Unlike most beer categories, Trappist and Abbey are not marks of how the beer tastes, rather it defines who can make the ale. Trappist ales have strict criteria around them. Abbey ales are defined more loosely, with a wider range of brewers coming under the umbrella term.
To help you understand the distinction, here is our quick guide to Trappist beers, Abbey ales, and the differences between them.
What is a Trappist beer?
Monasteries have a long tradition of making and selling goods to fund their upkeep, and support their work in the community. Monasteries run by the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance can join the International Trappist Association (ITA); which sets rules they must follow to obtain a seal of authenticity. One section of these rules covers the brewing of ale and the (currently) eleven monasteries who meet the criteria can call their produce ‘Trappist beers’.
And that’s the definition of a Trappist beer: An ale produced in accordance with the rules laid out by the International Trappist Association.
What are the rules for Trappist beer?
There are three criteria governing Trappist beer:
- The beer must be brewed by the monastery, or under the supervision of monks
- Brewing must not be the main role of the monastery – their good work comes first
- All money made by the sale of beer must go to the upkeep of the monastery and charity
There are no restrictions on the type of ale monasteries can make, but most Trappist beers are in traditional Belgian styles — no doubt because over half Trappist brewers are in Belgium, with two more ‘next-door’ in The Netherlands.
Who are the Trappist brewers?
Right now, eleven monasteries carry the authentic Trappist Beer mark:
- Brasserie de Rochefort — Belgium
- Brouwerij der Trappisten van Westmalle — Belgium
- Brouwerij Westvleteren/St Sixtus — Belgium
- Bières de Chimay — Belgium
- Brasserie d’Orval — Belgium
- Brouwerij der Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis — Belgium
- Brouwerij de Koningshoeven ( using the name La Trappe) — Netherlands
- Brouwerij Abdij Maria Toevlucht — Netherlands
- Stift Engelszell — Austria
- St. Joseph’s Abbey — USA
- Tre Fontane Abbey — Italy
‘La Trappe’ temporarily lost their authentication in 1999 when they outsourced production to Bavaria Brewery; returning in 2005 thanks to the monks taking a more active role in production (thereby meeting the second part of the first criteria).
What are the common Trappist beer styles?
Any style can be a Trappist beer, as long as the brewer meets the ITA requirements. In practice, most monasteries stick to traditional Belgian styles:
- Belgian Blonde — Crisp, clear, and pale in colour.
- Dubbel — Strong brown ale, with a weighty body.
- Tripel — Stronger version of the Blonde.
Other, more esoteric styles include the Quadrupple, and German-influenced Bocks.
What about Abbey ales?
With the strict rules governing Trappist ales there are many monastery brewers who miss out:
- Non-Trappist monasteries, like Benedictine monks.
- Those with a more commercial outlook to brewing.
In additional commercial brewers looking to attract customers interested in Trappist beers produce beers inspired by the authentic look and feel, using religious imagery or taking the name of a now-defunct monastic brewer.
Examples of a commercial brewer adopting monastic brewing are the Leffe brand (owned by InBev and named after the Notre-Dame de Leffe abbey) and Tripel Karmeliet (brewed by Brouwerij Bosteel to a Carmelite Convent recipe from 1679).
Trappist and Abbey ales to try
Trappist and Abbey brewers have a reputation for quality and strengths, and there are many pleasures to be had enjoying a luxurious Tripel tipple.
Here are some of our favourite, and most popular, ales in the Trappist and Abbey tradition:
A Belgian dark beer. Stronger than the monastery’s Dubbel (Rochefort 6), alcohol aromas fill the glass and a warm glow fills the body.
Light in colour and crisp in taste there are plenty of malt, spice, and fruit flavours to entice the palate.
Amber colouring and a blend of coriander, orange, and roasted malts aromas. The palate is awash with bold bitterness.
Mixing the English tradition of dry-hopping, and the unpredictability of wild yeast strains for lightly-coloured, slightly cloudy beer. Named by beer critic Michael Jackson as a ‘world classic’.