Despite its small size, Belgium is home to many brewing styles: it is one of the richest beer cultures in the world, and boasts some unique and very distinctive beer types.
These include Abbey beer and Trappist beer, two names that spark the imagination and are linked to centuries-old traditions.
The custom of making beer within religious establishments was essential to the evolution of beer and is not unique to Belgium. However, this small European country is rightly considered the home and custodian of this interesting production custom.
Monasteries were the first places where beer was produced on a large-scale. They took on this role at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire and the spread of Christianity, when beer became an essential food – not just a drink - for the sustenance of religious communities, especially at a time when its consumption was preferable to that of water, which was often unhealthy.
The monks made beer for their own daily consumption, but the surplus production was destined to pilgrims, the poor and possible buyers. With the process of secularization, religious orders entered a crisis and lost their leading role in beer making. However, their beers did not disappear entirely. In fact, beers linked to abbeys and monasteries are still on the market today, even if in a different form than in the past.
Two names are generally used to refer to beer made within religious structures: “Abbey beer” and “Trappist beer”. They are both the result of the historical process mentioned above, but have profoundly different meanings, which are often confused or misunderstood.
The name "Abbey beer" is very general and implies a more or less tight connection with a religious structure. The use of the expression Abbey beer is completely arbitrary: it does not depend on specific production rules and can be mentioned on a label without any particular limitations.
An "Abbey beer" may actually be brewed within a monastery, or by an external, non-religious brewery that has purchased a license to use the name of an existing abbey.
The expression "Trappist beer", on the other hand, is used exclusively to refer to beer made by the breweries of the monasteries of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, also known as Trappists. In addition, in order to be called "Trappist", a beer must abide by three strict rules:
Only by meeting these three criteria is it possible to obtain the right to display the International Trappist Association hexagonal stamp on the label. Only ten active Trappist breweries currently exist worldwide:
As we have seen, there is a substantial difference between Trappist and Abbey beers:
By definition, Abbey beers can be very different from each other: the name does not indicate a specific style, only very generic characteristics.
Typically, Abbey beers are top fermented beers, they have a high alcohol content and the organoleptic profile is marked by the scents and flavors of yeasts. They present a fairly good attenuation and are quite carbonated.
In general, they fall under the broad style of Belgian Strong Ales. A distinction can be made based on their color (Golden and Dark), but in theory they can belong to any brewing style.
Similarly, the expression "Trappist beer" does not indicate a specific brewing style, but rather a beer that follows strict production rules that do not cover any the flavor and taste. This means that any type of beer can be a "Trappist beer". However, over the centuries some styles have emerged from the monasteries of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance:
Since the terms "Abbey beer" and "Trappist beer" do not define any specific style, it is impossible to establish strict guidelines on how to serve them. However, we can mention some general rules regarding their serving temperature and glass.
Usually these beers have a high alcohol content and are rather complex, so they should not be served too cold: 12 to 14 °C suits most situations.
Again for temperature reasons, the ideal glass is the goblet, which allows the liquid to become warmer faster. This creates a generous foam, one of the most characteristic aesthetic elements of many of these beers.