by Jose Carlos Favaro Junior
Beer has enjoyed a prominent place in the diets of many civilizations throughout history. However, it was within the confines of Catholic monasteries in Europe that the art of brewing reached new heights. Historical records indicate that brewing within abbeys dates back to the 9th century. Monasteries brewed beer for their own consumption, as well as to serve travelers and generate income through sales. This practice became more widespread during the reign of Charlemagne in the 9th century.
The French Revolution of 1792 marked the beginning of a period of dechristianization in France, and its repercussions were deeply felt even within the brewing industry. The National Assembly abolished religious orders, and as Napoleon’s campaigns took him across Europe, this process of dechristianization was extended to other territories. Following the Battle of Fleurus in 1796, the Austrian Netherlands (comprising present-day Belgium) were annexed to France, and all monasteries were abolished, destroyed, and looted by French revolutionaries. This included the breweries housed within these religious institutions, which effectively led to the demise of abbey beers in Belgium. Religious life resumed in Belgium only after the country gained independence in 1830, and although many abbeys were rebuilt, the brewing traditions of these places were never the same.
To understand how deep an impact Napoleon’s war had on the monasteries’ brews, let’s go back to the beginning. In the fifth century, Benedict of Nursia drew up a monastic rule that would serve as the foundation for the way of life of the first monks. This rule would have a lasting impact, as it inspired the establishment of numerous monastic orders, including the Cistercians. Founded in 1098 by Robert of Molesme in Cîteaux, Burgundy, the Cistercians take their name from the Latin name of their founding site, Cistercium.
In the 17th century, Cistercian life underwent a significant reformation at the French abbey of Notre Dame de La Grande Trappe. This abbey, having adopted the Rule of St Benedict and the monastic way of life followed by the Cistercians, came to be known as the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or more commonly, the Trappists (named after the abbey itself). However, during the tumultuous period of the French Revolution, the Trappists were forced to flee from France, seeking refuge elsewhere.
The legacy of Benedict’s rule and the Cistercian way of life lives on, with monastic orders and communities still active today. And while the Trappists’ history has been marked by upheaval and displacement, their traditions and practices endure as a testament to the enduring power of monastic life.
While the French Revolution marked the end of the brewing tradition of the old Belgian abbey beers, it also created the conditions that allowed Trappist abbeys to establish themselves in Belgium and begin brewing anew. In 1793, a group of Trappist monks arrived in Antwerp and founded the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Heart of Westmalle. It was here, in August of 1836, that Trappist history was made, as the monks brewed their first beer and, by December of that year, the first Trappist beer was consumed. Other Trappist abbeys soon followed suit, establishing themselves in Belgium and beginning to brew their own unique styles of beer.
By the end of World War II, there were five Trappist breweries in Belgium: Westmalle, Westvleteren, Chimay, Rochefort, and Orval. These breweries had already begun to establish themselves as successful and highly respected purveyors of beer. Westmalle, in particular, is credited with creating the Dubbel and Tripel styles that are still popular today, while Chimay created the Quadruppel style.
In 1949, the non-Trappist Maredsous Abbey partnered with the De Faleau brewery to develop their own beer recipe, which was then brewed by the brewery. However, in the years that followed, many other breweries began to use the name “Trappist” on their labels, despite having no connection to religious communities. In response, the International Trappist Association (ITA) was founded in 1998 to ensure the authenticity of Trappist products. Today, the term “Trappist” is used as a designation of origin, and products that meet the strict guidelines established by the ITA are labeled as “Authentic Trappist Products” (ATPs).
It is worth noting that Trappist monks and nuns produce a range of other products in addition to beer, including cheese, chocolate, wine, religious artifacts, and even yeasts, which bear the Trappist® trademark. These products are all subject to the same strict guidelines and are eligible to bear the ATP label. The enduring success of Trappist breweries and the wide range of products produced by Trappist communities are a testament to the enduring legacy of this monastic tradition.
