Features | The Beer Necessities

Aaron Vansintjan on what makes monastic beer so righteous

“There are four main ingredients of beer: hops, water, malt, and yeast,” says Joe Watts over the phone. “If you change any one of them you get a different product.” Watts is a former employee of McAuslan breweries, and now calls himself a professional “beer educator.” At this moment he’s on his way to lead a tour of microbreweries in Brooklyn. “What Belgian beer does so well is it relies on this amazing yeast. The alcohol isn’t like you’re drinking malt liquor, it’s like you’re drinking some sort of roller-coaster ride of flavour. I remember that Westvleteren 12, oh my god, it’s ridiculous. And it’s so good, and so completely unattainable, that it’s been the number one rated beer in the world for ten years.”

Westvleteren is a Trappist beer, which means that it’s brewed by Catholic monks of the Cistercian order to support their livelihood. The Trappist monks make a vow to respect the rules of the order as laid out by St. Benedict, and live by their own means, hidden from society in abbeys. There are six Trappist breweries tucked away in the corners of Belgium, and one in the Netherlands, all far from any major city.

My mom, who grew up about half an hour away from the Westvleteren monastery, remembers the rare event when her dad would bring home a crate. Once, when she was ten, he let her have a sip of the beer. “I still remember the taste, I’ll never forget it,” she tells me (over and over and over). But this taste comes with a price: the waiting list to get a crate of Westvleteren is months long. On Ebay a six-pack goes for $120 and a single bottle can go for $50.

In July my dad and I drove to the monastery. When we got there, we found out that it was closed to all visitors. The cafeteria across the street, though, was crowded: it’s the only place in the world where you can get Westvleteren on tap. We ordered a beer and fought for some seats on the terrace. Surrounded by fields of hops, we each took a sip. I closed my eyes and shivered. “Impossible golden rays of glory shining a beacon of light on my bleak and bitter existence,” reads an excerpt from my drunkenly scribbled field notes. I couldn’t fathom how those hops growing in front of me and the yeast – a fungus that lives, unseen, in the air around us – could produce this godly flavour.

The bitter aftertaste of hops sparked a desire to know more about these monks. How do they make such good beer? Why do they choose their way of life? I admired their values and strict communal lifestyle; if their order wasn’t a thousand years old I’d call them radical and innovative. I wanted to learn from their way of life, which seemed a lot more sustainable than my own. I vowed, then and there, to visit all seven of the Trappist breweries.

By the end of it, I came home with a journal full of notes to myself like “contrast pastoral scenery with heavy dose of hoppy/holy incineration” and “aftertaste ravages my mouth and leaves me in total submission.” But I also brought back a bag full of beer bottles from across Belgium, including one of Westvleteren 12 (a surprise gift for my mom).

I was already drunk when I swerved into the parking lot of the Chimay monastery. I got off my bike and locked it, opened the huge wooden doors, and wandered inside. There was a welcome booth but no one sitting behind it. I strolled further and discovered an open door to the courtyard.

I wasn’t prepared for the tranquility I found there. Monasteries are built as microcosms: a rectangle facing inwards, with only one or two doors to the outside world. Otherwise, the church, bedrooms, guestrooms, library, kitchen, and dining rooms all face a serene courtyard with well-trimmed hedges, a fountain, and a handful of 200-year-old trees.

I left the garden and entered a hallway. A monk with a huge smile swept past me in a white and black habit. He was large, balding, and had a long white beard. After some hesitation I chased after him, and found him sitting at the welcome desk. He was the kind of monk that you want to meet: jolly, outgoing, funny, and completely forgiving. If he wasn’t wearing a habit he could have been an innkeeper. He told me his name is Eduard and asked me where I come from. Gent, I told him. “Ho, well, then we were practically neighbours!” he exclaimed. Turns out he had lived in Westvleteren for 30 years before coming to Chimay nine years ago.

