Where Monks Make Beer

On November 24, 2011 · 9 Comments

It’s Thanksgiving in the United States today so most of the regular 12MC readers won’t be seeing this article. They can hang out with Big Tom the Turkey. We have more important things to talk about.

I did consider taking the day off. Instead I decided to post an article that would likely be more interesting to readers beyond U.S. borders, particularly the several faithful continental Europeans who suffer through an inordinate amount of irrelevant content. This one is for you guys, for I have Big News: Google Street View finally arrived in Belgium.

I love Belgium and I’ve been there multiple times. I’ve had great fun returning to some of my favorite spots vicariously in Street View over the last couple of days. I’ll let all of the other geo-blogs focus on famous places like Grand-Place, Butte du Lion and Manneken Pis (he doesn’t seem to be wearing a costume today). Instead, this development provided me with a wonderful opportunity to feature another Belgian attraction: breweries at monasteries.

Note, this article is more about geography than religion or brewing. Experts on either subject will consider this grossly oversimplified so please bear with me. No slights or insults are intended.

Trappists are Roman Catholic monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, and thus follow the Rule of St. Benedict. They value obedience, self-sufficiency, contemplation and manual labor as part of their monastic vows. There are approximately 170 Trappist monasteries spread throughout the world. Only six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands brew their own beer.

View Trappist Brewing Locations – Monks Making Beer in a larger map

That’s it. Only seven production brewery monasteries are recognized by the International Trappist Association as of the time of this posting. Only they can display the Authentic Trappist Product logo. The rules are strict:

  1. The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.
  2. The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and it should witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life
  3. The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture. The income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Whatever remains is donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need.
  4. Trappist breweries are constantly monitored to assure the irreproachable quality of their beers.

There are plenty of other beverages produced in Belgium and beyond that fancy themselves "Abbey" beers. That can cause some confusion. It simply means that they mimic or are influenced by Trappist styles, but they are not in fact Trappist products. Many of them are still exceptional beers even if their brewers do not follow the strict rules of the International Trappist Association. How many brewers can reasonably be expected to both build a monastery and turn their lives over to the Rule of St. Benedict. Right. So by definition, the number of Trappist breweries will always be limited.

One might find it odd that monks produce alcohol. It goes back in history to a not-too-distant time when people died in droves from water-borne pathogens. Breweries (and distilleries and vineyards) were the water treatment plants of their day. Nasty, harmful germs cannot survive in alcohol. We’ve lost sight of that noble purpose in many parts of the world during an era of safe, reliable tap water. However it’s been ingrained within the culture of many places over hundreds of years, including Belgium. They see no discernible contradiction between monks and alcoholic beverages, and monastic life is about moderation anyway.

La Trappe (Abdij Onze Lieve Vrouw van Koningshoeven)

Grotere kaart weergeven

I mentioned that one of the seven Trappist breweries is located in the Netherlands. Here, the Abdij Onze Lieve Vrouw van Koningshoeven brews under the La Trappe label. I thought I’d get that one out of the way up-front so I could return the focus to Belgium. Let’s note it and move along.

Chimay (Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont)

Grotere kaart weergeven

Chances are, if you’ve tried an authentic Trappist beer it’s probably Chimay. I know that was true for me when I first discovered the joys of Belgian beers twenty-ish years ago. They’ve done a great job of waving the Trappist banner and bringing it to the minds of discerning consumers worldwide. Street View images are available but only from a distance on Rue de la Trappe. That’s a shame because they certainly deserve decent coverage. It’s a conundrum I ran into in other places too. Street View tends to have gaps in rural areas and Trappist monasteries aren’t generally located in the middle of cities.

Achel (Sint Benedictus Abdij – De Achelse Kluis)

Grotere kaart weergeven

Geographically, the most amazing aspect of Sint Benedictus Abdij – De Achelse Kluis is that a small corner of it seems to be in the Netherlands! I do understand that Google can be wrong by several metres especially with international borders so I’ll try not to get too excited. Still, I might be able to add a Trappist monastery to our list of things split by a border. I am going to assume that the physical boundaries of the brewery must fall within Belgium since Achel is considered a Belgian product.

Orval (Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval)

Grotere kaart weergeven

If not Chimay, then Orval is probably the Trappist beverage most commonly consumed by budding beer aficionados. Street View does a fantastic job of recording the Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval, both its monastic buildings and its production facilities.

Rochefort (L’abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy à Rochefort)

Grotere kaart weergeven

Street View also provides great coverage of L’abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy à Rochefort. This monastery looks quite tranquil and beautiful.

Westmalle (Abdij der Trappisten van Westmalle)

Grotere kaart weergeven

However, it falls a bit short on Abdij der Trappisten van Westmalle, only getting as close as a long driveway which isn’t very exciting. The town of Westmalle, I noticed, is west of the town of Malle, thus bringing to mind that perhaps West is a cognate. I dropped "malle" into a translator and it returned "silly." as the value. West Silly beer? That can’t be right.

Westvleteren (De Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren)

Grotere kaart weergeven

De Sint-Sixtusabdij van Westvleteren does not have Street View images available. That obscurity feels appropriate given the rarity of Westvleteren beers. It is barely available commercially, primarily at the abbey’s visitors center. It must be ordered ahead of time by telephone, with individual purchases strictly limited, and with only one style available at a time (and sometimes none!). Occasionally it becomes available through other channels including the black/grey market, with its lack of availability creating a mystique and resulting outrageous price markups in serious Beer Geek circles. It’s like a high-class Smokey and the Bandit. There’s nothing like telling someone they can’t have a product to create a demand. That says more about us than the monks.

