In 1664, the monks of La Trappe abbey in France found life to just be too darn easy to truly appreciate God. The other monasteries of the Cisterian sect were leading lives that were lush and luxuriant (at least relative to the Rule of St. Benedict), and therefore sinful. So the monks of La Trappe broke off to found their own monastic order, the Order of Cisterians of the Strict Observance, commonly known as the Trappist monks.
The new order spread and lived a simple life of devotion, little speaking, and hard work. The hard work is the key to our story. St. Benedict thought that monks should work with their hands and produce something that could be sold to help fund the works of the abbey. Most abbeys settled on a few goods that they had the right combination of skills and resources to produce. And long traditions of making the same product by hand with more focus on devotion than profit usually leads to high quality results. In the Trappist monasteries of Belgium, that usually mean beer. Really freaking good beer.
My quest for some of these beers began in a place with considerably less be-robed men, and considerably more sinfulness: Amsterdam. I was there with my friends Mike, Grace, and Terry. We'd come in from Iceland and were spending a few days in Amsterdam. Mike and Grace were soon heading to Ghent, Belgium, to visit a friend of Grace's. Terry and I decided to tag along. High on the list (my list, at least) of things to do in Belgium was some beer related tourism.
As Terry and I parted from Mike and Grace, our plans seemed foolproof. As if travel plans could ever be foolproof. "We'll call you when we get there," we said with foolish confidence. It seemed a simple enough plan at the time. We were all traveling to Ghent, Belgium, but Mike and Grace by car, and Terry and I by train. We were splitting up for 2 reasons: first, Mike had reserved a European (i.e. small) rental car and we weren't confident that all four of us would fit with luggage. Second, in order to get the car (and thus find out if it was too small) we had to go outside of the city to the airport, and we were already at the main train station. So Terry and I decided to just pay for a train ticket. It really wasn't that much considering we were going to split the rental cost with Mike if we'd gone that route. So we parted ways, with Grace giving us the phone number of her friend they were meeting in Ghent, expecting us to arrive on a particular train.
Of course, as soon as we parted, things started to go down hill. First we learned that the main ticket office in the Amsterdam train station didn't accept credit cards and we didn't have enough Euros between us to cover two tickets. Instead, we had to go up to the international ticket office. When we got there, we found a long, slow-moving line. By the time we got to the counter, we had missed the train Mike and Grace thought we'd be on, and we were suddenly a couple of hours behind schedule. No big deal, right? We'll just call ahead and let them know.
Or try to call ahead. It turns out than no pay phones in the station accepted cash. They only accepted this particular kind of card that we didn't have and couldn't find anywhere in the station. Oh well, we'll call when we change trains in Brussels. After a lengthy wait in the station, we boarded our train. First stop: the airport. There goes our reason for not going to the airport with Mike and Grace to see if the rental was big enough for four.
Eventually we pulled into Brussels, where we had to change trains to get to Ghent. We searched out a payphone, only to find once again that coins were not useful for making phone calls in Belgium either. You needed to have a type of phone card that we didn't have and couldn't find anywhere to buy (and, no, it wasn't the same kind of card from the Netherlands). Oh well, we'll go to Ghent, get to our hostel, and then call from there. No problem.
After arriving at the Ghent station, we spent a while figuring out how to get to our hostel, and eventually caught the right bus and made it in no time (only several hours after we'd expected to be there). We checked in, dropped off our stuff, and I hit the phones one more time. This time everything went perfect. I picked up the phone, dialed the number, and, by god, it rang! I was particularly happy with myself, until I got an answering machine. Of some woman speaking Flemish. It turned out after all these attempt to make a phone call, we'd written down the wrong number.
At this point, we gave up on ever meeting with Mike and Grace again, and strike out on our own to partake in the greatest part of Belgium: drinking beer. We enlisted the two random Europeans sharing our room as guides and set off. We take off walking, and a few minutes later, for one final twist in this overly long anecdote, we run into Mike and Grace walking down the street in the middle of Ghent, a city of 250,000. Of all the deserted streets in all the medieval towns of Europe.
Oh and, by the way, the car they had ended up with was a big 4-door number with a sizeable trunk. But what kind of story would this be if they hadn't.
