Trappist Beers in the American Tradition | Craft Beer & Brewing

Trappist Beers in the American Tradition

It’s time to consider the evolution of Trappist beers in the New World. As the American craft-beer movement engages with and develops Trappist styles, it is also keeping some Trappist brewing traditions alive.

Josh Weikert 6 months ago

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Beer evolves, but slowly. Brewers make changes to their beer; they react to changing circumstances and shifting ingredient availability. It seems to be in the nature of brewers to tinker, tweak, temper, and try. At the same time, brewers value order and promote a sense of stability and system. They enjoy process, pattern, progression, and perfection. Over time, this push-pull dichotomy leads to steady but inevitable changes in the beers of the world.

Sometimes, though, evolution gets a helping hand thanks to a change of scenery. Geography is the great jump-start in beer evolution. When a style travels great distances, it is forced to adapt to a new climate, new conditions, new ingredients, and even new microbiota.

It’s with this in mind that we consider the evolution of Trappist beers in the New World. Trappist breweries in Europe have found their way across the Atlantic, but that’s not the whole story: Even if we didn’t have Trappist monasteries here, we would still have craft breweries producing beers in the style of Trappist monasteries. It’s time to examine the (not nearly as hidebound as you think) origins and traditions of Trappist breweries and how the American craft-beer movement has engaged with and developed Trappist styles—and, interestingly, how American craft brewers are also keeping some Trappist brewing traditions alive.

The Trappists, Briefly

“Trappist” is sometimes used interchangeably with “monastic” (that is, relating to monks). It’s not entirely apt, but it’s close enough for “beer” purposes. The Trappists are an order of monks affiliated with the Cistercian monastery in La Trappe, France, and the term is trademarked to prevent its use by non-Trappist breweries or industries (Trappist monks produce more than beer!). To receive the Trappist label, breweries must meet several conditions.

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Trappist breweries are breweries that are supervised by monks residing in a Trappist monastery (even if lay people are hired to do the actual brewing). Further, the monastery’s religious life is of primary importance (it’s a monastery with a brewery, not a brewery with a monastery), and the brewery exists to support the monastery and its charitable purposes rather than to turn a profit.

Monks have been brewing for centuries, but most Trappist breweries (and the styles they developed) are much more modern, dating generally to the early nineteenth century instead of the Middle Ages. Since then, fewer than a dozen Trappist breweries have been recognized and are still in operation, though there are also “abbey” breweries, which brew similar styles and may (or may not) be associated with a religious order. There—all caught up!

Then there are what we think of as the Trappist styles. Generally, this is a somewhat-limited set of beers: the Single, Dubbel, Tripel, and Quad (or Grand Cru or Belgian Dark Strong—there’s no consensus on what to call the strongest and darkest of the Trappist/abbey styles). The beers generally increase in strength as we work upward from Single to Quad, and the Single and Tripel are pale beers while the Dubbel and Quad are darker.

Each is relatively strong—most examples are at least 6 percent ABV, with Tripels and Quads reaching up into the double-digits. They also share a trend toward being light-bodied, dry-finishing, higher-carbonation beers, thanks to the addition of simple sugars (most notably, Belgian candi sugar), and most also feature noticeable fermentation flavors (usually but not exclusively of pear, pepper, and citrus), whether from regionally- selected yeast strains or local microbiota.

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A brief diversion here for those who are thinking, “Hey, aren’t Belgian strong ales and abbey beers sweet?” No, not really. Some might seem so because they’re coming to you with some age on them thanks to transit times, and as a result they’ve lost some of their original hops aromas/flavors (the Single and some Tripels, in Europe, can be quite hoppy) and bitterness. Others might seem so because higher-alcohol and sweeter beers travel well and have often been brewed specifically as “Export” beers.
“At home,” though, most Trappist styles finish dry.

There’s just one more thing to address before we move on to the uncouth Americans and their bastardization of these ancient styles born of centuries of brewing tradition: they’re not as stuck up as you’re picturing them to be. Trappist breweries have a long tradition of challenging typical beer styles and recipes, which is one reason they were born in the first place and survived into the present day. Trappist breweries have experimented with different strengths, different adjuncts, with aging on oak and fruit, and more.

So, a key element to consider is that the Americanization of these styles, to the extent that it has happened and is happening, is completely in keeping with their origins.

Coming to America

While staying true to the general structure of Trappist beers, modern craft breweries have grabbed on with both hands and worked the recipes for these styles into new and interesting creations. Hops, spices, barrel aging, and more have yielded new versions of revered styles.

I should begin here by pointing out that virtually none of the changes described below are necessarily verboten in Trappist breweries—individual breweries have drifted into these areas already, sometimes aggressively so! But they represent a change in the collective and overall approach to these styles.

