Monday, October 22, 2007

Put La Trappe in La Bouche

With all this talk of Belgians and Tripels, I thought maybe I would shed some light on a part of Belgium’s rich brewing tradition: Trappists. Not all Belgian beers are Trappist, and not even all Trappists are Belgian. Trappist beers are named for an informal term referring to the monks that brew them.

Trappists are named for the abbot Armand Jean Le Bouthillier de Rancé, who became abbot at the abbey of La Trappe in Soligny (France) in 1663. Rancé rebelled against the liberalization of the Cistercian order of monks. He advocated for a more austere lifestyle in the tradition of Saint Benedict, and a return to monastic traditions (ironically originally insisting that only water was drunk). In 1666 this led to a splintering of the Cistercian order and the “Trappists” were born.

In the Benedictine model, monks were to work: "back to God by the labour of obedience, from whom they had departed by the idleness of disobedience". Some monks took to agriculture and others to crafts; cheese making was common trade. Being that there was no ban in the order of alcoholic beverages, some made beer or wine.

Trappist and Belgian beers increased greatly in popularity in the late 20th Century and lead to abuse of the term “Trappist” in reference to beer. In response, 8 “Trappist” monasteries formed the International Trappist Association (ITA) in 1997. The ITA laid down criteria for what it takes to be labeled “Trappist,” and developed a logo to be displayed on products signifying that the criteria had been met. The ITA apparently takes these rules quite seriously, going so far as to eject one of the original abbeys (Brouwerij de Koningshoeven, a.k.a. La Trappe of the Netherlands) in 1999 for signing a brewing agreement with an external company that did not give the monks sufficient supervision over the process (one of the criteria). La Trappe was allowed to use the ITA logo again in late 2005 after sufficient modifications were made. La Trappe is marketed in the US under the name Konigshoeven, although during the interim the brews could be found labeled under their La Trappe name.

Trappist beers should not be confused with Abbey beers, which often take their name from monasteries that no longer brew. Even those few that are made within the walls of an abbey are not necessarily Trappist. Like Abbey Beers, Trappist doesn’t actually refer to a particular style of beer, as the monasteries can brew various varieties. Most are top-fermented, and the “Single, Dubbel, Tripel” designations are common (loosely referring to alcohol content), but there are also witbiers, bocks and blondes.

Currently there are 7 Trappist monasteries that brew beer: six in Belgium and 1 (La Trappe) in the Netherlands, but the possibility of other Trappist monasteries beginning to brew or restarting brewing does exist. More to come on Belgian beer and Trappist ales later in the week.

Link of Interest:
La Trappe
Press Release regarding La Trappe's ban
St. Benedict

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