Last month I completed a week long, beer-centric trip around Belgium. What an amazing trip and not just because of the beer. For a country with the second highest population density in Europe, it has a surprising amount of green space. We encountered vistas as diverse as the wooded hills of the Ardennes, the verdant rolling fields of Flanders, and the sandy North Sea beaches. It has a fascinating, if at times tragic, history. The layout of architecture of Ghent and central Brussels are on par with the most beautiful cities in Europe, something I didn’t expect if I’m honest. Then we have beer; the crowning jewel, both ubiquitous and celebrated, woven into the very fabric of Belgian culture. The Belgian Brewers guild is housed in majestic building trimmed in gold on the grand plaza in Brussels. The best beer cafes have hundreds of beers to choose from, just like they do in the US, but in Belgium the Indian curry restaurants serve Duvel and the pizzerias serve Trappist ales. Even the late-night frite shops offer Leffe and LaChouffe to pair with your ill-advised order of deep fried mozzarella sticks.
The journey took me to eight of the ten provinces of Belgium, along the way I visited ten breweries/brewery cafes and did tours of four. I indulged in Trappist ales and saisons, in lambics and Flander’s reds, sampled wit biers and golden strongs. I bought enough packaged beer to fill an extra suitcase up to the 50 lb (23 kg) limit. Before the memories fade I wanted to document some of the experiences that made an impression on me. I begin with a two-part writeup of my visits to the Trappist breweries and cafés.
The Trappist Breweries of the Low Countries
Of the more than 170 Trappist and Trappistine monasteries worldwide, eleven brew beer and sell it to the public (soon to be twelve when the brewery at Mount St. Bernard Abbey in the UK comes online). Six of those eleven are located in Belgium (Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren) and another two just across the border in the Netherlands (La Trappe and Zundert). Back in February I wrote a story about visiting the Italian outpost of the Trappist brewing fraternity, Tre Fontane in Rome, where I gave some details of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Trappists for short) and the rules governing the manufacture and sale of Trappist goods. I won’t repeat all of that here. The CliffsNotes version is that to be an authentic Trappist product the beer must be (a) brewed on monastic grounds, (b) the monks should be involved in running the business, and (c) the profits must go either to support the monastery or to charity.
While planning my Belgium beercation the Trappist breweries were high priority stops as I went through various iterations of my itinerary. In the end I managed to visit five of the eight but were I to do it all again I would probably do things a little differently. The brewing facilities are generally not open to the public, nor in most instances are the monastery grounds. Of the eight only La Trappe gives regular tours. In practice this means you are visiting either a café that serves the monastery’s beer and/or a shop that sells bottled beer and other Trappist goods. Given their strong export program you can buy most, but not all, of the Trappist beers back home, or for that matter in any number of restaurants and bars within Belgium. All of this makes visiting the Trappist breweries not quite the experience I had imagined.
That’s not say there aren’t some good reasons to hop on the Trappist Ale Trail. You can track down a few beers that are not readily available elsewhere, a central tenet of most beer pilgrimages. Even for those beers that are available all over the world, like Westmalle and Orval, tasting fresh versions can be an eye-opening experience. Finally, their locations, which are spread all over the country, offer a great excuse to take in the varied regions that make up Belgium. If you are pressed for time and can only visit a couple I’d suggest Orval to walk around the beautiful grounds and taste a fresh version of one of the world’s most unique beers; La Trappe for the tour and the welcoming environment; and Westvleteren to track down one of the most elusive white whales of the beer world.
In this post I focus on two Trappist breweries located on either side of the Belgium–Netherlands border: La Trappe and Westmalle. In part two I cover the Trappist breweries in Wallonia: Orval, Chimay, and Rochefort.
La Trappe – A Brief History
Paradoxically we started our Belgian beer tour in the Netherlands, with a visit to La Trappe. The idea to visit La Trappe was hatched when I met their export manager, Dieter Lauwers, at a La Trappe tasting event back in the UK. When I told Dieter I was coming to Belgium in the spring he invited me to stop by the brewery for a tour. The monastery is located in the small village of Berkel-Enschot where the suburbs of Tilburg give way to flat, green countryside. Although still in the Netherlands La Trappe is only about five miles from the Belgian border as the crow flies.
