January 13, 2006

The holiest of beers

Probably my favourite beers in the world are the Trappist beers (and my Dad's homebrew). These beers are unique in the beer world in that they're brewed by real monks in Cistercian monasteries, as part of their daily ritual. The care that goes into them is astounding, and they are truly amazing to drink, in a completely different league to your regular commercial lager. The complexity of their flavours makes drinking one of these a pleasure in itself.

I've been working on a few Belgian beer articles for Wikipedia, and to find out a bit more, I decided to email Brother Armand, the head monk of the Scourmont abbey which brews Chimay, one of the seven Trappist breweries. He graciously replied and gave plenty of interesting insights into the Trappist order and their beers. I also mentioned my support of free knowledge and software (ie Wikipedia and the Free Software movement) and he was very supportive of this. Here are some of what he had to say:

[...] since monks don't live out of charity, they also work in order to earn their life and to have something to help the poor. According to local circumstances, it can be through farming or through any type of small industry.
[...]
The Chimay brewery was developed mostly to give work to a large number of workers in a region that is the poorest of Belgium. The brewery is now owned by a non profit organization, and ALL the royalties are distributed in alms in Belgium and mostly in the Third World countries.

Based on this, I can safely say that by sipping on a Trappist beer, I'm doing my part for charity! :) With regard to the monks drinking beer themselves:

Contrary to Islam and some other religions, that has never been any rule concerning total abstinence of alcoholic beverage in Christianity.
[...]
At Scourmont, as in other monasteries of Belgium, at daily meals, monks drink either water or some very light beer (which is not even in the market), not the strong beer that is on the market.

I happen to come across an unusual Chimay beer at a local shop, which is not mentioned anywhere else online, and suspected that this was the beer mentioned above. In a reply, I asked about this.

Yes, the light beer I was talking about is the Dorée. Officially it is not sold except at the small Auberge [inn] near the Abbey. (That restaurant is also owned and managed by the Foundation). We are aware that there is a small unofficial, unapproved market for that beer. The fact is that all the workers receive gratis a certain quantity of that beer every week or month. It seems that some workers don't use it and sell it... In any case it is certainly a rather small market, because a very limited amount of that 'bière de ménage' is brewed.

Seems then that this is a grey market beer. I spoke to the owner of another beer shop in Utrecht and he didn't really know of the beer, so it must be a very special one indeed! I drank it a while back, not thinking too much of it, but the one I have now is waiting to be popped open and tried again.

Today I grabbed six more Trappist beers (including Achel) and a couple of Trappist beer glasses, and can't wait to try those. With the goals and dedication that monks put into creating such astounding beers, let's just hope that there are enough new monks joining the ranks to keep producing these for centuries to come. Cheers to the Trappists!

Posted by Ben at January 13, 2006 10:55 AM
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