This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by a Guest Hop Reviewer.
Trappist Beer Travels: An Exclusive Look Into All 11 Trappist Breweries
INTERVIEWED JULY 10, 2017 BY KASIA PATEL
AT PUBLICAN ANKER – WICKER PARK, CHICAGO, IL
Westvleteren. Rochefort. Tre Fontane. The awe and mythical adoration surrounding these and other Trappist beers by many is understandable in the context of their limited distribution and often hefty price tag when they do happen to show up on this side of the pond. Couple that with monastery breweries that rarely–if ever–open their doors to the public, together with a rich, religious history and centuries-old-recipes, and you have yourself a legendary and highly sought-after set of brews.
Although the number of monks at Trappist monasteries may have dwindled in modern times, a number of newly-certified Trappist breweries have been recognized over the past few years, bringing the current total to 11, ten of which are in Europe and one in North America. The last comprehensive guide to Trappist breweries published in English featured just seven locations, and with the addition of Tre Fontane in 2015, three Austin-based beer lovers felt it was high time for an update.
The Hop Review caught up with the authors of Trappist Beer Travels: Inside the Breweries of the Monasteries–Caroline Wallace, Jessica Deahl and Sarah Wood–for a closer look at their exclusive journey behind the usually-closed doors of the world’s Trappist breweries.
Congratulations on getting published. How has the book tour been going?
Caroline Wallace: It’s been awesome. We’ve met so many nice people. Jessica’s lived here [in Chicago] for a year and a half now and Sarah and I are in Austin, still. So we didn’t know many people here but we’ve met a ton of great people.
Jessica Deahl: I lived in Austin when we wrote the book and I moved right after that, so I’m slowly breaking in and meeting new people here, but it’s kind of nice to meet strangers who have just shown up for the book. The turnout’s been pretty good.
And how do you three know each other?
Sarah Wood: Caroline and I were two co-founders of a blog called Bitch Beer. It was an Austin-based, all-women run craft beer blog that expanded out over the years to include other cities. Through that we worked on our first book together which was a history of Austin beer. We met Jessica shortly thereafter. She had moved from California to Austin. She was also interested in craft beer–she had a very interesting perspective as she was vegan at the time, so she was going to vegan beer festivals and things like that. And she’s wonderful.
Jessica: It was kind of an immediate both-direction-girl-crush going on and I was happy that they let me join the club.
What are your backgrounds, prior to beer book writing?
Caroline: I did journalism in college and now I work in the beer industry. I work for the Texas Craft Brewers Guild, Sarah works in the tech industry and Jessica’s a designer but she’s done branding for breweries so there’s kind of crossover there.
Jessica: I try and marry art and beer as much as I can in my life.
Caroline: I try to marry beer and anything! So we came up with the idea for this book in 2014, after our first book had been out for a year or so.
How did the idea to tackle this topic come about?
Sarah: We were having beers together one afternoon–we’d traveled together for beer before like working at beer festivals–and we talked about the idea of taking a trip to Europe. Naturally any trip we take is going to be about beer. So we were talking about breweries that we wanted to visit and that segued into wanting to visit Trappist breweries. And we thought, “Man, we need to visit them all… Should we? And could we write a book about it?” And we took that crazy idea and…
Caroline: We thought we could and we should!
And how long did that take?
Caroline: The trip itself was a little under a month but it took 18 days that we were visiting specifically Trappist breweries. And then we did a few beer nerd bucket list visits like Cantillon and to Germany and Copenhagen. But it was about 18 days from monastery to monastery.
What was the biggest challenge? I mean that’s not a lot of time to get from brewery to brewery…
Sarah: It wasn’t!
Caroline: We rented a car in Berlin and used that primarily to get around.
Jessica: Caroline handled a lot of back and forth emails with very particular monk schedules, so we didn’t do a very logical linear trip. We kind of bounced all over just based on when they were available.
Caroline: We did have all the interviews worked out in advance which was good as we started emailing monasteries after we got the book deal.
What’s that like, emailing with monks?
Caroline: Very strange and very interesting just to not know what language the person on the other end is going to be speaking. We’d start with very general ‘[email protected]’ type addresses and eventually got connected with the right people. What really changed the game for us in terms of getting the kind of access we needed for this book was getting hooked up with the International Trappist Association. Once we told them about the project and why we were interested–and how seriously we were taking it–and what our angle was, then they kind of put us in touch with individual monasteries. From there came correspondence and approvals.
