breweries produce beers of an impeccable quality that is permanently controlled. Thus a Westmalle Trappist contains 100% natural ingredients.
Trappist breweries strictly observe all standards in the areas of safety, health and consumer information. And the style of communication and advertising is one of honesty, austerity and the modesty appropriate to the religious environment in which the beers are brewed.
And regarding the Tripel, specifically…
Westmalle Tripel is a clear, golden yellow Trappist beer that undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle (9,5% alcohol). It is a complex beer with a fruity aroma and a nice nuanced hop scent. It is soft and creamy in the mouth, with a bitter touch carried by the fruity aroma. An exceptional beer, with a great deal of finesse and elegance. And with a splendid long aftertaste.
The Westmalle Tripel is indeed called the “mother of all tripels”. This type of beer was first brewed in Westmalle abbey in 1934 when the new brewing hall came into use. The current formula has stayed practically unchanged since 1956, thus more than 50 years.
So this was a fun week! At 9.5% alcohol, but with great drinkability, one should remember the potency of the brew. I am not that one, however. Whoops…
I wonder if Lula tripeled or dubeled this week?