The monastery, which goes by the name the Abbey of our Lady of Koningshoeven, was established in 1881 when the land was donated by King Willem II of the Netherlands to Trappist monks from France seeking refuge. The term Koningshoeven means the king’s farmhouses in Dutch, and initially that’s all that existed on the piece of land that is now the abbey. The brewery was founded three years later in 1884 to raise money to support the monastery. In the next decade the monks pursued what looks to me like a wildly ambitious plan of expansion. In 1891 they built a much larger brewery, including a massive malt tower where they malted their own grains. Although much of the equipment inside has changed over the years, the exterior of the 1891 brewery is where the brewing still happens today. The brewery must have been successful, because in 1894 the monks built a massive neo-Gothic abbey complex. When you look at the pictures in the history section of the La Trappe website it’s hard to imagine that in just 13 years they went from their humble beginnings, holding services in a converted sheep barn, to the grand abbey that still stands today. It turns out the abbot who initiated this spending spree, Dom Willibrord Verbruggen, put the abbey so far into debt that he was eventually relieved of his duties by the pope.
One of the many things that sets La Trappe apart from the other Trappist breweries is the wide range of beers they make. Most Trappist breweries make two or three beers, but La Trappe produces and sells nine different beers. They brew a blonde, a dubbel, and a tripel, all very much straight out of the Trappist playbook. In 1991 they were the first brewery to introduce a quadrupel. More recently they’ve started making a barrel aged version of their quadrupel. I’ve got a 750 mL bottle aged in Scotch Whiskey barrels squirreled away in my beer cupboard for just the right occasion. There’s a wit bier and a rich, caramelly beer called Isid’or, named after the monk who was the first master brewer of the abbey. Isid’or packs nearly all of the rich malt character and subtle fruity esters of the quadrupel into a somewhat less potent 7.5% abv format.
The lineup is rounded out with two lagers, a pale, light bodied 4.7% abv organic lager called Puur and a bockbier. The only lagers in the Trappist beer pantheon. Their existence surprised me until I read Trappist Beer Travels, by Caroline Wallace, Sarah Wood & Jessica Deahl, where I learned that for much of its history La Trappe was a lager brewery . Then in 1969 they entered into a disastrous partnership with the Belgian brewery Artois (now a centerpiece of the AB-InBev empire). Instead of acting as true partners Artois shifted production away from the monastery and profits dwindled. In 1979 the partnership was severed and brewing operations at the monastery had to start from scratch. In fact, the output of the once again independent brewery was a mere 117 hectoliters (100 barrels) in 1980. The monks took that opportunity to pivot away from lagers, which had become prevalent in the market, to the yeasty bottle conditioned beers favored by their Trappist brethren. Nevertheless, I still find their house yeast to be a little more restrained, the malt character of their beers a little richer than the other Trappist breweries. Perhaps those differences are a subtle link to their past life as a lager brewery.
Visiting La Trappe
I set out for La Trappe from Amsterdam around 10:30 am on a Thursday morning with with my wife and daughter. We arrived at the monastery just past noon, leaving enough time to have lunch in the abbey café before our appointment with Dieter. The café is housed in a relatively new building modeled after a sheep barn, complete with a thatched roof. This unusual design pays homage to the early days of the monastery. The café was busy when we arrived, with more than half of the seats at the communal wooden tables already occupied. The clientele was not heavily weighted toward beer geeks and retired people as it was at some of the Trappist cafés I later visited. The angled wooden ceiling and large windows remind me a bit of a countryside cabin. At one point a tall monk in the traditional habit walked into the room to speak to a group of people at the table next to us.
I ordered a bowl of beef stew made with the La Trappe Dubbel, and of course a chalice of the Dubbel to pair with the hearty meal. We ordered a tray of wholegrain bread to snack on while we waited for the main course. The bread, which is made at the monastery, was wonderful and went down quickly. If you visit La Trappe don’t leave without sampling the bread. While you are at it you might as well try the La Trappe cheese, another Trappist staple worth seeking out. When the stew arrived it was equally delicious, tender chunks of beef and vegetables in rich gravy. In fact I’d recommend a visit to La Trappe for the food alone.
