Abbey Beers are beers produced in the styles made famous by Belgian Trappist monks, but not actually brewed within the walls of a monastery. Today, the terms “Trappist,” “Trappistes,” and “Trappisten” or any similar derivation comprise an “appellation (controlee),” an indicator of origin. See trappist breweries. As of 2011 only seven breweries in the world are allowed to use the Trappist designation, but this was not always so. Some people are surprised when they learn that monasteries always produced alcoholic beverages. Self-reliance is a central tenet of many monastic orders and monasteries, and monasteries once had vast land holdings from which to support themselves. Monks grew their own food and made their own drink. In Europe in the Middle Ages, wine was considered safe, but people knew that water, which can harbor many diseases, could be dangerous or even deadly. As monasteries spread from the grape-growing lands of southern Europe to the grain-growing areas of northern Europe, many shifted to the production of beer rather than wine as part of their daily sustenance. The Cistercian Order, founded in the 1100s, gave rise in 17th-century Normandy to “the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance” at Abbaye de la Trappe. These monks of northern France, known as the Trappists, brewed very good beer and sold and traded it to the outside world.
Monastic life in northern France came to an abrupt halt in 1796. As the French Revolution spread, all monasteries in the country were sacked and looted, and the monks scattered into the countryside. From the 1830s onward, Trappist monasteries were slowly restored in Belgium. Brewing halted during World War II, but resumed in the 1940s. Over time, the beers reacquired a reputation for high quality, and it is here that trouble began. Soon there were Trappist beers produced by brewers who had never set foot in a monastery. Some brewers were more honest, establishing relationships with actual monasteries and remitting some of their profits to the monks. Others simply put a picture of a monk on the label, named a beer after a saint or a local monastery ruin, and reaped the profits for themselves. For a while, the monks largely tried to keep a serene distance from controversy, but when the Veltem brewery of Leuven launched a beer called Veltem Trappist in 1960, Abbaye Notre Dame d’Orval retained lawyers and filed a legal challenge.
On 28 February 1962, the Belgian Trade and Commerce court in Ghent issued its ruling: “the word ‘Trappist’ is commonly used to indicate a beer brewed and sold by monks pertaining to a Trappist order, or by people who would have obtained an authorization of this kind… is thus called ‘Trappist,’ a beer manufactured by Cistercian monks and not a beer in the Trappist style which will be rather called ‘abbey beer.’ ” Today, the International Trappist Association protects the designation and issues the authority to use the logo reading “Authentic Trappist Product.” Only beers produced at the Belgian monasteries Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont (Chimay), Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval (Orval), Abbaye Notre-Dame de St. Remy (Rochefort), Abdij der Trappisten Westmalle (Westmalle), St Benedictus-Abdij (Achel), and St Sixtus Abdij (Westvleteren) and the Dutch monastery Abdij Onze Lieve Vrouw van Koningshoeven (La Trappe) may be called Trappist.
Undeterred, secular breweries have continued to name their beers “St Something” and use images of monks on labels, but provenance is now clear to those paying attention. Abbey beers are produced by everyone from tiny brewpubs to the world’s largest brewing company, AB InBev. See leffe brewery. Although the Trappist beers have exerted a clear influence on brewers worldwide, the term “Trappist” does not describe a single style and neither does the term “abbey.” The term is specific enough to be vaguely useful, but broad enough to be frustrating. Some of these beers are pale, and some are dark; some are sweet, but most are dry. Some are at least partly bottle conditioned, but others are filtered. Abbey ales do, however, tend to have a few attributes in common. They are all top-fermented ales and often employ very warm fermentations, with temperatures ranging up to 86°F (30°C). Warm fermentations combine with Belgian yeast strains to produce a range of fruity and spicy flavors. Many of the beers are strong, with most ranging from 6% alcohol by volume (ABV) to 9.5% ABV, although there are outliers at either end of that range. Darker beers tend to attain color through the use of dark candi sugar as opposed to roasted malts, and other sugars are widely used. A few are spiced, but most are not.
Under the abbey ale umbrella there are some clear styles. Tripel (triple) is a strong golden ale style pioneered by Westmalle. See tripel. Tripels have burnished, deep gold color and ABVs from 7% to 10%, with most settling in around 9%. The best examples are low in residual sugar, but may show a sweet-tasting malty fruitiness on the palate. Hop aroma is subdued and well integrated, and most have light snappy bitterness and vigorous carbonation. Despite their strength, good tripels are subtle, and they pair well with a wide range of foods. Dozens of tripels are produced in Belgium, but craft brewers in the United States and the rest of the world now brew many dozens more, some of them excellent.
The dubbel (or double) style, although somewhat less popular in the United States, is still widely produced in Belgium. These beers are dark ales, usually russet brown, with ABVs ranging from 6% to 7.5%. These are also usually technically dry, but most show a gentle caramel sweetness on the palate. The highly caramelized candi sugar syrup that produces the color also gives these beers an almost raisin-like fruitiness. Bitterness tends to be gentle. These can be great food beers, using their caramel character to harmonize with dishes featuring seared, roasted, or fried flavors.
From here, designations become less steady. A style sometimes referred to simply as “Belgian strong dark ale” or “abbey ale” intensifies the character of the classic dubbel, bringing more alcohol and fruit character at ABVs of 8% to 9.5%. When well brewed, these can make fine matches to lamb and game meats. Above this range, all bets are off, and waggish craft brewers, rarely Belgian, produce “quadrupels” at ABVs up to 14%. Although the names “dubbel” and “tripel” are of obscure origin, it is generally understood that a rising number always corresponded to rising strength. Just as some producers of California zinfandel can’t resist the allure of 16% blockbusters, so some craft brewers are attracted to similar strengths. And like California trophy wines, some quadrupels can show a wonderful plummy, figgy fruit quality, but many are merely hot. The Belgian brewer will often mutter under his breath that these beers are distinctly un-Belgian, but the American, Brazilian, or Danish beer enthusiast who loves “quads” is entirely unconcerned.
At the lighter end, distinctly Belgian but rarely seen, there is the “abbey single” or table beer. These are interpretations of the beers that Trappist monks make for themselves, which tend to be very light in both body and alcohol, rarely reaching even 5%. Although the actual Trappist versions never see the marketplace, secular brewers, having tasted the beers on monastery visits, are sometimes moved to try their hand at the gentlest of the abbey styles.