By Michael Agnew
Photos by Nick Hiller
That one word evokes deep reverence in even the most secular beer nerd. In the minds of many, this mark of monastic provenance elevates these beers above the rest. It is synonymous with quality and complexity. It conjures images of robed monks chanting, heads bowed, over boiling cauldrons of wort, and the invisible hand of the Creator gently shepherding yeast through the miracle of perfect fermentation. For such beer as this, a chalice is the only appropriate glass.
But what does the Trappist designation really mean? The term “Authentic Trappist Product,” along with the hexagonal label that signifies it, is a registered international trademark controlled by the International Trappist Association (ITA) located in Vleteren, Belgium. The ITA was founded in 1997 after the Commercial Court in Brussels made the restricted use of the term “Trappist Product” explicit in law. According to the association’s website, the label serves to “ensure the consumer of the origin and authenticity of [Trappist] products, especially in the beer market where a considerable number of brands portray themselves using a ‘religious’ image even though the products don’t come from a monastery.”
While we generally associate the label with beer, it is actually applied to a number of products, including beer, liqueur, cheese, bread, biscuits, and chocolates. The website lists twelve monasteries whose products currently bear the label, ten of them for beer.
So what is actually required for a monastery to be granted the right to use the Authentic Trappist Product label? The ITA has established three very well defined criteria:
Products which carry this label are produced within the walls of the monastery or in the vicinity of the monastery.
The monastic community determines the policies and provides the means of production. The whole process of production must clearly evidence the indisputable bond of subsidiarity, with the monastery benefiting from the production, and must be in accordance with the business practices proper to a monastic way of life.
The profits are primarily intended to provide for the needs of the community or for social services.
In short, it’s produced at a Trappist monastery, production is overseen by monks, and proceeds are used to support the monastic community and the community at large.
Origins of Monastic Brewing
So why do monks brew beer or make cheese, bread, and biscuits? The answer to this lies in the Rule of St. Benedict, a book of precepts written by St. Benedict of Nursia around 530 CE for monks living communally under the authority of an abbot. The Rule spells out guidelines for every aspect of monastic life including prayer, clothing, meals, demeanor, and daily routine. Two of the most important precepts involve work and hospitality.
One of St. Benedict’s prime directives is summed up in the motto ora et labora (prayer and work). At the time, there were no monastic orders such as Benedictines, Franciscans, or Jesuits to provide an overarching structure to monastic life. Monasteries were autonomous groups of men desiring to pursue their spiritual development in community. They were by necessity self-sustaining. The Rule of St. Benedict codified this self-reliance and stipulated that monks engage in manual labor, be it farming, cooking, building, or other work, to sustain the community. Monasteries were required to maintain some sort of industry to provide for their basic material needs and to help others in need. This labor was part and parcel of their spiritual pursuits.
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The Rule of St. Benedict also required monasteries to accept and provide for guests. Monasteries became popular places of refuge for travelers looking for safe, clean lodging and good food and drink. In northern regions where wine grapes were difficult to grow, beer was an important part of this hospitality. Water was contaminated and unsafe to drink. It was a source of disease and death. Beer was safe. The brewing process sterilized the water and added a host of important nutrients. Loaded with carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and antioxidants, beer was also healthful. And so, monks brewed beer both for their own sustenance and their guests. Eventually this beer was made available outside of the monastic community. Low quality “charity beer” was given to the poor while a higher quality brew was sold to paying customers. Thus brewing became one of many monastic industries.