The La Trappe Dubbel (7% abv, 22 IBU) is dark brown in color, with deep ruby highlights, and topped with a creamy beige head. The nose features spicy notes from the yeast that mingle with sweet caramel aromas from the malts. The taste is a mixture of toasted bread, caramel, brown sugar, and subtle fruitiness. The fruity esters are not so much the dark raisin/plum flavors that I typically associate with dark Trappist ales, more pears, apples, maybe a hint of banana, all very understated. Despite the apparent sweetness, the finish is dry and the mouthfeel surprisingly light bodied. This is a beer that could be quaffed in quantity, and it pairs beautifully with the beef stew.
Dieter, who is also eating lunch in the café comes over to our table as we are finishing, and soon thereafter we cross a small lane to take a tour of the brewery. The brewery itself itself is rather modern, having gone through a multimillion dollar renovation in the late 1990’s. Stainless steel brewing vessels have replaced the lovely old copper brew kettles, which are still on display. For someone who has been on a lot of brewery tours there’s nothing unique about the facilities or process here, but we do learn a potpourri of interesting factoids about the brewery and its operation:
- In 2017 La Trappe produced just under 100,000 hectoliters, which makes it one of the largest of the Trappist breweries.
- Most of the Trappist breweries take their name from the town where they are located, but Berkel-Enschot doesn’t roll off the tongue as nicely as Orval, Chimay or Westmalle. For much of its history the brewery was known as De Schaapskooi, which means the sheep stable when translated into English. Sensing that was not the ideal name for marketing as the distribution footprint grew, the name was changed to match the name of the abbey, Koningshoeven (the King’s farmhouses). Finally, upon parting ways with Artois the name was changed again to La Trappe, which is taken from the original Trappist monastery in France.
- In an effort to give back to the local community the abbey works with organizations in Tilburg to employ people who have learning difficulties and/or mental disabilities. Profits from the brewery also help to support daughter abbeys in Indonesia and Uganda.
- Sustainability is a central feature of the brewery and the abbey. Solar panels have been installed that power the abbey (they don’t generate enough power to run the brewery, this is after all the Netherlands not Arizona). We also got to see the early stages of a state of the art water recycling system that when completed will allow the brewery to reuse most of the water that would otherwise be discharged into the local water treatment system. The brewery uses malts made from locally grown barley as well.
When I ask Dieter about the relationship between the monastic community and the brewery, he tells me that the brewing is done by lay people these days, only two of the twenty monks are closely involved in brewing operations. Keeping a healthy sized community of monks is a challenge for most of the Trappist monasteries, at their peak the abbey would have been home to more 100 monks, but now the number is just 20. We learn that the size of abbey recently shrunk when two of the younger monks decided to leave monastic life. The majestic neo-gothic chapel that was built back in the 19th century is now only used for special occasions, like Christmas and Easter, when they invite the community to worship with them. It was interesting to learn that all of the employees, including Dieter, spend one day per year in the abbey living the life of a monk. He said it was good experience on an occasional basis, but a life with prayer services throughout the day (starting at 4 am!) is not for everyone.
Walking the grounds of the complex near the abbey is interesting, it hearkens back to the days when abbeys were relatively large self-contained communities. There is a bakery, a fire station, a creamery, and extensive farmlands. The abbey no longer malts its own grain, but the multi-story malt tower is still the dominant feature of the complex.
We finish by going inside the modern bottling facility. Unlike the hushed atmosphere everywhere else at the abbey, here loud music is playing as beer is bottled. Apparently the La Trappe marketing slogan, Taste the Silence, only goes so far. Once packaged most of the beers will be sent to a warm room for conditioning before hitting distribution. La Trappe has a partnership with the large family run Dutch brewery Bavaria for much of their distribution.