Is there a bit of protectiveness there? And was it hard to tackle all this at once–had somebody done this before?
Caroline: Michael Jackson wrote about it in the 90s. And Stan Hieronymus, an American beer writer, wrote a book about 11 years ago called Brew Like A Monk. And there’s been a book or two in Dutch.
We don’t know of many people who have visited all of them, particularly now there are 11. When the other two English books were written there were only seven. That was a big thing for us, too. These are some monasteries where part of their culture and part of their history they’ve been brewing for hundreds of years–and all of a sudden there are four new ones over the last five years that began brewing. So we’ve seen this uptick and we wanted to expose people to their stories too.
Sarah: It compares to the increase in craft beer production in America a little bit on a very small scale that there are now people who are becoming inspired and seeing successes in other monasteries and saying, “We should do this here.” I think there’s a story there that the American audience can appreciate.
Caroline: That was big thing for so many people, especially people who started getting into craft beer in the 90s. For them, Chimay might have been the first interesting import or craft beer they tried and now that we have over 5,000 craft breweries in America. These are beers that are so widely revered that they sometimes might get overlooked or forgotten about a little bit–because people are often in the search for what the next craft beer trend is. This book is about taking that back.
I think there’s still a bit of mystique for the average craft beer drinker about what Trappist beer really means–I know when I first started drinking craft beer I had no idea what that meant.
Caroline: Yeah. A lot of these beers are very revered or very well known. There’s Chimay and Westmalle that are ubiquitous. And then there’s beers like Westvleteran that are really highly sought after and have lore around them. But the commonality with all of them is the lives of the people that brew the beer, and how that brewery ties into their tradition of the monastery. It’s their way of life and we kind of hoped to glean that a bit.
Was it difficult gaining access?
Caroline: Only one of the 11 does public tours: Le Trappe. So we definitely got access that the average person wouldn’t get. Another thing we wanted to do with the book was take a ton of photos–there are 200 photos in the book. And Jessica is an illustrator, so she illustrated the brewery for every chapter. We tried to give people a glimpse into what they wouldn’t be able to see themselves, but we also wanted to include these travel tips so you know what you can see–whether it’s the shop or it’s the tasting room.
How much time were you spending at each abbey?
Caroline: Usually one long day at each, but we spent two nights at Rochefort in the guesthouse overnight. We stayed in the hotel at Chimay overnight, so we spent a little longer time at some. And of course, the process of coming back each day was transcribing every interview’s audio and doing a lot of supplemental research from different books and pamphlets and pieces of information we would grab while we were there.
Orval was the first visit, correct?
Jessica: Yes, the book is written in order of our visit.
Caroline: And we lucked out that we did it first based on schedule, but it actually ended up being great because there we met with not just the director of the brewery but Brother Xavier, who is the chairman of the board of the International Trappist Association and Orval. He was able to get us a lot of background, not just on Orval, but on the importance of the International Trappist Association and base history of the order which gave us a lot of context. The story kind of just built naturally from there.
Jessica: And it was such an inspiring and amazing place.
What were some things that maybe didn’t go quite as planned on the trip?
Sarah: Bee stings and robberies you mean!? I got four speeding tickets, but we made it on time! That was in Germany. We weren’t pulled over by police four times–we found out later because they were speed cameras. I think if I had been pulled over by the German police once that would have been it for me. We didn’t miss any of our interviews though which was great. We lost multiple cardigans and…pants.
You lost your pants on a monastery tour??
Jessica: That sounds seedy! No! Just misplaced clothes while traveling on the go is all.
Bee stings and robberies…?
Sarah: Yes, that was at a monastery in the Netherlands [La Trappe]. And we did have some luggage stolen in Rome…
Jessica: That included a lot of beer.
Sarah: We were in the monastery conducting our interview [at Tre Fontane] over their closed period in the afternoon. So security wasn’t around–no one was around–but we were in the middle of Rome!
Jessica: It was really beautiful at the time, middle of the day. But we came out and it was a shock.
Caroline: But the monastery helped us translate our situation to the police. Sergio our translator went to the police station with us, and he was so sad. They were devastated that this happened. We had just spent literally hours talking about what a special place it was–and it is!
Jessica: We didn’t want to write about that though because that doesn’t honor their monastery.
