Monday, November 8, 2010

Ora et labora, the trappist rule

Benedict of Nursia, aka St. Benedict inspired the most successful order of monks in the Catholic church, known as Benedictines. The order was formed long after his death and it is unclear whether or not Benedict intended to form an order, although he founded a monastery and wrote rules of monastic life.

The Benedictines live by these rules and one of these rules says: ora et labora, or pray and work. The Benedictines (cistericians) believe that they have to work and be self-sufficient. Hence the Benedictines started out doing manual labor and sell the fruits of their labor. Pretty soon though the good intentions went out the door and Benedictines refocused on spiritual work and teaching instead. That did not sit well with some who considered it frivolous, lax and what have you, and in 1664 a reform movement took hold.

The reform movement created a new order of cistercians of strict observance. It all began at the abbey of La Trappe in Normandy, France. (not to be confused with many La Trappe's in existence today) so the strict monks called themselves Trappists. The movement spread and their Belgian brethren quickly began brewing beer. The Trappists also started wearing a white habit -as opposed to former black- and are therefore known to some as White Monks.
A White Monk practicing Ora

Just this weekend I read about Benedictines who founded the monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico and these monks too brew a Belgian style beer. They are not the only ones apparently and monastery brewing is on the upswing in this and other countries.

That said, Trappist is a synonym for Belgian beer to many people. To others it is a style of beer and some breweries that have no affiliation with a monastery brew what they call Trappist Ales.  Even so, "authentic trappist beer"  is a designation of origin similar to Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) for wine.  A hexagonal insignia is added to the bottle to prove authenticity.

It just so happens that only 7 breweries are thus recognized and 6 of the  7 are in Belgium. The breweries are: Achel, Chimay, Koningshoeven (La Trappe), Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren. La Trappe is the Dutch entry and for a while it lost its license.

Chimay Beer

Although most people equate Trappist with dark beer out of short fat bottles, there are quite a few authentic blondes in the line-up. La Trappe even makes a wit (literally white) wheat beer.

Apart from color, Trappists typically come as singles (often not named), doubles and triples, depending on the alcohol content of the brew. The breweries also put out specials such as Reserves, Extras and Dorees (golden) and all have some brews that are only available at or near the abbey. That is no doubt in response to the enormous success of Westvleteren, a brand that can only be bought at the abbey, and in limited production, and by jumping through various hoops.

Recently however, the abbey of Westvleteren upgraded its facilities and now the monks are considering selling their beer in the supermarket to pay for the expenses. There were rumors they had signed a deal with Colruyt, a low cost provider, but so far the issue is up in the air. The "move" made serious waves in Belgium, not in the least because it would take Westvleteren's status from highly exclusive to rock bottom in one fell swoop.

Although Trappists are probably the most famous Belgian beers, they are not my favorites. I find most of them too thick or too bread-like and too chocolatey. The ones I like the best are the blondes and Westvleteren blonde (green caps) -if you can get it- is definitely worth the price. Coming to a Colruyt near you??

Although I do not recommend overindulging in Trappist ale while racing in Belgium, I do recommend visiting the various abbeys on rest days.  Here is some great information about bike routes and Trappist (in Dutch). Westmalle is spectacular with lots of art deco, while Rochefort in the French speaking part is considered by many the most spectacular of the abbeys.

Oh and do remember, the Trappists are not supposed to talk much on mostly only when spoken to, and laughing is considered in poor taste. These are all part of the rules of humility devised by Benedict.

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