Saturday, July 28, 2012

Visiting Westmalle Trappist Monastery and Brewery

Its theorized that the (once small) monastery in the town of Westmalle brews three beers because of the holy trinity. I'm not sure if that's true or not, but it sounds plausible. Romy, Mark, and I were very excited to get a chance to visit Westmalle and try some of the beer they brew very secretly behind the endless monastery walls!

Arriving at the walls of the monastery.

The monastery was surrounded by a huge tall brick wall. When we first got there, we weren't exactly sure if the monastery was behind it or not, but we soon realized it was. Sometimes you could see over it, and it looked like a large complex of different buildings inside. I was shocked at the whole size of the operation, but then again, they are one of the largest Trappist breweries still brewing. Silly me for thinking it would have look any different!

So why are we so excited about this? I'm not sure. I find the entire story of Trappist breweries very interesting. In the past, when churches had a larger place in European society, monasteries were the main thing in small villages, often the reason the villages were there in the first place. The Trappists were (are) a religious order of the Roman Catholic church, and there are a lot of quirky things about them. For example, they only speak when absolutely necessary, and even invented their own form of sign language so they could avoid speaking as much as possible.

The walls just keep going and it might take hours to walk around the whole place.

In 1836 the Westmalle Trappist abbey decided they needed to brew their own beer, to stay self sufficient, in a way. This was not new. Many monasteries all over the place brewed their own beer, since the middle ages. The Trappists were just very active, and eventually even made a set of bylaws on how to brew the beer. Today there are only 8 authentic Trappist breweries/monasteries, one of them in Westmalle, and 6 out of 8 of them are in Belgium. Today instead of brewing to be self-sufficient, they brew to sell, so they can financially support their religious activities.

A break in the wall let us peek inside (not really).

At Westmalle, and all the other Trappist breweries (Orval, Chimay, Rochefort, Westvleteren, Achel, Koningshoeven, and Engelszell), the general public is not allowed inside. The brewing is according to a totally secret recipe and process, and that is the reason for the huge brick wall surrounding the premises. Another reason that the walls are there is that they must be according to the bylaws. All Trappist beers must be brewed entirely within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision. Luckily, we could still have a chance to taste the beer they brewed inside just across the street at a cafe built just for that purpose.

Cafe Trappist
The cafe across the street served everything that was brewed and made in the monastery.

When we got inside, we also learned that the monks made special cheese as well as beer. So, similar to what we had done in Gouda, we ordered the cheese platter and tried the beer. We were in heaven! Its soooo good. We had the Tripel, which has 9.5% abv, and is made with pale candy sugar. We also had the Dubbel, a darker 7%. They make another one but I don't think it was available when we were there. You can try some too. Westmalle beer is imported to the U.S., and so are some of the others, like Chimay (which you can find at Trader Joe's for a reasonable price), Rochefort, and Orval. I think its more difficult to find the others.

Cafe Trappist
What a treat!

Where do the names Dubbel and Tripel come from? Well, an interesting fact is that in the early days, there was no way of precisely measuring the alcohol content of beer, so in order to increase the alcohol strength, the monks used double the ingredients for a Dubbel and triple for a Tripel, marking the casks accordingly. Sometimes the labels on the bottles were equally ambiguous. The only way to differentiate the type of beer in a bottle was the color of the label. The modern labels still follow this rule, but some didn't even bother. To this day, the Westvleteren Abbey doesn't even label its bottled beer! It just comes in a capped plain brown bottle, like moonshine or something. No wonder its hard to find.

Cafe Trappist
We are all very happy to try the beer and cheese!


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