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Most Trappist breweries are still producing mostly standard Trappist styles. By comparison, most American craft breweries are producing mostly “modified” Trappist styles. There’s a lot of experimental overlap between those two pools of breweries, and you could also argue that the success of American craft beer has bled back into Trappist brewhouses, which sometimes adopt the new approaches, but the typical beer brewed by each is still rather different.

Hops

Hopping is an intuitive place to start, since what defines most American styles (and, it might be said, Americanized craft beer in Europe) is an increase in the use of flavor and aroma hops—but of a particular character.

Jeremy Myers, Brewmaster and Owner of Neshaminy Creek Brewing Company, says, “I think the most noticeable thing American brewers have done is use citrus and tropical fruit–forward American hops to push some of the typical Belgian yeast ester profiles more in that direction rather than in a more spicy and pepper-like direction.”

This drift toward the fruitier expression of the styles is significant. It isn’t simply a question of increasing hops; it’s that they’re being used to make a choice about the flavor profile of the beer style.

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Barrels

We’re also seeing more Trappist-style beers in barrels. This isn’t unheard of in Trappist breweries (Chimay Grande Réserve and La Trappe Quadrupel are both now available in barrel-aged form), but it’s a relatively recent innovation for them. Nor are you seeing American brewers sticking with your typical charred-oak barrels: rum, whiskey, and tequila barrel–aged Trappist styles abound.

As an example of how “new” these beers are getting, Josh Bushey, head brewer at Two Rivers Brewing Company in Easton, Pennsylvania, brews a tequila barrel–aged tripel with Hull Melon hops and twelve strains of Brettanomyces (see page 67 for the recipe).
As barrel programs have become almost common in even small craft breweries, it was inevitable that Trappist styles would end up in them.

Hybrid and Fusion Styles

American breweries are also developing hybrid or fusion styles of Trappist beer. One brewery in particular is worth noticing since it’s actually a Trappist brewery in Spencer, Massachusetts. Spencer Brewery—the brewing arm of St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Cistercian monastery—was recognized by the International Trappist Association as a Trappist brewery in 2013 (though the monastery was founded in the 1950s), and since then, they have produced several well-received Trappist beers.

They brew some traditional Trappist styles—a patersbier (a traditional refectory ale) and a quad (albeit with American hops)—but also a Trappist IPA? And a Trappist imperial stout? And what appears to be a barrel-aged Bock-inspired beer? Nowhere does the development of Trappist styles in the Americas come home as clearly as it does at Spencer.

Adjuncts

Beyond hops and barrels and styles, adjunct ingredients and spices are also getting an update. Even “tradition-minded” American breweries such as Brewery Ommegang and The Lost Abbey don’t stick exclusively to Belgian candi sugars for adjunct sugar, preferring dextrose instead, and some use honey, light molasses, or golden treacle. American breweries also are more likely to add actual spices to the beer (rather than relying on fermentation character). This might not sound all that radical, but it’s actually become quite rare in Trappist breweries.

“Our Abbey Ale does contain spices, which is not particularly common in current Belgian beers,” Ommegang’s Phil Leinhart says, but notes that this practice “hearkens back to Belgian brewing in the past rather than an American innovation.”

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Preservation

Leinhart’s point is an important one. For as much as American breweries are pushing the boundaries of Trappist styles, they’re also maintaining or reviving some brewing traditions rather than bucking them.

Tomme Arthur, COO and cofounder of The Lost Abbey, says it best: “I feel there is room on both sides of the aisle here. That being said, I approach abbey and Trappist styles from a more conventional sense of things and tend to eschew American hops and that sense of experimentation derived from their new flavors. While I have had some nice beers that take liberties with these ingredients, I feel very strongly if we’re looking at these Old World styles, then perhaps we shouldn’t chase too much of a fusion sort of basis.”

Innovation for its own sake—if the original, authentic product is already great—isn’t necessarily a good thing. If it isn’t broken, why fix it? Arthur goes on, “Basically like French cooking...fidelity is where I tend to land.”

Myers at Neshaminy Creek would seem to agree. They like “bucking Belgian brewing traditions,” he says, “but then again we also go the other direction, too, and try to make beers true to form and style as well, such as using turbid mashes in some of our sour beers and doing mixed-culture fermentations.”

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That American breweries are in the business of preservation as well as innovation might seem like an odd juxtaposition, but it isn’t. Tradition and innovation in the service of beer is very much in keeping with the Trappist brewing ethos. There is no one “right” way to make any beer, even one with as long a history as a Trappist.

Despite that lengthy history and the impression of stolid orthodoxy found in the rules for what constitutes a Trappist brewery (and, of course, in the monastic Rule of St. Benedict itself), Trappist breweries are institutions that have nurtured, developed, and grown their own styles over time. The American craft-beer scene is simply continuing that tradition of innovation. As you drink and brew these beers for yourself, you should take this as license to experiment and contribute. Use new ingredients, processes, and tools liberally, right alongside the traditional. Heck, the monks might be following your lead eventually.

Beer evolves—but maybe brewing hasn’t changed quite as much as we think.

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