Trappist beer has a long history in Europe. Beer produced by monks has been treasured in Europe for centuries although the monks traditionally never sold the beer commercially. It wasn't until the late 19th century that the monks began selling their prized beer outside of the monastery as a means of supporting themselves. Because their operating costs are low and they operate nonprofit, monks have been able to afford finer ingredients that yield a superior product. Trappist beers cover a wide range of styles, from simple golden and amber ales to robust quadrupels. What they all have in common is that they are all yeast-driven beers. Rather than deriving complexity from their malts or hops, these beers have suprisingly simple ingredient lists. All the nuanced layers of flavor that have made these beers so alluring is due to the house yeast strain of each monastery, a fully unique yeast that is found nowhere else on earth that produces a singular drinking experience. All beers produced are fermented as ales, yielding spicy and fruity notes that intermingle beautifully. All beers are bottle conditioned and refermented in the bottle, producing a fine mousse of tight bubbles.
The production of Trappist beer is governed by the International Trappist Association, which sets rules guiding the production of not just Trappist beer but a whole range of food and cosmetic products that support the monks on a strictly nonprofit basis. There are eleven Trappist monasteries producing beer under the designation of “Authentic Trappist Product.” To receive this designation, the brewery must meet the following requirements:
This special designation distinguishes Trappist beers from so-called “Abbey ales” which are produced in styles originally imminating from monasteries but actually brewed secularly for profit.
The monks who produce these beers belong to The Cistercian Order of The Strict Observance, a rigid and solemn order that stresses the motto “prayer and work” and strive to live out this motto in their daily lives. The Cistercians split from The Benedictine Order in the Middle Ages because they felt the Benedictines were too secularized and exposed to the temptations of the outside world. They thus cloistered themselves inside their monastery walls and have been brewing beer ever since. How lucky are we that their beers have found their way to the US!