“For more than 400 years, thousands upon thousands of words have been spilled writing about their glorious halls and their ambrosial beers.”
by Christopher Barnes
The Trappist Order is a living link to history. For more than 400 years, thousands upon thousands of words have been spilled writing about their glorious halls and their ambrosial beers. The Trappists are still a popular topic with beer writers, with new books and articles continually being written. But where do the ancient Trappists and their age-old ways belong in the modern world of craft brewing and its consumers? With an-ever increasing sea of new breweries opening throughout the world, finding and keeping relevance with increasingly fickle customers is most breweries’ top priority. Brewers and marketing departments work on new recipes and ways to sell their beers, hoping to keep customers coming back to their taprooms and buying their bottles and cans at markets. As more breweries come into existence and markets become more local in focus, how do older and more traditional breweries stay relevant?
This is a struggle many of Belgium’s older breweries are going through, as traditionally strong export markets like the United States favour locally-brewed beers to imported beers. A major topic of concern with Belgium’s secular, for-profit breweries is how Belgium’s most traditional brewers, the Trappists, will deal with a 21st Century beer market. Some of the world’s best beer writers weigh in.
“The great thing about the Trappists is that they do not care even a tiny bit about their ‘relevance,’” comments Stephen Beaumont, co-author of the Pocket Beer Book (3rd edition, November 2017) and the second edition of The World Atlas of Beer, both with Tim Webb. “Sure, they need to brew and sell and, to a degree, market their beer in order to earn money for the respective orders and their charitable works, but as for what else is going on in the beer world, they couldn’t care less.” Stephen largely hits the point. The Trappist monks’ primary goal is not to maintain the relevance of their brewery in light of the explosion of craft breweries worldwide. Their primary goal is to sustain their quiet existence and contemplative lives.
While they don’t care in the strictest sense of the word, the Trappists do pay attention to the outside world as Sarah Wood, co-author of Trappist Beer Travels, observed: “We found many of the monks at the monasteries to be incredibly astute and perceptive to changes, not only in the craft beer market but also to global trends that might impact their sales.” Trappist monks have left the secular world behind but that doesn’t mean they’ve completely excluded themselves from it. While they largely spend their monastic lives in isolation and prayer with only the company of other monks, they still know they’re part of the world and can’t be completely removed from it, especially since they have outward facing business enterprises.
“There’s something very different in the way monks approach beer, and I think it’s evident in the products,” says Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible. “In terms of the way they make beer, it follows a similar very slow, deliberative process everything does in an institution that’s been around as long as the Catholic Church. Monks very carefully select a type of beer to make and then perfect it over the course of years or decades. And here ‘perfect’ does not refer to a commercial trajectory (selling more beer) but an artistic one.” The art of the beer and the drinking experience is where the Trappists excel. Everything from the flavour profile to the label and glassware are carefully cultivated and curated to set the Trappist beer apart from secular imitators.
Melissa Cole, author of The Little Book of Craft Beer, thinks what “the Trappist breweries hold up for the rest of the industry is a standard, an immutable mission statement of quality and community; and as the industry expands – and venality comes to the fore in places – the relevance of those standards, and the longevity it’s provided to the holders of them, will become ever more important.” Trappist monks have been the standard bearers of quality and excellence in beer, a shining beacon to which brewers and drinkers alike have looked for inspiration during the modern craft beer era. As new breweries open every day in countries around the world, the Trappists stay relevant by sticking to their traditions. Relevance isn’t something to be chased but is established and maintained through excelling at what they’ve always done: being Trappist.
Caroline Wallace, co-author of Trappist Beer Travels, summarizes the situation nicely: “While you don’t see the Trappists engaging in all the latest craft beer trends, they have made authenticity a central component of their brand. That commitment to craftsmanship and a tight community-based ethos keeps them really aligned with the spirit of craft beer and is part of what they’ve always done: being Trappist.