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Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How Breweries Serve Monks

The Sainte Marie du Mont des Cats abbey in France has played an interesting role in the history of brewing. In 1831, monks from Mont des Cats (which my mind really wants to translate "mountain of cats"--it's not) joined a hermit and founded Sint Sixtus in Wesvleteren. Fifty years later, fearing repression from the French government, the abbot sent an envoy to scout a possible location to land should they have to pack up and flee quickly. That monk located a sheep barn in Koningshoeven in the Netherlands that somehow struck his eye as ecclesiastical.

Add another six score and ten and look at those two monasteries and how they relate to brewing. In the case of La Trappe (Koningshoeven), the brewery is operated by a secular brewery (Bavarian, a Dutch company despite the name) inside the walls and is regularly derided (I think unfairly) as the most commercial Trappist. They were even booted from the club for awhile. On the other hand, at Westvleteren, the monks seem to do everything they can to inhibit sales. Customers have to go to the monastery but they are limited in the amount they can buy. Although the demand outstrips production by probably ten to one, the Westvleteren monks will not step up production.

In both cases, the monks subscribe to the same religion, the same order, and the same, strict, sub-order. They are monks, which means that even within the Church they have a particular orientation toward religious practice. And yet they have chosen nearly opposed models for the way the breweries will serve their missions. I realize I've wandered from beer here--it's the old religious studies major in me--but I find this fascinating. Trappist monks are a severe lot--they have chosen to remove themselves from society in order to focus on their relationship to God. Their order demands strict adherence to rules that are nearly 1500 years old and enforce the circumstances to support and protect this mission. Beer, on the other hand, is the most worldly of beverages. It's a social drink, a drink of the masses, a drink more than any other of the world. The reasons it made sense to brew in 850 AD are not so relevant now. (They don't grow their own barley, malt it, or need beer as a safe alternative to deadly water.) Yet here they are, brewing beer.

Monks are seriously on the decline. Twenty-somethings aren't signing up, and these famous monasteries house just a handful of monks. I wonder what the future holds, and how, if the monks fail to replenish their ranks, we may lose Trappist beer altogether. Anyway--

Update. Reviewing my notes for Orval, I was reminded of their system, which is slightly different than either Westvleteren or La Trappe. At the outset, the monks set up a private company to operate the brewery, but all the shares were held by the monks themselves. Indeed, the purpose was to help fund the construction of the monastery. They built the brewery within the monastery's walls, but they've never worked in the brewery (though they oversee all aspects of the business). The brewery is enormously profitable for them. They can take 45% of what they earn and wholly support maintenance of the abbey--the other 55% goes to support charitable organizations. The first brewer was a German, the second a Belgian with experience brewing in England, and the result is a dry-hopped mixed-fermentation beer of singular design.


  1. No surprise that the younger generation is no longer sucked in by the religious hocus-pocus-dominocus.

    But if they would just base their religion on brewing good beer, then, oh yeah, hallelujah, sign me up!

  2. This might be a stupid question... but here goes! Do the monks drink the beer? Or do they just brew it and sell it to earn funds to maintain their monkery (is that a word?!?!)?

  3. @jessibeaucoup, yes, they drink it. Some abbeys have a lighter, less alcoholic versions of the beers for the internal consumption (Petite Orval or Chimay Dorée) called patersbier.

    I don't find any evidence about the stated origin of Westvleteren and Koningshoeven monks, as coming from Sainte Marie du Mont des Cats... Any reference???

  4. Jessi, Antonio's right so far as the reports go. I personally never laid eyes on a monk enjoying a beer.

    Antonio, the websites detail the history, though on Westvleteren, they say "Catsberg" monastery. Stan Hieronymus confirms this is Mont des Cats in Brew Like a Monk.

  5. Are the monks actually the brewers? Or do they hire brewers to brew in a brewery at the monastery?

  6. Tracy, see my update. The short answer is: it varies. At Achel and Westvleteren, it's activity of the monks. Some monks are involved at Rochefort, while monks are not involved (and never have been) at Orval.