Ask an Alehead to name the best beers on Earth, and chances are their list will be dotted here and there with Trappist ales. The Trappist beers are legendary in the brewing world for numerous reasons:
- They’re old (5 of the 7 currently operating Trappist breweries were founded in the 19th century and that’s just in their most recent incarnations…most have been brewing on and off for centuries).
- They have an intriguing mythology (all Trappist beers are brewed by the fairly strict Trappist order of monks who run their breweries as non-profit, charitable enterprises).
- They’re just really fucking good beers.
Trappist monasteries are Belgian…right? It’s easy to equate “Trappist” with “Belgian” since these days, most people only know about the order because of their famous beer. And since 6 of the 7 Trappist monasteries that brew beer are located in Belgium (the 7th is in the Netherlands), the confusion is very understandable. The truth, however, is quite different.
There are 171 Trappist monasteries in the world today (according to Wikipedia…always an iron-clad source of information) and, as you might suspect with such a large number, only some of them are in Belgium. To understand the Trappists, you have to go all way back to St. Benedict, the 6th century monk who essentially “wrote the book” for how self-sustaining monasteries should be run (he’s also the patron saint of Europe AND students…presumably he REALLY watches out for students who backpack through Europe the summer after their Junior year of college). An order of monks was founded in 529AD to closely adhere to the “Rule of St. Benedict” (the monastic standards set forth by ol’ Benny). This group was appropriately dubbed the “Benedictines” and they spread throughout Europe. But in 1098, some of the monks decided that the Benedictine’s weren’t following Benny’s Rules quite as closely as they should…so they established a separate reform order called the Cistercians. All was well until 1664 when some Cistercians decided that their order had ALSO gotten lax. So they, in turn, founded ANOTHER order in a Cistercian monastery in France called “La Trappe”. Thus, the Trappists were born (the Trappists actually refer to themselves as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance…thus implying that they’re basically stricter Cistercians). I suspect that around 2231AD, the Trappists will be accused of being too carefree in their appreciation of St. Benedict’s rules and a new order called “The Benedictators” will be created. Honestly, it would be nice if St. Benedict would simply rise from his eternal slumber and explain to everyone that his rules are “more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”*
*Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.”
In the meantime, those of us who aren’t so into the whole celibacy, poverty, silence, and brevity thing can just sit back and enjoy the fruits of the Trappists’ labor.*
*While other orders occasionally brew beer as well, the Trappists are far and away the most active and celebrated brewers. There used to be many more Trappist breweries in Europe, but most were destroyed in the various wars of the past few centuries. Today, only a handful remain.
Because the Trappist beers are just so damn good, it was only a matter of time before other brewers started adding the word “Trappist” to their labels to try and mooch off the order’s reputation. Since Trappist monks only brewed beer to support their monasteries and fund charitable works, they took these “false Trappist ales” as an affront to their good name. In reaction, the “real” Trappist breweries banded together and created an “Authentic Trappist Product” logo for their wares (which also includes cheese and bread). In order to qualify for the use of the logo, a Trappist beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist abbey under the supervision of Trappist monks. Also, the brewery itself and its commercial aspirations must depend entirely on the monastic community. Finally, as mentioned earlier, the sale of Trappist beer must be directed toward the support of the monastery or charitable works…not profit. Because of these restrictions, there are currently only 7 “official” breweries that can legally have the word “Trappist” on their beers.*
*It should be noted that there are many world-class Abbey ales that are brewed in non-Trappist monasteries. So just because an Abbey ale doesn’t have the word “Trappist” on it doesn’t mean it’s not a phenomenal brew.
These breweries are:
- Chimay: A southern brewery, the largest beer producer amongst the Belgian Trappists, and probably the most famous of them all. Their red, white and blue beers can be found on most well-stocked package store shelves.
- Westmalle: The northern-most Trappist and inventor of the famed “Dubbel” style of ale.
- Orval: The southern-most Trappist which only produces one commercially available beer…a pale ale that uses wild yeast to obtain its unique flavor profile.
- Rochefort: A south-eastern Trappist which is notoriously secretive and produces three famed beers, the 6, 8, and 10.
- Westvleteren: The western-most Trappist which only produces a small amount of beer for sale directly at the monastery. Their highest-strength beer, the 12, is generally considered the best beer on Earth.
- Achel: The most recently recognized Trappist brewery… it began brewing again in 1998 after a long hiatus. It is the smallest producing brewery amongst the Trappists.
- Koningshoeven (aka La Trappe): The only non-Belgian Trappist brewery, La Trappe is located in the Netherlands. In 1999, La Trappe set up an LLC that allowed a commercial brewery to begin taking over the day-to-day beer operations of the monastery. The other Trappist breweries felt this violated the rules they had originally set to determine what constituted a Trappist beer and they stripped La Trappe of their ability to use the Authentic Trappist Product logo. By 2005, the La Trappe monks had taken back most of the control of the brewing process and the brewery was again able to use the official logo. La Trappe is the largest producing brewery amongst the Trappists.
And now for a tasting note…
Trappist beers are almost always bottle-conditioned ales, and the famed Westmalle Dubbel is no exception. My predilection for Dubbels has been noted numerous times in this blog (most recently in my post on the excellent North Coast Brother Thelonius). My love for the style and for Trappist beers in general (not that I’m alone in that regard) means that you should take my tasting notes on the Trappists with a massive grain of salt (like, the size of a basketball). That said, I’ll at least try to be subjective…
The Westmalle Dubbel poured into a tulip glass (I don’t have an official Westmalle chalice, unfortunately) with a hazy, mahogany color and a big, off-white head. The body looks creamy and cloudy and the long-lasting head has a “volcanic” center that keeps spewing carbonation to the outer rim (I enjoyed watching this, but then, I’m easily entertained). Oddly minimal lacing on the glass which is just weird.
The nose is perfect for a Dubbel, sweet and malty with sour, tart undertones of over-ripe dates, cherries and figs. Hints of spice hit you from all sides and add a nice, rich complexity to the aroma.
The taste is excellent, though very subtle for the style. In comparison to something like the Brother Thelonius, the flavor is deeper and fuller, but far less complex and refreshing. It hits you with sweet malt and biscuits immediately and then shifts to a winey, almost champagne-like sparkle in the middle. Finally, it finishes with a slightly bitter aftertaste thanks to a moderate 7% ABV.
The mouthfeel is superb…creamy, buttery…just silky-smooth with that aforementioned champagne sparkle. Drinkability is high, but like most Trappists, this is a sipping beer. As it warms, the sweetness and breadiness amp up and the flavor profile changes immensely (for the better). I vacillated between 3.5 and 4 Hops on this one before settling on 3.5. It’s obviously a classic…hell, Westmalle INVENTED the Dubbel style! But the decision was made when I compared it to the Brother Thelonius which I gave 4 Hops to. If given the choice between the two, I’d be inclined to grab the more complex, refreshing North Coast offering. Of course, BeerAdvocate gives the Brother a B+ and the Westmalle an A- overall, so clearly I’m just an idiot. To each his own…but honestly, you can’t go wrong with either choice.
I loves me some Dubbels.