The word “trappist” does not refer to a certain kind of beer, but to its origin. It actually comes from La Trappe (France), where the Trappist order originated in a Cistercian monastery. The monks started brewing beer in the late 17th century.
There are a lot of monasteries where beer is brewed, but not all these beers can be called trappist. Or have the right to be called trappist, because there is actually an International Trappist Association (ITA), that has come up with four criteria:
- The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.
- The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and it should witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life
- The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture. The income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Whatever remains is donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need.
- Trappist breweries are constantly monitored to assure the irreproachable quality of their beers.
When these criteria are fulfilled, the association will label a beer officially as a trappist. At the moment, there are 7 such beers:
- Chimay (Belgium)
- Orval (Belgium)
- Rochefort (Belgium)
- Westmalle (Belgium)
- Westvleteren (Belgium)
- Achel (Belgium)
- La Trappe (Netherlands)
Most of these beers are ales, which come in different varieties (usually different strengths). Westvleteren is very popular, but is also quite difficult to find, since the monks only produce limited quantities of it. Nowadays, it can only be bought at the monastery itself, but there is a – long – waiting list.
The monasteries -and breweries – themselves can in most cases not be visited, but there is usually a visitor’s center, where you can taste and buy the beers. In October 2010, The Viking and I visited the monastery of Orval. The village is actually called Villers-devant-Orval and is situated in the south of Belgium. The monastery was founded in the 12th century and today you can visit the church and the ruins of the abbey.