Belgians and beer go way, way back. For the monks, the tradition is well over 1,000 years old and born of much more than just a great way to cope with a fairly isolated religious branch.
For starters, the Middle Ages was not known for its high quality of water. Europeans fermented things at least partially for sanitation reasons, wary of what was being drawn from the wells. Monks began brewing around the 9th century, working toward self-sufficiency with the ingredients they had on hand. As the ultra-monkish mindset of great hospitality coupled with a charitable outlook flourished, so too did beer. In many ways, the brews served as the liquid version of the monastic tradition itself.
Styles like the farmhouse and Belgian brown became synonymous with the men in cloaks. As craft beer ultimately swept the globe, the brewing monks differentiated their brand by upping the ante and focusing on the higher ABV, more flavorful dubbel and tripel-style beers. Soon, the act of brewing on premise at a bonafide abbey – one of the requirements of a true monastic beer operation – expanded beyond the Old World.
Of the Monastic beers, Trappist beers (made by Trappist monks) are one of the most common and popular iterations. If the beer is made in the style of monastic beers but is not made by monks in a monastery, it is then an abbey beer.
While labels like Chimay, Westmalle, and Orval remain the most prominent names in the trade, many others have since been established. And while a trip to Belgium (or, at least the Belgian section of your local bottle shop) remains the best way to taste the monastic spirit, the U.S. is now home to three of its own genuine abbey labels.
Benedictine Brewery recently opened about an hour’s drive south of Portland, Oregon. It’s the work of neighboring Mt. Angel Abbey, established by Swiss Benedictine monks in 1882.
The brewery very much looks the part, a rustic space with great beer and simple amenities. Here, the stereotypes associated with the traditional American bar – the televisions, the lack of windows, the sulking – are turned completely on their head. Benedictine Brewery is airy, welcoming, and understated. The beers are rock solid and if you go, you’re likely to enjoy one poured by a monk at a table with other monks throwing back glasses.
The first monastic brewery in America to go commercial was New Mexico’s Abbey Brewing Company in 2005. It’s part of the Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert along the Chama River north of Santa Fe. From this remote spot, resident monks brew a handful of year-round and seasonal offerings.
Spencer Brewery in Massachusetts opened in 2014, a Trappist take set amid St. Joseph’s Abbey. While there is no proper tasting room, it’s most business-like of the three, with distribution to several states and Americanized styles like IPAs. Spencer Brewery even features its own specially-designed glass.
If you can’t make it out to an authentic outpost, there are online means to acquire some of these beers. There are countless others at least inspired by the monastic tradition as well, though not technically brewed by monks. The Tank 7 Farmhouse, Allagash White and North Coast Pranqster are just a few sturdy suggestions that are fairly readily available.
Dubbels and tripels are God’s gift come winter with their deep flavors and nap-inducing structures. And this is to say nothing of the spiritual heights you’ll reach after you drain three or four some chilly weekend evening.