I’m going to ask you a question. A simple one first, so you might know the answer. Then again, you might think you do. And then I’m going to ask another question. And that one, might be slightly more tricky to respond to…
OK, the easy one. What is a trappist beer? Officially, there are three criteria, but in short: it is a beer, brewed in a trappist monastery, under supervision of the monks, from which the gains by sale are used to sustain the monastery, especially in their charitable endeavours.
That wasn’t so bad, was it? OK, now the difficult one. What does the moniker “trappist” say about the beer itself?
Now, you might have a number of ideas that should fit the bill in your opinion, but be careful. This is a tricky one, I said. There’s always a smartass in any class. The one amongst you, might be tempted to answer: “Nothing at all.” And lo and behold, he might be actually the closest to the truth. Yet, in following the schoolanalogy, with me being the master, I might have to correct him. If you find such a brew, displaying the dark-ruby, octagonal sign with the white logo “Authentic Trappist Product” on it, you do have a certain guarantee. Not only the three conditions above, but also the fact that this product has been made to very serious, high standards.
Let me explain. Monks are a strange lot, sometimes seemingly not quite in phase with our modern world. They don’t have need of all the European directives concerning traceability of origin, even when they will never wilfully transgress law. But to them it is a matter of course, that the ingredients they use, will come from as near, and as controllable as possible. They will have to be of the highest possible quality, and preferably of a rural simplicity, that often betrays belief in the values of honest, down-to-earth values of yesteryear.
Those ingredients will be used in such a way, that the end product will be an instantly recognisable entity, something that leaves a permanent impression of “wholeness” – something that would be difficult to better in any way. Do not be deceived by this apparent simplicity! The beer (or the cheese, the aperitif, the bread, the cider,…) that will be the result of this, might display a staggering complexity, a kind of layered depth, that invites to be discovered, but will not easily reveal its secrets. And if you look at it this way, isn’t that exactly the same as the true great cuisine – be it French, Italian or Chinese, or whichever? Simple ingredients, that end up, via sometimes complicated procedures, in a truly imperial dish that boggles the mind.
This way of looking at things, is reflected in all that surrounds the trappist monks. I want to speak about beer. I do not think that this article is the right place to talk about Cistercienzian habits and rules. But, if you have the opportunity to go into a trappist monastery, and I’d exceptionally say, a latter day one – look at the way church, buildings, gardens are conceived. They look simple, invite the mind to take a rest, but they are actually oh so raffinated. Even the rural settings of all Trappistmonasteries I know, seem to hint at a kind of retro, “back to basics” implementation. I’d compare it to the designs of the great Leonardo, or further away in history of art, the Celtic patterns from the beginning of Christianity, and before.
There is an inherent paradox in what I’ve told. I cannot word it any better than would do Jean-Marie Rock, the brewmaster of the Orval trappistbrewery – maybe the most idiosyncratic of them all. His Credo (apt!) is “Faites simple!” (keep it simple!). That seems to stick with what went before, but that does not mean that the way to achieve this, must go over rustic paths. If you can leave one idea behind you, after reading this, is the label-immortalized image, of the robed, tonsured monk that is using the mediaeval brewingfork for turning the mash. He’s dead and gone, that guy, and may he rest in peace.
All but one trappistbrewery use a lay brewmaster, and most of the people working in a trappist brewery, and all that surrounds it, are laymen. The brewery of Chimay even claims that their employment of laymen, in a large, modern-day brewery is a logical answer on the poor, underdeveloped region the monastery is located in. Brewmasters are technically highly learned people. They know about the facts of brewing, but also about legal regulations, about possible ways for error. They like the technical niceties that make brewers’ art less a Catweazle way of accomplishing things. They have an eye for state-of-the art.
The monks, from their point of view, demand excellence. If that is better, more practically and more easily achieved by modern technology, they will invest. To take the example of one of the larger Trappistbreweries, the monks ask their lay directors to give them a quarterly overview about what the technical people esteem to be needed changing, or to explore in new directions. Meaning, the way of achieving the beer – not the beer itself. Trappistbeers are seldom changed, and then it is the result of a very long process of thinking, tinkering and trying.
Trappistbreweries have, not without reason, the name of being very rich. As austere the monks might live, the result of their labour is highly valuated. But do not think that the sky is the limit – even if it may appear so, in case you visit your first trappistbrewery. They will investigate in what the technical people ask them, will select one or two things, and then say: ”Tell us what you think will be best for achieving the best results.” If the answer is equivocally, then the purse will open, and oftentimes this will mean that the very best, and highly appraised technology will be bought in – technology usually seen only in the very largest brewing companies.
A superb example on this, finds itself in the inner court of Westmalle abbey. A modern tower there, houses a semiconical fermenter. By the time of my last visit, only in use for experimenting. As all larger breweries, Westmalle see the advantages of semiconicals. They are equally aware that they represent, however, a serious step from traditional fermenting vessels and methods. Hence, they will not use the beer from here in the finished product, until it gives exactly the same result as the old fermenters. Mind you, they don’t start from scratch – it is well-known that the height of classical semiconicals has an adverse effect on the beer. So they build a fairly low one to start with.
But the main difference of this fermenter is not its shape – it’s the technology around and inside it. Computerized captors allow the brew to be monitored, on different locations inside the fermenter, and on a wide scale of variables. It is an ultimate brewers’ toy. Toy, indeed, but used to good purpose. The everlasting quality of the Trappist ale.
Another example of their way of doing things, we find in the monastery of Rochefort, in Wallonia. This longstanding abbey has a limited space. Standing at the entrance, one can look around the inner court(s), and estimate the age of the buildings around. They seem to go upwards in time via a clockwise system. And indeed, so does rebuilding. Every year, another part is targeted, and the (inner!) building renewed, with what it contains. From the outside it still offers the same – in case of Rochefort breathtaking – aspect, but inside, the rebuilding is complete. However, well within the strict esthetical parameters of the order…