So you’ve likely heard the distinction between Belgian Trappist and Abbey beers, among others. But what exactly does it mean to be designated a Trappist beer? Can just anyone brew a Trappist? I mean, could I make it in my bathtub and sell it at the market if I were wearing the right brown robes and chanting all the while?

Fortunately no — it’s more discriminating than that. Trappist is a type of beer brewed by monks of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (or Trappists). There are more than 170 trappist monasteries worldwide, but just seven have the right to brew beers bearing the Authentic Trappist Beer Logo. They also make cheese and other foods.

The seven monasteries and their locations are:
To bear the Authentic Trappist name and logo:
  • The product must be made within the walls of a Trappist abbey or in an immediate vicinity.
  • The equipment necessary for the production must clearly express a dependency on the monastery.
  • The product must be made by or under the supervision of the monastery community.
  • The largest part of the profit must be spent on social work.
_This may explain why its difficult to find some of the Trappist beers outside of Europe and why the most elusive, Westvleteren, is only sold at a few locations in Belgium. In fact, that Trappist is so scarce in Belgium (only 3,500 hectoliters or 92,000 gallons are produced annually, versus 120,000 hl/3.1 million Gallons annually of Westmalle, the leading Trappist) that reservations are required to visit and purchase it at the Abbey, and you are limited to just one case per customer per month — if you can get a reservation. They even note your vehicle number plate to ensure you don’t exceed your allotment! The beer costs from 28-38 Euros per case depending on type, or you can sample one at a time in the neighboring cafe.

So How Do the Trappists Taste?

To be honest, they really vary. As mentioned in a previous post, I love the Westmalle beers. I find Achel an average beer at best and the others are somewhere in between. Here, then, is my ranking of the Trappist beers, scored by my favorite offering from each*:

  1. Westmalle: far and away my personal favorite Trappist beer (so far*). I love both the tripel and double and never tire of them.
  2. Rochefort 10: thick, smooth and complex. Just remember that they are over 11% ABV. The 6 and 8 are also excellent, but cannot top the 10.
  3. Chimay: I like all three Chimays (red, white and blue, in increasing alcohol content). These days I favor the white, aka Tripel, at 8% ABV.
  4. La Trappe Quadrupel or Tripel (Koningshoeven): I’ve found the Dutch Trappists to be quite polarizing. Some feel the Quadrupel (10% ABV and aged in oak barrels) achieves its high alcohol content too artificially. But I find the Quad to be complex, with two to three discrete waves of tastes, including fruitiness (maybe grapefruit) and perhaps burnt toffee. I found the Tripel less memorable and was surprised to see they offer a white trappist (haven’t tried it yet).
  5. Orval: I went through phases with this beer (they only offer one type). When I first arrived in Belgium, I found it a hoppy revelation with rich, deep appearance. After I discovered what else was out there, Orval seemed a bit underwhelming to me with little taste complexity. But lately I came to again appreciate its subtle hoppiness in contrast to its cousins. I like to order it on certain occasions, particularly as it is lower in alcohol at 6.9% — practically non-alcoholic by Belgian standards. I also really like their logo and beer squares.
  6. Achel Blond: I wish I could report otherwise, but I am not a big fan of this Trappist. I had one just the other day and found it unidimensional and uninteresting. When there are so many more delicious and rewarding beers out there, I can’t see myself drinking many of these. Ok, it’s still a good beer. But it doesn’t stack up well. Perhaps the bruin would be better?
*Note: I have not yet enjoyed the privilege of tasting any of the Westvleteren beers (6%, 8%, 10%). Since they appear to be even more of an endangered species than a Belgian store open on Sunday, I will only have to imagine them for now. But I vow a trip to the abbey or cafe to try and buy before I leave Belgium. I also have heard they sell them at Beer Mania in Brussels, between 14-16 Euros for a 33cl bottle. Yipes, for that price they’d better include a handful of Indulgences.

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