In Belgium, monks and nuns have brewed beer for centuries. Their traditions have survived brutalities of warfare many times over and even withstood Roman emperors who disdained beer, favoring wine instead.
But can these ancient brews endure the contemporary craft beer community’s obsession with hops and all things India Pale Ale (IPA)? With their nuanced sweetness, monastic Belgian beers are a distinctly Old-World antithesis to boldly hopped, modern styles.
The Trappist brewing tradition stretches back to the sixth century, when the Rule of St. Benedict established the basis of ascetic lives—essentially all prayer and work—for the monks and nuns. This took place in the region that now includes modern-day Belgium.
Some of that work entailed brewing beer to fund and sustain the monastery. At the time, there were few standards for sanitary conditions and fermenting beer was largely a hit-or-miss proposition. The monks’ dedication to fastidiousness, however, ensured that their beer would be free of the bacteria that frequently ruined other brewers’ products. Thanks to their painstaking brewing process, beer became known as a safe beverage in the days before water purification.
The monks’ attention to detail and care helped elevate brewing to an art, and their meticulous process was reflected in the complex and exquisitely nuanced flavors of their beers.
“It is sad the types of beers made at monasteries don’t find as avid a following as hop-forward beers, but it is great that Americans can drink most of the ones made in the Belgian monasteries—the originals, so to speak,” says Stan Hieronymus, the author of Brew Like a Monk and various other books on beer.
“I also would suggest that their influence is felt even in some IPAs—the use of sugar to boost alcohol without making the beers too ‘thick’ and the dry finishes,” he adds.
Before American craft beer erupted in recent decades, Belgian brews held an exalted place in the beer enthusiast world. Some remain somewhat difficult to find.
Travis Rupp, who recently founded The Beer Archaeologist LLC and is a lecturer in classics, art history, anthropology and mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder, believes that limited quantity still serves them well.
“Trappist ales have always maintained a level of rarity,” says Rupp. “There are special brews that can only be acquired in Belgium, like certain Westvleteren ales.”
“Even the staples in the Trappist world like Orval, Westmalle or Chimay come at a higher price, and buying them is an intentional and deliberate decision on the consumer’s part. You’re not buying for volume, the best bang for your buck, or for sessioning on a Friday afternoon. These beers are special and buying them is special.”
Today, there are only a handful of Trappist breweries.
Use of the term is governed by the International Trappist Association, which specifies that monks must either brew the beer or supervise the brewing; that it is of secondary importance to the monastic life and that the profits are invested in the overhead of the monastery and its community work.
Breweries like Cooperstown, New York-based Ommegang, which previously focused on traditional Belgian beer styles are not Trappist themselves but have been made famous by the monastic brewing tradition, and opted to expand stylistic offerings to reach a wider audience.
“We know there’s a core group of Belgian-style beer enthusiasts out there,” says Brian Reames, vice president of marketing at Duvel Moortgat USA, the parent company of Ommegang. “But Belgian beers have taken a back seat to IPAs in the last decade. It’s given our brewery an opportunity to expand into other styles of beer.”
He cites Neon Rainbows, Ommegang’s New England-style IPA, as an example. It was released in 2018.
Some modern beer enthusiasts find their way to traditional Belgian beers through American productions of traditional Belgian styles.
Kevin Wong, a merger and acquisition tax consultant, became hooked on lambics, a Belgian style brewed with wild yeast, after a visit to Jester King, an Austin, Texas, brewery that specializes in the style.
“I had to find out how beers could smell and taste like that, so I did research and tried a lot more sour beers,” says Wong. “It didn’t take long for me to find out that all roads lead back to lambic beers as the inspiration for wild ales.”
He then traveled to Belgium to meet producers and visit bars that specialized in the style, many with vintage bottles.
“The funk, depth and complexity that you get in the aroma and taste of lambic is unlike anything else, and each bottle further develops with age,” says Wong. “Even bottles from the same batch/bottling can each be different in unexpected ways.”
Perry Rajnovic, a software engineer who has also traveled to Belgium to investigate its beers, said his roots were humble: He drank Victory’s Golden Monkey, a tripel, and even Blue Moon Belgian-style wheat ale as a college student. Drawn to acidity and what he calls “vinegary flavors,” he soon found his way to deeper and richer Belgian brews.
“For ‘traditional’ Belgian styles, it was mostly that the beers had a rich amount of flavor, often expressions from the yeast, which tended to be zesty, or sweet from the candi sugar,” he says. “As a younger drinker, it also didn’t hurt that they typically were on the stronger side.”
Several bars, most notably Monk’s Café in Philadelphia and d.b.a in New York City, promoted the Belgian tradition by sponsoring trips to the country for staffers and customers to taste the wide range of flavors and drink beers only available there.
Perhaps the biggest gateway to the Belgian tradition is Zwanze Day. Since 2008, this unofficial beer holiday has marked the annual release of an experimental brew (each year bearing the name Zwanze) from Brasserie Cantillon. The 120-year-old Brussels-based brewery specializes in lambics and blended lambics called gueuze.
It is a hotly anticipated event. A select handful of bars across the world offer it, thus making it one of the rarest beers in existence. Monk’s Café in Philadelphia has hosted a Zwanze Day event since its inception in 2019.
In 2020, Zwanze Day was limited to a handful of European locations. But in 2021, as many as 85 locations across the U.S., Austria, China, South Korea and beyond participated. Some locations, Monk’s Café included, will also offer the 2020 beer.
“In some ways, Zwanze Day has given this unique Belgian style the FOMO appeal that drives the popularity of many American IPAs,” says Tom Peters, co-owner of Monk’s.