Of the eleven recognized breweries run by Trappist monks in the world, six of them are dotted across Belgium. Surrounded by tranquil, green scenery and with brewskies that have been named the best in world many times over, these monasteries form an essential part of Belgian beer culture. A large part of their profits even go to charity – we’ll drink to that!
The Westvleteren brewery has made quite the name for itself with its widely beloved beer and limited production. It all started with a charming origin story: as the abbey was being built in 1831, the construction workers each had the right to two beers a day according to their contract, so the monks started brewing these themselves in order to save some money. Almost two centuries later, Westvleteren 12 (one of four beers produced at the monastery) has been declared the best beer in the world multiple times over. Given the skyrocketing demand, the small scale of the monks’ brewing operation and the fact that you have to drive up to the monastery itself to get a crate or two, it’s not easy to get a hold of one of these bad boys. Though you can occasionally find them in stores or bars, this is technically against the wishes of the monks as they will only sell to private individuals. All in all, drinking a Westvleteren has become quite the event in itself.
Adhering to the rules of St. Benedictus, Trappist monks are always responsible for their own livelihoods and live a life not only dedicated to prayer, but to work as well. It’s no wonder then that so many of them have developed a taste for brewing beers, besides producing other artisanal products like cheese or bread. Another incentive might be the fact that the monks themselves are allowed to drink these beers during lunch or dinner, and in the case of Westmalle this has been true since 1836. The Westmalle Tripel – the most famous of their three beers – has gone from being sold at the gates of the monastery to being another frequent contender for the title of best beer in the world. Like at most of the monastic breweries, there is no chance of witnessing the process, since the quiet life of the monks has to be respected. However you can still drink their acclaimed Tripel at the café across from the abbey, as well as watch a documentary on how it’s made.
The only place where you can actually see brothers running around the shining, copper brewing kettles, Achel is one of the more visitor-friendly monasteries. Add to that the glowing green landscapes and its proximity to the Great War battlefields of Ypres and you have a spiritual place that’s buzzing with hikers and bikers over the weekend. That same World War was unfortunately also responsible for a halt in the abbey’s brewing efforts that had been going since 1844. The brewery was only rebuilt in 1998, making Achel the newest Trappist beer in the bunch and one that’s still working on gaining more fans.
Unlike its Westvleteren sister, the Scourmont Abbey has embraced a larger production of its beers. Still on the abbey domain and under strict supervision by the monks (a requirement to carry the rare ‘Trappist’ label), all of the beer is made exclusively with water from the two wells on the Scourmont grounds. Chimay beers were the very first ones to be honored with the Trappist label and they’ve recently launched La Chimay Dorée (Chimay Gold) to the public. A surprising choice, since this originally was the abbey’s patersbier, a light ale (4,8 % in this case) that usually stays within the monastery’s walls, only to be consumed by its monks.
A tranquil atmosphere permeates the monastery of Rochefort, where the rather secluded monks only see tourists if they come to visit the church, since there is no café or community center present on the grounds. To taste the Rochefort beers – strong and with a spice that’s normally reserved for barley wine – close to where they were brewed, you’ll have to pay a visit to one of the town’s bars instead.
Orval’s current brewery was established in 1931 with the goal of financing the reconstruction of the old abbey, and boy did that work according to plan. Now an imposing monastery with a yellow hue, Orval is also the most international of Belgian Trappist beers owing to its work with laymen. The input of German master brewer Pappenheimer and the English influences the Belgian John Vanhuele brought back with him are to be thanked for Orval’s current taste, which is based on hops and yeasts rather than malts.