For Some Heavenly Brews, Explore the Abbey Road
"Bless this creature, Beer. . . . Grant that whoever drinks it, with Thanksgiving to Your Holy Name, may find it a help in body and soul; through Christ Our Lord, Amen."
That invocation, from a Catholic prayer book titled "The Roman Ritual," pays tribute to a tradition of monastic brewing that stretches back more than 1,000 years. In an age when drinking water was suspect because of bacterial contamination, monks sustained themselves by brewing a thick, nutritious beer, which proved especially useful during the long Lenten fasts. As early as the 800s, the Abbey of St. Gallen near present-day Zurich had three brewhouses turning out beer not just for the monks but also for thousands of thirsty visitors.
Today, six Trappist monasteries in Belgium and one in the Netherlands carry on this tradition. Except for the strictly cloistered Abbey of St. Sixtus in Westvleteren, Belgium, they all export to the United States. The profits from brewing support the upkeep of the monasteries and the order's charitable works.
The Abbey of Our Lady of Scourmont in Forges, Belgium, which makes more than 100,000 barrels of its Chimay brands each year, is perhaps the best known internationally. But the Abbey of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in Westmalle, Belgium, gives us the clearest delineation of abbey styles. Westmalle produces a lighter, lower-alcohol beer called a "single," for the monks' consumption; a dark, stronger ale called a "double," full of fruit and chocolate flavors; and a pale, even stronger ale called a "triple," with a drier, herbal-spicy profile.
In 1992 La Trappe brewery (also called Schaapskooi: literally, "sheep's pen") in Koningshoeven, the Netherlands, introduced its La Trappe Quadrupel, a still more potent abbey ale (at 10 percent alcohol by volume, twice as strong as a Bud).
Many American craft breweries produce their own versions of doubles and triples and even quadruples, but they may not refer to them as Trappist ales. The International Trappist Association employs lawyers who zealously defend the order's trademark.
Not all Trappist beers can be neatly pigeonholed. The Abbey of Our Lady of Orval near Florenville, Belgium, produces a single label called Orval. Unlike other Trappist beers, which tend to be full-bodied and sweet from the use of sugar in the brew kettle, Orval is quite dry. The brewery adds whole-flower hops during the fermentation process (a practice called "dry-hopping"), giving the beer a fresh hop character unusual for Belgian beers. Orval undergoes multiple fermentations with both standard brewer's yeast and a wild strain called Brettanomyces, which contributes a refreshing tartness and an earthy characteristic sometimes described as "horse blanket."
Central Europe has about a dozen monastery breweries, most run by the Benedictine order and clustered in heavily Catholic Bavaria. They make styles identical to those of secular breweries in that area. Of particular note is Curator, from the Klosterbrauerei Ettal in southern Bavaria, imported by B. United International. The "-ator" suffix marks this as a "doppelbock," an extra strong German-style lager. Curator is mahogany colored, with a great depth of flavor: a mild roastiness backed by bittersweet chocolate, licorice and hints of orange. At 9 percent alcohol by volume, the export version is slightly stronger than the beer brewed for the German market.
The United States has its own tradition of monastic brewing. During the second half of the 19th century, the Benedictine monks of the St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pa., brewed a beer for local consumption. About a century after that operation ceased, two New Mexico monasteries -- the Christ in the Desert Monastery and the Pecos Benedictine Monastery -- have partnered to release a beer call Monks' Ale. The brand is sold only in New Mexico, but a few cases found their way to Washington's Brickskeller restaurant for a recent Smithsonian seminar I helped organize, hosted by British beer writer Roger Protz, author of "Heavenly Beer" (Carroll & Brown, 2002). The auburn-colored ale has a caramel-fruit flavor and a lighter alcohol content than the Trappist beers.
"Made with care and prayer" is the motto of Monks' Ale, but it could apply to any of these lovingly crafted, flavorful brews.
Greg Kitsock's Beer column appears every other week. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.