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Trappist beer is beer or ale produced under the supervision of Trappist monks. While only seven breweries are recognized in the 21st century as authentic producers of Trappist beer, the practice of monasteries brewing alcohol is more than 1000 years old. Authentic versions of the beer must conform to several standards set by the International Trappist Association.
Throughout the European continent most water was highly contaminated for much of the Middle Ages. Beer provided a liquid alternative, and also could be heavily concentrated with grains for nutritious value. By the year 1000 CE, over 500 breweries are believed to have existed in monasteries. Among other innovations to beer, monks are credited with being the first to add hops to the brew.
In order to provide for their monetary needs and be able to feed the needy, Trappist monks began brewing beer and ale. While the commercialism of the product seems somewhat at odds with monastic vows of simple life, it is in fact a founding principle of the Trappist doctrine that a man must do manual work. The profits made from selling the beers went to maintain the rather meager lives of the monks and to fund charitable efforts.
Originally, many Trappist breweries existed in France, where the order was founded in 1664. The turmoil of the French Revolution and the two World Wars proved disruptive to the monasteries brewing practices, and today no French breweries are officially recognized by the International Trappist Association. Outside of France, Trappist beer remained a lucrative product for many monasteries, particularly in The Netherlands and Belgium.
Due to concern over exploitation of the term “Trappist Beer,” the International Trappist Association (ITA) was founded in 1997, to oversee the authenticity of claims to the title. In order to be labeled as authentic the beer must meet several criteria as set by the ITA. The beer or ale must be brewed by monks or brewed under monastic supervision on Monastery grounds. Decisions about the varieties, ingredients and all brewery activity must be decided by the monks. Additionally, any profits must go to charitable products rather than for financial gain.
As of 2008, seven breweries are recognized by the ITA as producers of authentic Trappist Beer. Of the seven, six are in Belgium and one is in The Netherlands. Many of these breweries produce well known beverages that are often highly rated by beer and wine experts.
Trappist beers are almost always ales, meaning they use top-fermenting yeast and ferment at a warmer temperature than lagers. Unlike American beers, they are not identified by a specific alcohol content, but rather classified in terms of relative strength as single, double, or triple beers. While not widely available in the United States, Trappist beer remains extremely popular throughout Europe, and has one of the best reputations in the world for quality products using centuries of carefully-recorded brewing knowledge.