For nearly 190 years the monks of Westmalle in northern Belgium have been involved in making beer. They began brewing in this corner of Flanders in 1836 to have an alternative to milk or water with their daily bread. Today, Westmalle is an international brand, producing 40m bottles of three varieties of beer a year, mostly for Belgium and the Netherlands, but also enjoyed by beer connoisseurs in Britain, France, Italy and beyond.
Yet uncertainties hover over the future of Trappist beer production in this traditionally Catholic country, where fewer people are drawn to a life of monastic contemplation.
Those questions became more acute in January when Belgium’s Achel beer lost its Trappist status after being taken over by a private entrepreneur. The new owner has vowed to keep the recipe unchanged, but after the severing of ties with monks, Achel can no longer call itself a Trappist beer. “It must be admitted that the state of most monastic communities is precarious,” said Brother Benedikt, the abbot of Westmalle, in a rare media interview in which he answered the Observer’s questions in writing, translated from his native Dutch.
According to the International Trappist Association (ITA), beer, cheese or other goods can bear the “authentic Trappist product” label only if made inside an abbey, under the supervision of monks or nuns, with all profits destined for the upkeep of the religious community, the wider Trappist order and charities.
At Westmalle, Belgium’s oldest Trappist brewery, staff are thinking about the future. “Nowadays, we don’t have a lot of vocations,” said Philippe Van Assche, the secular managing director of the brewery. He is not confident people will be seeking to become monks in 10 or 20 years’ time: “To be honest, I think there is a kind of caesura … a kind of break.”
Van Assche began working at Westmalle 25 years ago, just as the monks were handing over day-to-day production to secular staff. Increasingly, the demands of running a brewery – negotiating with retailers or marketing – were seen as incompatible with a monastic life that prizes the discipline of silence.
The monks, however, remain in charge. Alongside four secular independent administrators, they form a supervisory board to oversee the brewery, led by Brother Benedikt, who does not use a surname.
Westmalle is part of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, which traces its origins to 1098 and follows the Rule of Saint Benedict, a 6th-century book of precepts.
Founded in 1794 by monks who had fled the French Revolution, Westmalle went on to survive the hostile rule of Napoleon and flourish. Today, while numbers of Trappist monasteries in Africa, Asia and South America are growing, the situation in Europe is in decline, with a few exceptions.
Monasteries with the “most severe” rules and routines “are nowadays the most successful”, said Van Assche, but Westmalle is only “a bit strict”.
Here the monks rise at 3.45am for a precisely ordered day of prayers, labour and Bible reading, punctuated by regular communal meals, the daily eucharist, chores and a little free time. Bedtime is at 8pm.
“For someone with a true vocation, it is not really difficult [to become a monk] – at least no more difficult, I think, than any other life choice,” said Brother Benedikt. “However, today’s society offers few starting points that can give rise to a monastic vocation. Religious life is no longer considered important and is seen as mysterious, with a negative connotation. Joining a monastic community has become a big step in that respect, but in itself it is a much richer, more meaningful and fascinating form of life than one might suspect.”
Westmalle is now one of only five Trappist breweries in Belgium, alongside Chimay, Orval, Rochefort and Westvleteren. These, along with foreign Trappist beers, remain “some of the best in the world”, said Luc De Raedemaeker, director of the Brussels Beer Challenge, an international brewing competition. He rates Westmalle Dubbel as one of the finest beers, for its combination of sweetness, lively carbonation and lingering bitterness from the hops.
Trappist beers are determined by their ethos, rather than taste. “[A Trappist beer] can be anything. A Trappist brewery can make a pilsner, it can make an IPA or a triple [a strong beer]. It can make a white beer or whatever you want,” said De Raedemaeker, although he points out the traditional Belgian Trappist beers were doubles, triples – a reference to their alcoholic strength – or blonds.
Meanwhile, the Belgian Trappist beer world is holding discreet discussions about the future.
Westmalle, which is part of an ITA working group on future Trappist identity, is considering becoming a foundation to secure its future. “If one day another monastery would just cease to exist, what are we going to do with this legacy, with our tradition, with the values we have been living for?” Van Assche asked. “How can we still be loyal to the values of what Trappist [monasteries] stand for and preserve this unique way of running a commercial activity for future generations?”
Westmalle also wants to secure the jobs of its staff: 51 lay people work in the modern, consecrated brewery, while eight make cheese, or work on the abbey farm or bakery. But Van Assche is not convinced that ITA rules – determining what makes a Trappist product – should be watered down. “If that happens, then we will just be abbey beers,” he said, referring to ancient religious houses that have lent their names to large drinks companies, such as Leffe, which is owned by Belgian multinational Anheuser-Busch InBev, or Grimbergen, which is controlled by Alken-Maes in Belgium and the Carlsberg group elsewhere.
Belgian beer expert Sofie Vanrafelghem, however, is optimistic about the future. She expects monks will come to Belgium from other parts of the world where Trappist monasteries are still expanding. “I think the Trappist monk communities may be more multicultural and more diverse,” she said.
And in a country where new breweries are opening every year, with 1,500 brands jostling for attention at the bar, Trappist beers remain highly prized.
“The most special part is that it’s not brewed for profit,” said Sofie Vanrafelghem. “The quality is really high.
“If they take extra time to make a perfect beer, who cares? They’re not there to make profit. They want to make a true and pure beer.”The brewers of Westmalle, for instance, use flower hops, rather than industrially produced pellets. “So that’s more expensive,” Vanrafelghem said. “But that gives the beautiful bitterness at the end.”
She added: “If you put Belgian beer experts in a cafe and you don’t give them a menu,