Most beer fans, and many casual ones, know that Belgium has a number of Trappist breweries, such as Westmalle, Chimay, Orval. Some know that Trappist breweries exist in some other countries including Italy and the U.S.
Trappist beers are generally bottled unfiltered, are top-fermented (“ale”), and on the strong side. Many are the brown, “dubbel” type, varying in alcohol from 6-10% abv and more. Some Trappist is now available on draft including Chimay White (a tripel-style) and Westmalle Dubbel.
Chimay has two brown-coloured beers, the Red, 7% abv, and the stronger, richer Blue (9%). The brewery also makes a weaker or single beer, the Gold. It is reserved for the use of the fathers but is occasionally made available beyond the abbey gate. The highly traditional Westvleteren has a more or less similar line including a 5.8% golden, as does Abbey Rochefort save it has no pale beer. Some other Trappist breweries make a golden or pale beer as well, e.g., Achel.
Orval monastery’s beer is rather different, more like a strong, modern English pale ale but with a notable brettanomyces (wild yeast) element. It may well imitate a well-matured English pale ale of the 1930s, when the recipe was devised.
The browns don’t all taste the same, but their typically Belgian yeast background gives them a certain unity. This yeast and the generally higher temperatures used in fermentation result in distinctive, estery profiles. Notes of banana, raisin and cinnamon tend to stand out.
The tripel of Westmalle, a heady, blonde, top-fermented beer which has been much imitated by other breweries, is the other major Trappist type. To my taste there is a chalky yeast connection with the dubbel family but the palate diverges into bready notes (no chocolate-cocoa) and yellow fruit esters as in pears, or some kinds of apple. It is rather sparkling wine-like. Perhaps the tripel’s yeast, at least, is of French wine-making origin. The same may apply for Duvel, the secular strong golden ale.
Some of the newer Trappist breweries make other styles now, one of the Dutch ones makes a wheat beer, for example.
The old Belgian Trappist breweries have mostly upgraded their small plants and submitted inevitably to some contemporary trends. Some use sugar in the mash or other forms of non-malt carbohydrate, for example. Chimay since about 1990 uses closed fermenters of the Nathan type in which the yeast, which collects in a cone at the bottom, may behave differently than in a square open fermenter.
Once again what most of these beers share is strength. Orval starts at 6.2% and the other, regularly available Trappists go from there to 10% or more.
When you look at 19th century sources on Belgian beer and breweries, e.g., George Johnson’s 1895 survey, one is struck by the low gravities of the peoples’ beer. This is a good summary of Johnson’s much longer article, albeit not mentioning the gravity range, which was 1025-1040 with fairly low attenuation, so equating perhaps 2.5-4.5% abv.
There were exceptions, notably lambic which could reach 6% abv or more. In that period the weaker faro, still made in Belgium, was the more typical drink of the lambic family though, 4-5% abv.
Johnson’s and this 1862 report from National Magazine on (mostly) Belgian beers don’t mention Trappist or any kind of monastic brewing. The 1862 piece includes some fairly detailed descriptions of Belgian styles, some still current today, some long gone such as beers made with potatoes!
Some were made until fairly recently, e.g., Peeterman and uitzet. (While a brand called Uitzet exists today it does not apparently use the hop which gave the beer its signature in the 1800s).
Since it is known that some abbeys did brew then, the lack of mention is probably because the abbey-brewed beers were for the fathers’ own use or, if made available to the public, it was only locally. The survey-writers, especially foreign ones, would not have known of these beers.
Certainly Westmalle was brewing in the 1840s-50s and in fact a report exists in English from 1847 describing a visit to the monastery and the high quality of the beer. No indication is given of style. I suspect Westmalle’s beer was stronger than the norm mentioned by Johnson. It is true that WW I stimulated the production of strong beer in Belgium due to the Loi Vandervelde which banned spirits production. Still, monks have always had a reputation for making good beer, and one index of a good beer was high strength.
Many sources confirm that monasteries made two kinds of beer in the Middle Ages, strong beer for the fathers (bière des pères), and weaker beer for nuns (bière des couvents). Why would this old tradition not have continued at least for special occasions? I doubt, given the Rule of Saint Benedict allowed monks to drink, that fussy distinctions were made about gravities even before the Loi Vandervelde.
Also, in an 1824 history of the Melleray Abbey in Brittany and similar establishments, Louis Du Bois notes (see pg. 201) that the restored Melleray abbey contained a brewery which followed “English practice”. In this particular case, monks had relocated to Melleray in 1817 from England to help restore the monastery, which had been sold off during the French Revolution. English ale was notably strong c.1820 (7% abv plus), being produced from the first mash and not mixed with weaker extracts. “English practice” probably meant this Melleray beer was like contemporary English ale and also, probably all-malt as English beer was then too.
Belgian Trappist beers also were all-malt initially as far as I can tell, and only later adopted use of sugar or other adjuncts (which only slightly affects their character). Contrast with this the popular Belgian beers which used, and some still do, large amounts of raw grains such as wheat, oats, rye and even corn. Given the close relationships between the monasteries, even in different countries, I think the practice to brew in the English way may have spread early, possibly even before the French Revolution. Cistercian settlements were common in Britain and given the English mastery of brewing and prestige in the field, it is plausible the English way became the Trappist way.
Just as Port-du-Salut cheese became the template for Trappist-made cheese around the world, I apprehend English brewing become the model for Trappist brewing in France, Belgium and elsewhere. Even “abbey” beers, in the sense of beers of monastic origin now made by a secular brewery, show this overall similarity. Think Grimbergen, or Leffe…
At least, these Trappist and abbey beers resemble British ale in its heyday more than they do the sour lambic, faro, Flemish red ale and saison (also typically sourish), fruited beers, and wit beers.
An old word in France and Wallonia for a draught of good beer was une goudale. It comes from the English, good ale…
Note re images: the first image above, of Westmalle Tripel in the goblet, is from Westmalle’s website, here. The second image, a reproduction of a Hermann Nigg painting, is from Wikipedia’s entry on St. Benedict, here. The third image is from a Westvletern beer site, here. The fourth is from an Untappd label page, here. The last is from the website of Abbaye de Melleray in France, here. All are believed available for educational or historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.