I hope you enjoyed this romp through the Belgian countryside. I think I’ll have a beer — Gueuze goes great with Turkey.


On November 24, 2011 · 9 Comments

9 Responses to “Where Monks Make Beer”

  1. Greg says:

    I love this! The first place I looked in Belgium when I noticed the new coverage (besides Baarle) was Westvleteren. The local supermarket chain here carries every Belgian Trappist beer, except Westvleteren of course, and Chimay Red has become my go-to beer if my first choice (sour ales, especially Petrus Grand Reserve) isn’t available. I’ve never tried gueuze though.

  2. Calgully says:

    Ah – at last – Street view comes to Belgium.

    Now its possibe to vicariously roam the streets of Baarle-Hertog (BE) / Baarle-Nassau (NL) viewing the magnificently complex phalanx of enclaves/exclaves unencumbered by the absence of street-view in Belgium.

    Ironically, wonderful though this newfound google street view imagery is, it is the end of possibly one of the most tangible remaining effects of the actual border itself. Now, with the Schengen agreement trans-border movements are almost trivial – you wouldn’t know you’ve entered another country. It had been remnant legal differences such as this absence of google street view in one country that had been a tangible effect of the border even to on line journeyers on the other side of the globe. But no more – border walls keep being torn down even in cyberspace and the borders have less significance each day.

  3. Looks like you’re stepping into my domain, Howder…. ;->

    Gorgeous monastery/breweries of course, and world-class beer. I really hope to make it to Belgium sometime to check out the beer scene personally. If you haven’t visited the Rochefort website it’s definitely worth it to do so — images, graphics, and web design that would have felt right at home in 1995 but a passion for their work and their product that shines through every HTML table.

  4. Guy says:

    Just opened my last bottle of Westmalle Tripel after reading your post–and enjoying it! Thanks a lot for this rare post about my country.

    I thought I’d give you some information about Malle, since you are wondering what the name means. Malle is a municipality consisting of the villages of Westmalle and Oostmalle (literally “West Malle” and “East Malle”). Before 1977 both villages were municipalities in their own right but on 1 January of that year they were united and took the name Westmalle. Two years later (30 June 1979) the name was changed in Malle.

    I had a look at the municipal website: linguists do not agree on the origin of the name. The most plausible explanation is that it is derived from Latin “Mallum”, meaning “Maal mountain”. “Mallum” apparently denotes a place where the Frankish people held their meetings and courts of justice. Others maintain Malle originally means a large open plain, a border or a stop. The municipal website has some info in English on http://www.malle.be/EN/History/tabid/2532/Default.aspx.

    I’ve been a regular follower of your blog and will continue doing that in the future. Cheers!

    • Guy says:

      Here’s some extra info:

      I found the etymology of Malle a bit confusing: on the one hand there is an explanation which links it to a mountain, while another links it to a plain. I consulted a topographical atlas and I could not detect a significant heightening of the landscape in the area. Everything seems to be at 25 to 30 meters above sea level. But then again, in a flat country like Flanders every gentle slope is considered a “mountain”, so it’s not that strange.

      The word “mal” (or its declension “malle”) does mean “silly” in English, but it has another etymology than the municipality. “Mal/malle” supposedly has connections with Old English “ameallian” (become limp), latin “mollis” (weak), greek “meleos” (in vain, unhappy) and Middle Irish “mellaim” (cheat).

      Incidentally, there is a village called Silly in Belgium, and it even has a brewery! So you weren’t that far from the truth about the “silly beer” (see http://www.silly-beer.com/historique_en.htm)

      Grotere kaart weergeven

  5. Scott says:

    Belgium’s Street View arrived just in time for tonight’s Amazing Race episode, which had the contestants driving from Brussels to Lommel to Ghent to Geraardsbergen to Beersel and back to Brussels. Very interesting to follow along as they drive (and get lost?) on the roads.

  6. Jasper says:

    From the Dutch Wiki about Malle: http://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malle

    Omtrent de oorsprong van het woord “Malle” raken taalkundigen het niet eens: een uitgestrekte vlakte, grens of halte enerzijds, meer waarschijnlijk, anderzijds, afgeleid van het Latijnse woord “Mallum”, wat “Maalberg” betekent, een plaats waar de Franken hun rechtspraak hielden.

    Linguistic scientists do not agree on the origin of the word Malle: a wide plain, border or stop (halt) on the one hand, but more likely, it’s derived from the Latin “Mallum”, which means Maal Mountain, a place where Francs spoke law.

    Mal is indeed Dutch for silly, but especially Flanders has a lot of names that come from old Dutch or earlier Germanic languages. Think Shakespearean English and older. And remember, English is with Dutch and German a West Germanic language, the Scandinavian languages being the Northern Germanic languages. Few English-speakers do not realize that Dutch is the closest language to English (ignoring Frisian as a local language).

  7. khgan says:

    De Achelse Kluis is indeed partly in The Netherlands. The monastery was founded or re-founded on lands belonging to the Baron of Heeze (in the Netherlands). Before 1990 the monastery also had agricultural fields in The Netherlands. During the First World War the Germans ran an electrified fence through the monastery, to separate occupied Belgium from the neutral Netherlands. You can see a photograph here: http://www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/elektrischen-draad/images/03-dodendraad-Achelse-Kluis.jpg . The Netherlands is on the left (where the Dutch flag flies). Nowadays the border is marked like this: http://www.wereldoorlog1418.nl/elektrischen-draad/images/05-grens-Achelse-Kluis.jpg

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