Beer was originally a rather cheap meal, considered a kind of liquid bread suitable for both monks and laymen.
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The Trappist order is officially known as the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (Ordo Cisterciensis Strictioris Observantiae, abbreviated as OCSO), but was originally named the Order of Reformed Cistercians of Our Lady of La Trappe.
It is a Catholic religious order of cloistered, contemplative monks and nuns that branched off from the Cistercian Order —which, in turn, branched off from the Benedictines. They take their name from La Trappe Abbey (also known as La Grande Trappe), the French monastery where the reform movement began, led by commendatory abbot Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé back in 1664.
Reacting against what he considered to be a relaxation of monastic practices and traditions in many Cistercian monasteries, de Rancé (who was not yet a monk, but still a layman then) introduced an austere reform that prescribed hard manual labor, silence, a rather meager diet, contemplative solitude, and a strict focus on studies. Even if the hard labor component of monastic life was considered to be a penitential exercise, it was mostly (in strict accordance to the Benedictine Rule) a matter of keeping the monastery as economically independent and autonomous as possible —as Benedict intended.
Trappist monasteries, then, began to brew beer in order to support themselves. The movement quickly spread to many other Cistercian monasteries, which enthusiastically embraced de Rancé’s reforms. These monasteries called themselves “Trappist” in reference to La Trappe, the source and origin of their reforms. The name, it was only natural, also applied to the beer they produced.
Now monastic brewhouses have existed across Europe at least since the 5th century. That is, they are far from being a Trappist invention — but they are still a (mostly) Benedictine tradition. In his Regula (that is, the Rule of St. Benedict) Benedict clearly states that monks should earn their own keep and donate to the poor by the work of their own hands. Following the Rule, monasteries have always produced a diversity of different goods.
Beer was originally a rather cheap meal, considered a kind of liquid bread suitable for both monks and laymen, and part of the daily diet of both children and adults, alongside cabbage, onions, legumes, and bread. It was way cheaper and healthier than water and milk, which were often polluted and the means of transmission of many different infectious diseases. The brewing process eliminated all bacteria, making beer a safer alternative. Wine was too expensive to produce in northern European countries (that was obviously not the case in the Mediterranean) and tea, coffee, and chocolate had not yet been introduced in Europe.
In fact, rather light beers were produced to feed children in monastic orphanages. They would be provided with a pint a day, mostly made out of oatmeal or other heavy cereals, in order to feed them properly while keeping their room and board costs at a reasonable level. Also, it was discovered that beer prevented and cured certain infantile illnesses because of its antibiotic properties. For all these reasons, monasteries produced it regularly and abundantly.
Not surprisingly, by the High Middle Ages (1000-1200) beer brewing had already become a kind of art and, thus, a relatively profitable source of income. Soon enough, monks were not the only master brewers around, and beer production eventually fell under the control of secular businessmen and authorities, nobility included.
Following the Strict Observance of the Rule, French Cistercian monasteries brewed beer from the very beginning — that is, since 1664. The great monastery of La Trappe in Soligny already had its own brewery as early as in 1685, only 40 years after de Rancé’s reforms. As the Trappist order spread from France into the rest of Europe, their breweries did too, originally producing beer to feed the community (again, in the Benedictine spirit of autonomy and self-sufficiency) but also to fund their many charitable causes, and to aid their neighboring villages.
Even though many of these monasteries and breweries were destroyed, first during the French Revolution and then during the World Wars, the Trappists keep an impressive number of 176 active monasteries around the world. Of those, only a few have the license granted by the International Trappist Association to brew beer. A small hexagon printed on the label of the bottle certifies the beer has been brewed by monks, strictly following the monastic rules of beer brewing, and that the revenue will be invested in the monastery, the community surrounding it, and the charities associated with the Trappist Order. Six of these brewing monasteries are in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and the other three in Italy, Austria, and the United States. Most of these Trappist beers are of the “Belgian” type: highly fermented and non-filtered, even though the American monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts, produces a much lighter beer (think of it as a “lunch” beer, to pair with your main course) and the Italian Abbey at Tre Fontane brews a beer with a distinctive eucalyptus aroma.
It should be clear, then, that Trappist beer is not a kind of beer. The name refers instead (and exclusively applies) to beers brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision. Take Chimay, for example. It is, perhaps, the best-known of all Trappist beers. Their brewery at Scourmont Abbey (in Belgium) produces four different kinds of ale: Chimay Rouge (a 7% ABV dark brown dubbel), Chimay Bleue (a 9% ABV darker ale), Chimay Blanche (an 8% ABV golden triple), and Chimay 150 (a 10% ABV blonde ale). They also produce their own patersbier (an especially light beer) for the monks’ own consumption. The monastery also makes four varieties of cheese, that are often paired with their four main beers.
A final, related note: Chapter VIII of the Rituale Romanum, a liturgical manual dated 1614, includes special blessings for almost anything you might use on a daily basis: cheese, butter, seeds, salt, oats, animals, fishing boats, or tools used by mountain climbers. The chapter is titled “Blessings of things designated for ordinary use.”Included in the Rituale Romanum by Pope Paul V, the blessing of the beer goes as follows:
P. Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.
A. Qui fecit caelum et terram.
P. Dominus vobiscum.
A. Et cum spiritu tuo.
Benedic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisiae, quam ex adipe frumenti producere dignatus es: ut sit remedium salutare humano generi, et praesta per invocationem nominis tui sancti; ut, quicumque ex ea biberint, sanitatem corpus et animae tutelam percipiant. Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.
Properly translated into English, it would say something like this:
P. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
A. Who made heaven and earth.
P. The Lord be with you.
A. May He also be with you.
Let us pray.
Lord, bless + this creature, beer, which by your kindness and power has been produced from kernels of grain, and let it be a healthful drink for mankind. Grant that whoever drinks it with thanksgiving to your holy name may find it a help in body and in soul; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
View the slideshow below to discover some of the very few beers thatare indeed licensed as Trappists by the International Trappist Association.