Sarah: Aaaannnd then we’d have to talk about how we all ugly cried.
You lost your computers though! Did you have all your work saved somewhere?
Sarah: Oh yeah. We didn’t lose any information, it was just money.
Caroline: We bought a ton of beer, as you can imagine, and the beer was stolen.
Jessica: I think they were probably bummed when they opened it though, like, “What’s this weird sour beer…? Can-till-yon?” Well I’m sure the Italians know how to pronounce Cantillion but I like to imagine differently in this situation.
We were in Belgium two years ago and we walked into a store that had five cases of Westy 12 and I’d never seen it sold before. My knowledge of it was that you could only get it at the monastery, is that not the case?
Jessica: Yeah getting any beer not at the monastery is kind of like grey market.
Caroline: It’s in a lot of those touristy beer shops, so I’m sure people go there and don’t even realize that any beer that’s not at the monastery is kind of like grey market. It’s someone that’s reselling it in their shop. I wouldn’t blame you at all because you’re going there and you don’t know if you’ll be able to get any at the monastery. And even though it’s crazy marked up it’s still like the best beer in the world.
Sarah: It’s easy for everyone to think about it as a victimless situation. Everybody gets what they want, but it takes away from the specialness of going to the monastery and getting the beer there. And it just takes it a little bit away from their audience.
And at such a marked-up price. Because the monks sell it–not for profit–but to simply fund their monastery, right?
Caroline: Exactly. It’s stuff like this that reinforces it, but I was in Germany last fall and there was a woman on the beer trip… We were at a place and there were a lot of empty beer bottles on display and she goes, “That’s Westvleteren 12, the most expensive beer in the world!” And I had to jump in and tell her it’s known as the best beer in the world by some publications, but it’s not the most expensive beer in the world by any stretch! Only because it’s turned up on Ebay for insane prices.
For people who live near any of these abbeys, is that just considered ‘the local beer’? Do they understand the world-wide appreciation some of these beers have?
Caroline: It’s a mix. But a lot of these places, particularly in Belgium and the Netherlands, are really popular with cyclists. The cafes are also in really rural areas, so for a lot of them they might be the only restaurant in town. You get a mix of people. Some you see, they’re wearing a 3 Floyds shirt, so you know they’re a beer nerd. But then you also see an older couple speaking in Dutch in the corner, so they’re likely locals.
Sarah: In general in Europe, because there are so many more monasteries, I think there’s a lot more familiarity and less novelty–not just about beer but about any of the great handmade products that monasteries are typically known for making by monks or nuns. It seems to be common knowledge that if you want good bread or if you want good beer or cheese, that they are made at monasteries.
What image did you have in your head of what it would be like heading into these religious institutions, that happen to make beer? Did it line up with your preconceptions?
Jessica: It did in some ways, but it didn’t in other ways. I think a lot of the general mysteries that are shrouding them, like that they take vows of silence or that they only speak when it’s really important–we had no idea. We didn’t have much familiarity meeting monks. We had a lot of speculation about what they’d be like. They’re all sort of wildly different.
Caroline: I think one thing that surprised us the most was that we knew their brewing practices were pretty modern at least at the larger ones before we went in. Obviously we knew that Chimay is very automated to distribute that quantity of beer around the world, but I don’t think we quite anticipated just how modern all of the operations at the abbeys would be for the most part. Multiple monks that we met with had cell phones, you know they would get a call during the interview–one of the monks that we spoke to at Le Trappe had a branded Le Trappe iPhone case! So in that way a lot of these things were a surprise to us.
Monks are just like us…
Caroline: What’s interesting with that is that it’s obvious but it’s not obvious that they’re all human beings and they all have different backgrounds and different interests. We met a structural engineer who is a monk and he helped with renovations at the abbey, or a professional musician who’s a monk and now they play services or an artist who has paintings in the abbey churches. Even though the collective spirit in the churches is very important people still have their individual identities and they have an outlet for that at the abbeys.
Sarah: They were also largely hilarious. Some of them really knew how to crack a joke! I’m sure we also struck them as fairly–I wouldn’t say nervous–but respectful and we were trying to learn as much and take away as much away from the meetings as we could and I think our vulnerability in that sense was comforting to them as well.
Do monks gravitate to one monastery over another because of their interest in brewing?