I asked Eduard why people become monks. He explained to me that Cistercian monks are in search of a good life and they find this by serving God in the simplest way possible. They value poverty, stability, community, and respect for others. Eduard said that the path to being a monk starts with silence: first you try to exude it and then you are silence in itself. Another rule is that of hospitality; Cistercians welcome any traveller who needs a place to stay. Eduard offered that I stay at the monastery but I politely declined: my mom was expecting me for supper.

But what’s so special about Trappist beers like Chimay and Westvleteren?
First of all, it’s the simple fact that monks have control in the brewing process. When many Belgian breweries – Maredsous, Duvel, and Grimbergen, for example – started labelling their product as “Trappist,” the seven Cistercian breweries decided to intervene to protect their brand. Now, a beer can only be called “Trappist” if it’s brewed on the grounds of a monastery of the Cistercian order, administered by monks, with all the profits either supporting the monks’ livelihood or being given to a good cause. Any beer that takes after the style of Trappist beer is now called abbey beer.

Jean-François Gravel, co-founder of the Mile End brewpub Dieu du Ciel, says the abbey style had a lot to do with necessity. “[Monks] didn’t make beer as a business but to sustain their needs. They would basically sell extra beer to bring money to the abbey but not to make the maximum amount of money…instead of trying to make a wide variety of beer they made basically the same beer but at three different strengths.” Those “strengths” are known as blonde, dubbel, and tripel. As Watts says, the yeast also makes a difference. Trappist beers like Orval are bewildering because of the very unique strain of yeast they’re fermented with.

As a result, Trappist beer has been very influential for the modern American beer movement. “They sort of laid down the groundwork of the ethos of craft-brewery,” says Watts (who is also a former Daily editor).  “People look towards the Belgians because the Belgians were like the first extreme brewers. Nobody made beer that was more than six percent.” While German beer was already standardized through a “purity law” by the 16th century, Belgian beer is characterized by its use of ingredients like coriander, orange peels, and cherries. “Until the brewing revolution of the last thirty years,” explains Watts, “the Belgians were the most outlandish.”

This revolution is in full swing throughout North America. Montreal itself has brewpubs like Dieu du Ciel, Reservoir, Benelux, Les 3 Brasseurs, and Brutopia. Local breweries have become more popular; Unibroue, for example, is sold in every depanneur in Montreal. And Belgian beer is well-loved because it embodies today’s craft beer philosophy: the value of local production and creativity.

It’s not an accident that monasteries started brewing beer. “A thousand years ago,” says Watts, “you didn’t drink the water. Because the water may or not kill you, the beer, because it’s boiled, is fine to drink, and [because of the yeast] it keeps longer. Not to mention it gets you drunk.” Beer was regarded as a service to the community in the age before water treatment plants.

I came to understand the scientific aspect of Trappist beer when I visited La Trappe, the only trappist brewery in the Netherlands. After drinking two pints I worked up the courage to approach five workers eating their lunch by the bar. They were all dressed in red Oompa Loompa overalls. After chatting with them for a while I mentioned that I’d never actually seen a brewery from the inside. One of them piped up.

“Now, why don’t you let Hendrik show you around? It’s cheaper than the guided tour, and he can finish his lunch later, right Hendrik?” Hendrik, clearly the newbie of the group, suffered his punishment with grace.

“Good idea. Let’s go right now, so no one sees us. We’re not allowed to do this, you know.”

And so I was led through a maze of kettles, assembly lines, and oiled machinery. I thought of the opening scene of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. The beer was kicking in. The tour became a blur of polished metal, with me bumping my head on several pipes and giggling at gigantic vats of churning hops. Honestly I don’t remember much. An impression I won’t forget is how clean everything was. This came to me as a surprise because beer-making seems like it would be a messy process, with all the malt and hops bubbling around and fermenting. My acquaintance with Montreal breweries didn’t help this impression: McAuslan and Molson are, from the outside, grimy and decrepit. But no, a smell of bleach pervaded La Trappe.