While Dieter isn’t available to show everyone around the brewery, public tours followed by a tasting of La Trappe beers are given on most weekdays. Check the La Trappe website for details. My friend Dan Reeve did the tour a few years back, and swears that the regular tour guide is the best guide he’s had on any tour, full stop. In addition to visiting the cafe, you can also buy Trappist goods (including all of their beers) to take away at the Kloosterwinkel shop near the cafe. The hours vary by season, so its best to consult the website for the most up to date information.
I had not initially planned to visit Westmalle, but I couldn’t resist when I realized that with a relatively small detour we could stop by the abbey while in transit from La Trappe to Brussels. Following the GPS we naively drove up to the abbey and found a perfectly suitable parking lot. As it became clear that neither the brewery nor the abbey welcomed visitors I spotted a busy café across the road, so we got back in our rental car and crossed the road to the Café Trappisten.
The ambiance at Café Trappisten might be loosely be described as upscale mid-century diner, something of a cross between a Denny’s and a country club. The median age of the clientele on the day we visited was high enough that I half expected a bingo game to break out at any minute. Westmalle only produces two beers for the public, a 7.0% Dubbel and a 9.5% Tripel, but both are hugely influential examples of their respective styles. The Dubbel is sold in both draft and bottle formats at the cafe, while the Tripel only comes in 330 and 750 mL bottles. To add some variety to the menu, the café also serves a mixture of the two, dubbed the Westmalle Half and Half.
Though I was intrigued by prospect of a Trappist black and tan, how could I order anything other than the Tripel. Westmalle Tripel, first released in the early 1930s, is the ur-Tripel, the prototype from which all other Belgian Tripels are descended. You wouldn’t think that the long voyage across the Atlantic would diminish a beer like this, but I have to say that fresh Westmalle Tripel was a revelation. Outside of Orval it may be the hoppiest of the Trappist beers (39 IBU), and it loses just enough of what makes it special when the hops drop off. Here are my tasting notes.
The brilliant golden hued liquid is served in the traditional Westmalle chalice, topped with two fingers of thick, white, unbelievably creamy head. I don’t find the aroma to be particularly notable, but then again my olfactory system is not what it used to be. If pressed I’d say that alcohol is the most prominent aroma. On tasting, spicy phenolics immediately jump out at you. The exact flavors are hard to pin down, there are elements of clove and black pepper, but the sensation is unique. Unlike many American interpretations the fruity esters are relatively subdued. The underlying malt base adds notes of honey drizzled over freshly baked bread, but the perception is just an illusion because in reality the beer is highly attenuated . At some point the yeast spiciness transitions to spicy, floral hop notes, but the transition is almost imperceptible. The dry finish leaves you with lingering hop bitterness that invites another drink.
If you go to Antwerp, Brussels or just about anywhere in Northeast Belgium chances are you’ll have an opportunity to try a fresh bottle of Westmalle Tripel. You may be tempted to try something more exotic, something you can’t get back home. Resist the urge, you’ll thank me later.
I’ve gone on far too long so I better wrap it up. I will note that there are two more Trappist breweries in the area, Achel and Zundert. Zundert is the youngest Trappist brewery in the region, entering the market in 2013. They make a single beer that I’ve yet to try. The house where Vincent van Gogh grew up is also located in Zundert, giving you at least one excuse to visit. Achel is famous in part for being located right on the border with the Netherlands. I’ve seen their beers in both the UK and the US, and enjoyed them on a few occasions. Brewing operations are manned by just two lay brewers and the abbey community consists of only four monks, the youngest of which is 73, so if Achel is on your bucket list you might want to plan your visit in the near future .
I’ll discuss Orval, Chimay, and Rochefort in the next post, plus throw in a bonus visit to Brasserie Dupont.
 Caroline Wallace, Sarah Wood, Jessica Deahl, Trappist Beer Travels: Inside the Breweries of the Monasteries, Schiffer Publishing, Atglen, PA (2017).
 Stan Hieronymus gives a value of 88% attenuation for Westmalle Tripel in his book Brew Like a Monk (2005). The hops include Tettnang, Saaz, and Styrian Goldings. The malt is entirely pilsner, with a boost of sugar (15% of fermentables).