Caroline: We didn’t hear as much about that in particular–and we were curious about that–we would hear that people would go to abbeys because they liked the culture of the abbey. For instance, at Le Trappe they have a lot of younger monks. Some monasteries have eight to 12 monks and they’re all in their 70s. If you’re a 35-year-old guy and you want to become a monk, you’d maybe lean toward joining with others who are on the same journey as you, and doing the same amount of work as you because of where you are in terms of physical fitness–that attracts younger monks perhaps.
Sarah: Some monasteries have more younger monks with ‘modern skills’. Le Trappe has a webmaster e-monk running their e-commerce program.
Of course the labor of each abbey isn’t entirely driving the monks’ decision…
Sarah: There’s also a deeper spiritual connection with the community that they choose. At Westvleteran they showed us the cemetery where all the brothers are laid to rest when they die. They have these beautiful black stones which are laid flat to represent their humbleness even in death. And all of those stones are carved from the same mother stone because even in death they’re one community. It’s dark and sad but really beautiful.
There’s tragic history at almost every single monastery–either where half of the community was displaced because of war or fires. They had to move, and even today the brothers that didn’t experience that seem to carry a sadness about it.
Caroline: For instance, Father Isaac at Spencer told us that at Westvleteren the monks that founded Spencer came from Saint-Sixtus Abbey Westvleteren, but they moved to two different places before they eventually landed in Massachusetts. This is something that happened 100 years before he was born and he got emotional talking about it. And when he met the monks at Westvleteren, they said, “Welcome home” or something to that effect.
And Spencer was your final visit on the Trappist tour, yes?
Caroline: Spencer was our last stop, our American brewery, and it really made me appreciate the nuances in communication you can have with someone in the same language as you. Again, most of the monks were hilarious but it was nice when Father Isaac would tell us something that was a very interesting or juicy part of the history he would do this thing where he would say “Ohhh, okay…” and prepare how he was going to say it and you kind of miss that with the interpreters, as great as they were. Our interpreters would be like [deadpan] “Said with sarcasm.” Or they’d laugh and then tell it to us very straight.
Caroline: Spencer is technically like a daughter house of Saint-Sixtus Westvleteren but when those monks came to North America, they were first in Nova Scotia, then in Rhode Island and then a fire moved them outside of Boston in the 1950s. So there’s been this long journey from the time they actually had their roots in Belgium. And you see that with a lot of monasteries–you could almost weave a web of where the monks came from.
Yeah, people probably wonder why there is a Trappist brewery outside of Boston.
Caroline: There are several Trappist abbeys in North America. If you’re familiar with the Sierra Nevada beer Ovila, that’s from an abbey called New Clairvaux in Northern California. They don’t make beer or anything but they were in the process of rebuilding their church that came from their mother abbey in Europe a generation before. And they wanted to get these stones and bring them over to California, so that’s when Sierra Nevada partnered with them and made Ovila, with proceeds going back to that abbey. There are abbeys that grow mushrooms and there’s a Trappist monastery in Louisiana that makes coffins I believe.
Sarah: There’s one in Kentucky that makes fruitcakes and they have a Bourbon barrel-aged soaked fruitcake…
Caroline: So even though there are far less here they still have history. When people think of Spencer and they hear they’ve only been brewing for a handful of years they think it’s this really modern thing, but they’ve been there at their abbey since the 1950s. And that’s the one in Boston, they were in Rhode Island and Nova Scotia far before that. So they are just as old and storied as some of the others, they just happen to be in America.
In Spencer’s case they had an economist come in or a consultant that looked at their jelly and jam business and took a look at the monastery and how many people are living there and the building repairs and what these kind of things are going to cost eventually and told them that, “You’re doing fine now but that these businesses aren’t going to sustain you in the future.” And so they looked at what they could do for a new source of income and they looked to other breweries and monasteries that have been successful with breweries and that’s when they thought they could put a brewery there.
All of the Trappist breweries currently brewing are monk-run. With four new Trappist breweries coming into effect over the last few years, can we expect to see any nuns brewing any beer?
Sarah: We would love that!
Caroline: There are no–they call them Trappestines–brewing beer currently but there’s a nun named Sister Doris, she’s a Franciscan nun in Germany and she makes beer. So it does happen around the world and I think there are traditions that go back and there are some nuns making wines and spirits at different abbeys so, you know, they’re distilling but they’re not brewing.