Go to any microbrewery in Montreal – say, Dieu du Ciel – and you’ll see from the huge pressurized kettles that brewing is a science. “At the beginning,” says Gravel, a trained microbiologist, “when I quit the science and research field people didn’t really understand why I opened a bar and brewed beer, they don’t always understand that I’m doing science. It’s just applied microbiology.” Dieu du Ciel’s “Rigor Mortis” is modelled on Abbey beer, and their name (not to mention the interior design of the brewpub), is a tip of the hat to the religious character of beer. Trappist beer is a surviving example of the compatibility of religion and science.

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we live in a fast-paced world. Judging from the precarious state of our food and water systems, the depletion of fisheries, and the increase of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, this pace is unsustainable. Full disclosure: I study environment and philosophy, and I think that we need a radically different way of life if we’re to sustain ourselves.

Christianity, the West’s oldest institution, doesn’t seem like the most logical place to start looking for solutions. But after visiting those seven Trappist monasteries, I realized there are at least two reasons why we should look at monastic life: it’s a model of sustainability and it teaches us the importance of traditions.

One summer day, I set out on a two-day bike trip to visit three Trappist monasteries – Westmalle, Achelse Kluis, and La Trappe. The idea itself was attractive: it’s like a holy trinity of beer.

When I stopped by Westmalle, I wasn’t allowed to enter the monastery. That was reserved for guests, labourers, and monks. It was annoying that the monks place their own priorities – to serve God – first.

But monasteries aren’t the solipsistic islands that we make them out to be. Westmalle itself keeps livestock, raiseds chickens, grows corn and vegetables, hiredslocal workers and invites the nearby village for mass every day. Abbeys are community centres, providing jobs to the economically under-priviliged, local produce and meat for the nearby villages, and excellent stewardship of their land, all the while being a not-for-profit organization that doesn’t ask for grants or subsidies and has a comparatively small footprint on the local and global environment. At a monastery, costs are managed efficiently, the monks take whatever they need to support their own existence, and the rest goes to community projects and humanitarian organizations. It’s a way of life that should be studied, researched, and copied. How have the Benedictine vows influenced the long-term stability of monasteries? Can we incorporate the monastic financial strategy into that of community centres? How can the design of monasteries be incorporated into plans for the design of future cities? The opportunities are endless.

After a 120-kilometre bike ride with the pit-stop at Westmalle I rang the doorbell of Achelse Kluis with trembling hungry fingers. A monk received me and told me that I could have a place to stay and, fortunately, dinner was just about to be served. In disbelief (who would’ve thought it would be so easy?) I sat down at a dinner table surrounded by two dozen other guests. After a modest meal – eaten in silence – of bread, peanut butter, and milk, we all cleared the tables and did the dishes together. The bell rang for mass, and we made our way to the church. By 8 p.m. I was nestled in my comfortable bed reading the New Testament. The next morning I woke up just in time for second mass and ate breakfast before starting out for the third monastery on my itinerary, La Trappe.

Brief as my experience with monastic life was, it was clear to me that, my atheism notwithstanding, it’s a very desirable way of life. A monk at Rochefort told me that because of the continuous solitude, you at first recoil from who you are, but with time you learn to know yourself. Becoming a Cistercian monk requires training and practice. Rather than the “guilty conscience” normally associated with Catholicism, the Benedictine vow is one of love and the desire to live virtuously.

Biking away from Achelse Kluis I decided that we will need to establish new norms, traditions, and cultural “vows” if we want to change our way of life. We’ve heard over and over again from our oldest texts (Plato, the Upanishads, Dao De Jing, and so on) that living well takes practice and training. Why haven’t we taken note? The environmental crisis is a crisis of tradition: we need to create new ones to sustain ourselves. Monks spend years unlearning society’s ills and perfecting the good life. Living sustainably isn’t easy: it takes practice and we need to teach each other how.


Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.