To understand the distinction between Trappist beer and Abbey beer, it is important to consider the criteria set forth by the International Trappist Association (ITA), as outlined on their website (https://www.trappist.be/). There are three strict requirements for a beer to be labeled as an “Authentic Trappist Product” (ATP): 1) all products must be made within the immediate surroundings of the abbey, 2) production must be carried out under the supervision of the monks or nuns, and 3) profits should be intended for the needs of the monastic community, for purposes of solidarity within the Trappist Order, or for development projects and charitable works.
Abbey beer, on the other hand, is a broader category that includes Trappist beer but also encompasses other types of beer made by non-Trappist abbeys. For example, Maredsous Abbey began producing its own beer, which was brewed by a lay brewery and marketed using the abbey’s name. This practice was soon followed by other abbeys such as Abbaye de Leffe and Saint-Feuillen.
However, like the Trappist beer, many breweries began using the term “Abbey Beer,” leading to confusion and a lack of standardization in the industry. To address this, the Belgian Brewers – one of the oldest professional associations in the world – created a label for “Recognized Belgian Abbey Beer” (Bière d’Abbaye Belge Reconnu) in 1999 to regulate the use of the name “Abbey Beer.”
It is important to note that Trappist and Abbey beers are not limited to the production of beer alone. Trappist monks and nuns produce a variety of other products such as cheese, chocolate, wine, religious artifacts, and yeast, all of which can bear the Trappist® trademark if they meet the criteria set forth by the ITA. The distinction between Trappist and Abbey beer, as well as the regulation of the use of the name “Abbey Beer,” is important to maintain the authenticity and quality of these products.
The world of beer is full of surprises, and just when you thought you knew everything about Trappist and Abbey beers, there is more to learn! The criteria for using the Trappist label is very different from the criteria for using the Abbey Beer label. For existing Abbey Beers that were around before trademark registration (pre-July 12, 1999), the beer must have a link to an existing or no longer existing abbey, and royalties must be paid for financing charitable or cultural works related to the abbey or its heritage. The existing abbey or institution must also have control over matters of publicity.
For new Abbey Beers created after July 12, 1999, the criteria is more complex. Either the beer is brewed in an existing non-Trappist abbey, or an existing abbey has the beer brewed under its responsibility and under license in a secular brewery and helps to market the beer. Alternatively, the beer can be brewed by a secular brewery with a legal contract with an existing abbey for the use of its name, and the abbey must support charitable works. The beer must also have a historical background and be based on an existing abbey that brewed beer in the past, and the abbey must exercise a right of control in matters of publicity. With these criteria, beer lovers can be sure they are drinking an authentic Abbey Beer that has a real connection to a rich historical legacy.
Upon examining the criteria for using the label of Trappist or Abbey beer, it becomes clear that the abbey from which the beer takes its name does not necessarily have to exist in the present day. In fact, there are only two Belgian abbeys that currently have breweries within their walls: Abbaye du Val Dieu and Abbaye d’Aulne, and neither of these have an active monastic community. The decline in the number of monastic communities in recent years has been significant, with few individuals being attracted to such a life, particularly within more restrictive orders such as the Trappists. This has resulted in the loss of two Trappist breweries in the past two years: the American Spencer due to economic problems, and the Belgian Achel due to the end of monastic life within the abbey, which was subsequently sold to lay people. Currently, there are 12 Trappist beers in the world, but only 10 are able to use the label of Authentic Trappist Product. This is because Mont des Cats in France and Cardeña in Spain have their beer made by other Trappist breweries, outside of their respective abbeys.
It is important to note that Trappist and abbey beers are not simply a style of beer, but rather a reflection of the beer’s origin, and as such are protected appellations. The culture of Trappist beer is not a new phenomenon, but rather a reinterpretation of the ancient Catholic tradition of brewing. Despite the challenges facing the continuation of monastic brewing traditions, the demand for Trappist and abbey beers remains strong, and the tradition continues to thrive.
Jose Carlos Favaro Junior
Brazilian firefighter, Beer sommelier, beer traveler, and beer lover
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