Sarah: Orval has a female Brewmaster. She’s not a nun but she’s a secular Brewmaster and she’s the first female Brewmaster they’ve ever had.
Being ladies in beer do you have to prove yourself that little bit more sometimes? That’s where the original blog came from, right? To prove that any beer can be a “Bitch Beer”?
Sarah: I’m sure there’ve been plenty haters out there but I think what really drew us in is as we were learning more about craft beer we’d go to breweries and we’d be the only group of women in there. We wanted to build a community that we wanted to be a part of in craft beer and that is a more inclusive community. I think as we began writing for the blog in particular we branched out not only to just women but to young people and just not your 35-year old white dude.
And I mean those guys are our friends and I don’t want them to not be there! Those guys are amazing and they’re a great resource I just want to expose more people to the beer community.
Caroline: This was 2012 when we started the blog in Austin, it was a little slower to develop beer culture. At that same a time in 2012 a city like Denver had a lot more gender parity if you went to a brewery but in Austin it was really something that was still considered kind of a guy thing. But it’s astounding what’s changed in five years–and I’m sure everywhere–but in a town like that…
Did you guys delve in or learn about the certification behind the Trappist breweries? Because there are abbeys that brew that aren’t Trappist products, right? What’s the motive to go after that label?
Caroline: There are a few, and most of the reason they aren’t certified is that they contract brew or that they are very new. For instance, there’s a new one in Spain, Cardeña, it’s actually a very old monastery but they just started brewing recently. They are a member of the International Trappist Association and they have other products there that are certified Trappist products but the process of getting their brew products certified is that they have to meet the criteria which are; brewed at the monastery, either brewed by monks or overseen by monks, and the money is non-profit and goes back to support the monks.
Even if it meets those it’s still a pretty lengthy application process and the assigned people from the International Trappist Association will come visit and taste the beer, make sure it’s up to quality, make sure the space they’re brewing and the technology are up to their standards.
How did you decide to make the leap from digital publication to a book–I know this is your second book–but how challenging is it to make that leap?
Sarah: The first book was a very different experience for us. It was part of a series called the American Palate done through our publisher–History Press, now Arcadia–and they were on the lookout for an Austin beer book they were just waiting to find writers that had the right voice for it and we fit the bill and had the availability. They came to us and had the idea and asked if we would be willing to write this book.
How intimidating is that?
Sarah: Are you kidding? I wasn’t intimidated, I was like YES we’re doing this!
Caroline: It was daunting though. We had only had a blog for about a year. Some of our contributors were straight out of college. We were incredibly young. It feels so long ago!
Jessica: I wasn’t around for that but there were like seven people writing, they broke it up a lot more. Three of us was a lot more manageable for figuring out the voices for a book. It was logistically difficult just to do all the travel and arrange everything and all the different languages and to do all the illustrations. But we really didn’t have that long to actually write it, about six months. A really brutal six months.
So brutal that you moved to Chicago afterwards?
Jessica: Ha yeah!
Caroline: It’s been a really good collaborative process, we’re all great friends and we understand each other. We made it through! Eventually how we broke it up was we did sit down and have a conversation about tone and about structure and we each wrote a few chapters primarily and then we brought it together and seriously proofread together and tried to match style to make it consistent.
Okay, if you’re not drinking Trappist beer what’re you drinking?
Caroline: I have a lot of like 5% lagers and pale ales. I like session beers–it’s friggin’ hot in Texas.
Jessica: It’s funny because we’re talking about Trappist beer but I tend to drink locally always in general. In Austin it was all Austin beers. In Chicago I love Half Acre, we were there yesterday. Off Color is a brewery I’ve loved for a long time, too.
Sarah: We’re a pretty evenly split between sessionable IPAs and sour pale ales, strangely enough. The occasional Schwarbier–I love Cascadian ales, black IPAs. Those aren’t as hip in the summer time though.
So Jessica you’ve been in Chicago for a year and a half, how do the beer scenes differ between Austin and Chicago?
Jessica: I’m only just slowly getting involved but we were just talking about this. I feel like it’s similar with how nice everyone is. It’s such a great community.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
Authored by Kasia Patel, contributor for The Hop Review. Patel is a UK-bred writer and beer lover now based in Chicago. This is her first piece in collaboration with THR.
For more information about the book, or to order a signed copy of your own [which we highly recommend], head here: Trappist Beer Travels Book.