Trappist monks keep beer tradition alive despite decline in interest for monastic life
Only five Trappist breweries remain in Belgium, known for producing the famous Westmalle brand. Beer consultant Sofie Vanrafelghem had the rare opportunity to visit one of the monasteries, and she joined The World's host Marco Werman from Antwerp to share her experience.
Father Damion, abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey, left, and Spencer Brewery director Father Isaac walk through their state-of-the-art facility in Spencer, Massachusetts, the only one that was outside of Europe, Jan. 9, 2014.
Stephan Savoia/AP/File photo
Beers produced in Trappist monasteries have long been considered superior — the most famous being Belgium's Westmalle beer.
The accolades come because the monks who produce the brews are motivated not by profit but by quality.
It's one of the things that Trappist monasteries began to produce, among other artisanal goods, to generate income.
In Belgium, just five such breweries can still call themselves "Trappist" — which refers to a Roman Catholic group that follows the Rule of St. Benedict.
Beer consultant Sofie Vanrafelghem had the rare opportunity to visit one of the monasteries. She joined The World's host Marco Werman from Antwerp, Belgium, to share her experience and expertise.
Marco Werman: There are currently five Trappist monasteries making beer in Belgium, there had been six. What happened to the brand Achel?
Sofie Vanrafelghem: One of the criteria wasn't met anymore. The beers have to be brewed within the walls of a monastery of a living community. And of course, you need the monks to have that.
You write about beer, Sofie. You're a former beer sommelier. What makes Trappist beer special, aside from the fact that they have to be brewed in those monasteries and with the hands of monks involved?
The most special thing about them is that the monks do not work for commercial reasons. And, as a consequence of that, efficiency doesn't play a big part in the creating of the beers. So, if they have to take more time or if the ingredients cost more money, who cares? They can take the time. They want to create great quality beers. As an example, I was able a few years ago to stay with the monks of Westvleteren for about 24 hours.
Is that pretty rare?
Yes, they don't let anyone in, so I considered it a great honor. But it also gave me a unique insight in how they think, how they live and what's really important to them. And it's not the money, because they create beers, they sell the beers to fund their lives and to sustain their community and also to donate to charity.
Yet these beers are more expensive than your average six pack. What kind of revenue do these brews provide for the monasteries that make them?
Well, like in Westvleteren, they have enough to sustain their community, but they only brew four times a month. And even then, they will often decide to scratch one brew day or another just because they have enough. They don't want to make more profit.
So, given the attention to the time making these Trappist brews and the quality, what does it taste like? How does it compare to your average beer?
Most Belgian Trappists are quite yeast driven in character and in flavor. They have a lot of sweet, fruity aromas. Like, as an example, Westmalle, if you smell the Westmalle beer first before you take a sip, you will notice the aromas of banana, mostly banana, actually. And that's typical of the Westmalle yeast.
And that aroma of banana, I mean, I'm really surprised to hear that. Is that intentional? Was banana taste kind of brought into the process or is that some kind of natural phenomenon?
It's more of a natural phenomenon, because they've been working with this yeast for years and years and years. They perfected it somehow, and now it's like the signature of the Westmalle beers. Because the yeast is so powerful in the nose.
Now there's worry that as attendance at Catholic churches continues to drop in Belgium, as in other parts of Europe, and with fewer men entering monastic life, these Trappist monasteries and their breweries are also going to fall victim. It's a concern for the Church, and apparently for beer drinkers, who've been following this news. Are they right to be concerned?
Well, I'm quite optimistic about this. And the reason why is, it's true there are less and less Belgians interested in becoming a monk, but there's still interest from all over the world of people who want to be a part of this community, of this order, although it takes a long time to become a monk, it takes approximately 9 years. So, you have to show some dedication.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.