Belgian monasteries have preserved their own medieval beer culture on the one hand, but also developed modern variants of their beer styles on the other. The Trappist beers play a special role among these so-called abbey animals. Their order came from a secession of the Cistercians, which in turn originated from the Benedictine order. Their principle “ora et labora et lege” (pray, work and read) also cultivate the trappists living in seclusion and asceticism and earn their living by doing physical labor. In addition to cheese and jams, beers are among their products, which are among the best in the world.
Due to the wars as a result of the French Revolution, the territory of today’s Belgium came under the control of the western neighbouring country and all monasteries were dissolved. After the Belgian independence in 1830 followed their re-foundations, but only a century later, beer was brewed again in all Trappist abbeys. When, after the Second World War, they began to offer their beers on the open market, the great success of some freeloaders was on the agenda, whereas in 1962 Orval Abbey was able to enforce protection by the Belgian Chamber of Commerce. Since then, a genuine Trappist beer can be recognized by a hexagonal symbol on the label with the inscription “Authentic Trappist Product”.
This seal of quality ensures that the beer has been produced in a monastery or its immediate vicinity under the supervision of the monks. The seven original breweries of today’s 12 Trappist breweries are located in Belgium and the Netherlands, although international new or re-foundations have recently been added. For their beers, the monks use the old scheme of the Belgian beer world. In addition to the simple blond (light) there is a stronger dubble (dark) and an even stronger triple (light). There are also more intimate variants of the Dubbels, which are often referred to as Quadrupel, and quite unique beers such as the Orval.
The latter is produced in three steps: in the main fermentation with top-fermenting yeast, the monks add liquid rock sugar, for the secondary fermentation they use a cocktail of ten different yeast strains, including the wild Brettanomyces yeast, before the beer receives a candy sugar again when bottled, The secondary fermentation further increases the alcohol content in the bottle and gives the beer an exciting, varied aroma, which varies greatly depending on the age.
The rarest and, for many, the best is the Westvleteren beer of the St. Sixtus Abbey in Vleteren. Apart from occasional batches that land at detours by traders, the barley juice is distributed directly via a “Bienenefon” of the abbey (+32 7021 00 45). The lucky one, who has come through, gives his license plate to the monk at the other end of the line and receives a date and time when he can drive by to buy a maximum of two boxes of 24 bottles each. It is left to chance or fate, which of the three varieties of Trappist beer is currently available. Customers must give their word of honor not to resell the beer. The strongest Westvleteren beer, the quadruple with the Latin numeral 12 (XII) on the bottle cap, is particularly popular and has been the best beer in the world in numerous rankings since 2005.
Again and again small amounts of beer are sent to the German beer trade via dark canals, where the 0.33 l bottle can cost more than 20 euros, more than ten times the price in the abbey. Incidentally, the brewers in the St. Sixtus Abbey make their two strongest beers from a mash as before. The first casting produces the Westvleteren 12, the second the Westvleteren 8. Previously, they created a Westvleteren 6 with a third cast, which is now served as Westvleteren Blond but with light instead of dark malt as their own beer for consumption in the abbey.
Not every abbey brews all beer styles, some produce only one beer. The terms dubbel and triple derive from the medieval practice of marking the barrels with chalk after filling, so that it was understandable which beer was in it. After a large part of the population was illiterate, the brewers simply made crosses on the wood. Two crosses meant a stronger brew than normal beer, three crosses a stronger drink. In the vernacular it has become “Dubbel” and “Tripel”. The “Quadruple” is a new creation for dark strong beers with more than 10% alcohol content, first used for the strongest beer of La Trappe abbey. Other names for such beers are “Grand Cru” or “Belgian Strong Ale”.