A Monk Walks into a Bar…
This Isn’t What You Think
Relax, this isn’t a bad joke; we keep those to ourselves. This is a true story. The monk is Father Isaac (Prior, Koningshoeven Abbey, Tilburg, Netherlands). The Bar is Tria Cafe Rittenhouse, 2009.
This is the story of beer brewed by Trappist monks. We’ll return to Father Isaac’s bar visit in a moment, but first, some background.
Trappist beers are brewed by Trappist monks, a monastic Roman Catholic order that originated in La Trappe, France, in the 17th century as an offshoot of the strict Cistercian order. Their way of life is explained by the International Trappist Association:
Trappists are monks and Trappistines are nuns who devote their lives to prayer and work, in a community life. This is done in silence. At the same time, they participate in the modern market economy. They produce and sell foodstuffs and other articles. They fulfill this role in a way that suits them best: ethical and transparent, with special attention to human dignity and the environment. Production and business practices are always done under the supervision of the Trappists. Many of them are also involved in the production.
The order may have started in France, but the French Revolution caused some “issues,” forcing the monks to flee for Belgium and Holland, where brewing eventually resumed in the 1800s.
Today the International Trappist Association has 20 members worldwide, 14 of which brew beer. Four beer styles are commonly associated with Trappist brewers - Singel, Dubbel, Tripel and Quadrupel. Secular brewers also make these styles, and Trappist breweries can brew whatever styles they please, but remember: it’s not a legit Trappist ale unless it wears the authentic Trappist seal.
Getting Back to Our Story
The 14 Trappist monastery breweries vary widely in their level of commercialization. La Trappe (Koningshoeven Abbey) has the largest production and practices modern marketing. In 2009 La Trappe introduced a beer called Isid’or to commemorate the brewery’s 125th anniversary and its first brewer, Father Isidorus. Did they remain silent? Hardly! They embarked on a promotional tour. Philly was one of the stops and Tria was one of the selected venues.
Father Isaac is in charge of brewing operations at La Trappe, although most of the brewery work is performed by layman. This brewery, after all, produces over 100,000 barrels of beer each year. It was an honor to have Father Isaac pay a visit to Tria Cafe Rittenhouse.
So a monk walked into a Philadelphia bar and he drank… Allagash. (We didn’t have any La Trappe on the menu that day.)
I found Father Isaac to be an inspiring and memorable individual. He is Dutch-born, but had previously worked as a nurse in California. His English is flawless and beneath his habit was well pressed business attire. Father Isaac was at once from two starkly different worlds. He commented to me that he loved the United States for being so accepting of all kinds of people. What would he say now?
In this promotional video, Father Isaac helps demonstrate the three conditions Trappist beer must satisfy:
Why should you drink Trappist beer?
If you’re feeling the winter chill, many Trappist beers are strong and warming. Trappist beers often boast wine-like complexity. Each monastery owns a proprietary yeast strain, and their yeasts tend to produce wonderful fruity aromas. Many Trappist ales are brewed with a sizable amount of candi sugar as a additional fermentable resulting in strong beers that are relatively light in body. Gotta have drinkability! Last but not least, the proceeds support the monasteries and the good works that they perform.
Trappist Beer Styles
Trappist breweries can brew whatever styles they wish, but these four, in ascending strength, are strongly associated with them. The common denominator is an emphasis on pleasant malt sweetness yeast-driven fruity aromas, and not a lot about hops.
Singel Golden, <6.0%, really a Belgian Golden Ale. This weaker (but really, not that weak) beer is typically brewed for the monks’ consumption. Their session beer, if you will. Chimay Gold (Dorée) is the only Trappist Singel commonly offered to the public.
Dubbel Reddish-brown, 6.3% - 7.6%, some sweetness, caramel, dried fruit. This style never seems to get the respect it deserves; most folks skip right over to Quadrupel, a similar style with more everything.
Tripel Golden, 7.1% - 10.0%, malty sweetness, fruity aromas, accessible, popular. Westmalle, seeing that the the beer world had been moving from dark beer to golden beer, invented this appealing style in 1934. If you’ve had a Victory Golden Monkey, you get the idea.
“Quadrupel” Amber to dark brown, 9.1% - 14.2%, sweet, fruity, complex, dried fruit, not cloying. The beers are huge, profound, drink-by-the-fireplace beverages. We put “Quadupel” in quotations because La Trappe owns the name. Fortunately for other brewers, they are not litigious. Better to say “Belgian Strong Dark Ale. “ Actually, better not to say anything and just drink one.
Quick Guide to the Trappist Monasteries
Time to bust out the Amex and buy some Trappist ale. Here’s what you need to know:
1. The Big Three These monasteries produce over 75% of all Trappist beer and are readily found.
La Trappe (Netherlands) Wide range of styles and all the beers are excellent. You can’t go wrong, but you must try Quadrupel and Isid’or.
Westmalle (Belgium) This monastery created the name “Dubbel” and invented the Tripel style in 1934. Westmalle only offers Dubbel and Tripel and both beers are benchmarks. At the time of posting, both Tria Cafes are featuring Westmalle Tripel in bottles.
Chimay (Belgium) Chimay offers all four styles, and the beers are easily sighted in Philly. Single = Gold, Dubbel = Red, Tripel = White, Quadrupel = Blue. Easy.
2. The Interesting Four Beers from these four breweries are harder to find but worth seeking out.
Orval (Belgium) Orval offers one beer and it’s completely different than the others! Wild yeasts give rustic complexity, and there is notable hop bitterness. Many craft brewers today are doing wild/sour/hoppy ales that owe a huge “Thank you!” to Orval.
Spencer Trappist (Massachusetts) The first and only Trappist brewery in the United States (Spencer, MA). started brewing in 2013. Spencer Trappist Ale was distributed in PA, but is not currently. Look for them when you’re in New England; certainly this is the first Trappist brewery to make a Grapefruit IPA!
Westvleteren (Belgium) You are not worthy. None of us are. Westvleteren is of interest because their beers are considered among the world’s greatest, and you cannot purchase them unless you personally visit the brewery. Compare this with La Trappe’s approach! Westvleteren is often sold on the black market, expressly against the monastery’s wishes. Don’t be an accomplice, but if you are able to try some, it is great.
Rochefort (Belgium) This small-production Trappist brewery makes three beers: 6 (Dubbel), 8 and 10 (Quadrupel). This stuff is deep. Good beers to sip while pondering the meaning of life.
3. All the Rest Some of these seven breweries export to the States, others don’t - at least not yet. These seven breweries started brewing between 1997 and 2018. It makes sense; as craft beer explodes in popularity worldwide, monasteries are seeing that a brewery is a great way to sustain their monasteries and support their good works. Keep your eyes open for these breweries:
Achel (Belgium), Zundert (Netherlands), Stift Engelszell (Austria), Monts des Cats (France), Tres Fontane (Italy), Cardeña (Spain) and Mount St. Bernard (England).
Trappist beers are pricey, so if you’d like to enjoy them without breaking the budget, go online and search for examples of these styles from American craft brewers. It’s not quite the same experience, but at 50% savings, it’s fine. Also, please don’t drink these out of the fridge! Serve most Trappist ales halfway between fridge temp and room temp, and you’ll get to enjoy all the beautiful aromas. Go colder on Tripel.
Tria often features authentic Trappist ales on our beer menus, so make sure you try one next time you visit us. I would suggest that these beers will give you a religious experience, but I already promised you no bad jokes.
Jon Myerow, Tria Founder and Beer Director