Crates of empty beer bottles are stacked at the Saint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, western Belgium, Tuesday Aug.16, 2005. A website survey of thousands of beer enthusiasts from 65 countries rated the Westvleteren 12 beer as the world's best, forcing the Abbey to stop selling one of its famous beers as it was sold out immediately. The abbey, home to 30 Cistercian and Trappist monks who lead a life of seclusion, prayer, and beer-brewing, doesn't want to raise production as their life in the abbey comes first, not the brewery. (AP Photo/Yves Logghe)
Updated: February 24, 2013 6:02AM
A monk has to make a living. More precisely, the place where he lives has to keep the lights on, and that requires income.
Religious residences all over the world produce goods to sell — chocolate, cheese, soap, candles, ceramics — and among Trappist monasteries, eight of them make beer. Trappist beers generally are adored by serious beer drinkers for their characteristic taste — often dry with fruity overtones and aromas that range from floral to barnyard — and their romantic lore. Their higher alcohol content also puts smiles on faces.
The simple definition of Trappist beer is: beer brewed by monks at an active abbey with the proceeds of beer sales supporting the abbey. The Trappist designation is protected by law (and all Trappist beers carry the hexagonal “Authentic Trappist Product” logo), but the general style of beer made in abbeys — ale that is unpasteurized and bottle-conditioned — is free to be copied by any brewer anywhere.
Beers that are brewed in this style by lay people in an active abbey or a defunct abbey, or at an outside brewery altogether, can be called Abbey beers but not Trappist. So it is kind of an elite club, and the beers are accordingly special. In a few cases, they also are quite rare.
You have no doubt seen at least a couple Trappist beers if you have spent any time in bars with an inventory that goes beyond aluminum bottles, plastic pitchers and popcorn. In other words, while Trappist beers are special, you can find some them easily enough in Chicago and the suburbs.
Trappist brewers, in alphabetical order, are: Achel, Chimay, Koningshoeven (La Trappe), Orval, Rochefort, Stift Engelszell, Westmalle and Westvleteren.
You probably knew Chimay and maybe Orval. If you are into beer you might have recognized Westmalle and possibly even Rochefort. Westvleteren was in the news recently because for the first time ever (and probably the last) the brewery released small quantities of its exclusive ale outside the abbey. The beer sold in Chicago for $85 per six-pack. That is not a typo. Usually you have to make an appointment and go to Belgium to pick up your order in person. Even then, they let you buy only a little. When you start researching airfare to Belgium, $85 does not seem like such a bad deal.
All of the above beers are from Belgium, but there are two more Trappist beers, and these are the most obscure on the list. La Trappe, made at Koningshoeven Abbey in the Netherlands, has gone in and out of Trappist certification (right now it is in), and Stift Engelszell, of Austria, was certified ATP in 2012.
This past fall the great Chicago beer bar and restaurant Hopleaf hosted a “Monastic” beer dinner featuring four Trappist beers, three of them matched with hearty, cold weather food.
We started with a Rochefort 6, a rich warmer of a beer that was a welcome antidote to the chill outside.
With the first course, a Liege salad that included bacon lardons, green beans, potatoes and a poached egg, they poured Orval. The dry and pleasantly bitter bite of the iconic beer in the bowling pin bottle was a nice match to the subtly rich flavors of the salad.
Flemish Beef Stew and a Westmalle Dubbel came next. The ale was slightly sweet and fruity, yet also dry, with a nice frothy head. This made it a great complement to the stew, which managed to be sweet and savory at the same time, a thick gravy filled with chunks of beef, mashed potatoes, glazed carrots and crispy shallots.
For dessert we had a Chimay Tripel (also called “White” and sporting a white label) paired with a classic Belgian waffle that was joined by Chimay White strawberry compote, Westmalle Dubbel chocolate sauce and salted custard whipped cream. The hoppy, raisiny beer would have been a nice enough closer on its own, but the waffle dish only brought out its beautiful, unique flavors even more.
Like the monks themselves, Trappist beers are quietly sophisticated, complex and shrouded in mystique. They are at the top of the beer prestige pyramid and well worth your attention. Whether they are worth flying to Europe for is a decision you will have to make on your own, down the line. But you could start with a Chimay, Orval, Westmalle or Rochefort, probably not far from where you live, tonight.
Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.