Seven monasteries in the world are certified by the International Trappist Association as producing authentic Trappist beer. Six are in Belgium (Chimay, Orval, Westmalle, Rochefort, Achel, and Westvleteren), and one in The Netherlands (de Koningshoeven). The beers are generally strong and high in alcohol, and have a failry distinct taste among beers. Personally, I think they all taste really good. If you prefer a lighter-colored beer look for Chimay White, Orval, or Westmalle Trippel. For a darker Brown go with Chimay Blue or Red, Achel Brun, or Rochefort 8 or 10. My personal favorite Trappist beer (and high up there in my favorite beers overall) is the Rochefort 8.
Since we had this fancy automobile, we decided it was high time to do some classic motor-touring of Belgium. Our first destination was Brugges. Brugges is another medieval town like Ghent, but with all of Ghent's students replaced by elderly European tourists. The buildings were pretty, though.
After touring Brugges, we were browsing in book store deciding where in all Belgium we should go next (its not that big of a country). Striking while the iron was hot, I suggested a visit to an abbey brewery. Mayhaps, the only one of the six Trappists breweries on this side of the country (the Abbey of Saint Sixtus with its brewery Westvleteren)? Why the hell not? A tour of the Belgian countryside, finished with what by many accounts is the greatest beer in the world. Plan laid, hatched, and fully grown. (After this trip, my excursion planning license would be revoked.)
Trappist monasteries the world over make unique and quality products that help fund their monastic orders. Of course, the Belgian Trappists are most famous for their beer, but many also produce quality cheeses. St. Joseph's Abbey in central Mass is famous for its line of jellies, Trappist Preserves (I found a bunch of flavors in my local Shaw's for $3.99 each). There's even an abbey in the Andes of Venezuela that grows and roasts their own coffee. (Go to Monastery Greetings for a selection of monastic products of all orders, from Benedictine greeting cards to Gregorian hot sauces and Nun Better brand cookies. And now they even sell some Trappist Beers!).
Some monasteries are more commercialized than others, and the brewers are no different. At one end of the beer spectrum, Chimay has huge sales all over the world and you can probably find it at many stores and bars near you. At the other end of the spectrum is Westvleteren. The Abbey of Saint Sixtus refuses to sell more beer than is absolutely necessary to fund the monastery. Although they face great demand, Westvleteran does not sell to stores, bars or distributors. Beer sales are conducted strictly at the abbey on certain (rare) days of the year with a strict two case per car limit. It easier to buy a healthy liver than a Westvleteren case.
In a somewhat modern development, however, the abbey has opened a cafe/gift shop, where you can taste their beers. This would be our destination on this fateful Flanders day.
The Abbey of St. Sixtus. I took this picture to include all the construction and erosion I could find. Stupid monks.
We set off from Brugges, with a newly purchased map of Belgium. We located the small dot on the map that represented the town of Westvleteren, and then found the smaller dot that represented the Abbey of St. Sixtus. Mike and I navigated a scenic route through the Belgian countryside. It was a beautiful day (and a beautiful area). It was nice to see a part of Europe that wasn't urban. Spirits were running high as we found the town, and then followed the little signs to the abbey itself. We pulled into the cafe parking lot and found a parking spot right up front. (The fact that there was only one other car in the parking lot probably should have served as a warning.) I strode excitedly up to the cafe door, pulled on it, and was greeted with the sickening thud of a deadbolt hitting its housing. A small sign on the door read "GESLOTEN!" I deciphered the Flemish fine print to learn the that the cafe was closed for the last two weeks of September for vacation. Did I mention that we were currently in the last two weeks of September? "Oh, crap."
We drove off, thirsts unslaked, stomachs unsated, and desires unsatisfied. We went on to other touristy things (the WWI-ravaged town of Ypres), but a part of my soul and pallet mourned for the beer that wasn't. To this day, I have yet to taste the supposed 'best beer in the world.' Am I bitter? Yes. Is the beer bitter? Well, now, I wouldn't know that, would I.
References and Further Reading:
The Coffee Trader by David Liss. If you want to step into the world of Dutch wheeling and dealing when Amsterdam was the business capital of the world, then this historical novel will fill the bill. Liss spins the tail of a Jewish trader in the mid-17th century who has a plan to introduce to Europe on a grand scale. The novel gives a real feeling of Amsterdam in the times of the world dominance of the Dutch East Indies Company.