Posted on June 16th, 2010
Although beer making is mostly done commercially today, there was a time when it was a strictly domestic affair. Almost every sizable household brewed its own beer. Back then beer wasn’t consumed out of pleasure but necessity; it was much cleaner and safer to drink than water so everyone drank it, including monks.
Saint Benedict decreed in the sixth century that monks should live a self-sufficient lifestyle, with everything they would ever need available in their monastery. This would prevent them from ever having to venture into the secular world, where they might encounter sinful temptation. Because beer was a basic necessity of life at the time, most Benedictine monasteries had a brewery on premises.
Fast forward to the 17th century, when Abbaye de la Trappe, a Cistercian monastery, was founded in Normandy, France. The Trappists, as these monks would eventually be known, became famous for their discipline and craftsmanship. They produced a variety of high quality goods they sold to provide for themselves, items like beer. By the 18th century the Trappists were driven out of Normandy by the French Revolution, eventually settling in Belgium and the Netherlands, but not resuming brewing commercially till the 1830s.
Today just seven Trappist monasteries that brew remain: Chimay, Westmalle, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Achel and Brouwerij de Koningshoeven. These are the only breweries which can use the “Trappist” term on their beer. Other breweries who produce beer in a similar style usually use the term “abbey ale” or something similar.
Whether it’s made by actual monks or simply inspired by them, beers in this category usually fall into one of the following styles:
Dubbel – These ales are dark red in color with a sweet, malty taste that has notes of caramel or toffee to it. Compared to other dark Belgian beers it has a fairly mid-range body, but it’s still pretty substantial. As with most Trappist ales, hop presence is fairly low. Chimay Red is perhaps the wost well know variety, St. Bernardus Prior 8 is another really amazing version. 7-9% ABV.
Tripel – Pale yellow to golden in color, with a much lighter, but much sweeter body than the dubbel, these beers can be deceptively strong. Thanks to the use of Belgian candy sugar for some of the malt, the alcohol can be much higher than a usual brew without adding much to the body. Chimay White is probably the most widely available in the US. Westmalle Tripel is another delicious version. Also be sure to check out Victory’s Golden Monkey for a great American take on this style. 8-12% ABV.
Quadrupel – Originally developed at the Brouwerij de Koningshoeven in the Netherlands, the only Trappist brewery outside of Belgium. This style is known as one of the darkest and heaviest styles around. It’s extremely dark with rich, malty notes of plums or other heavier fruits. Over time the style has evolved a bit to become something of a catch all term for any exceptionally dark and heavy Belgian style ale, but the Trappist brewers still brew them the same way. Chimay Blue is a classic example of this style. St. Bernardus 12 is another great variety. 10-14% ABV.
The double/trippel/quad naming scheme refers to how much malt was traditionally used in each of these beers as compared to a “simple ale,” a now all but extinct term. Today malt levels vary considerably, but the names still provide a good indication of what to expect.