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How many monks does it take to …

Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval

Which one of these has nothing to do with the amount of beer a monastery brewery makes?

a) The number of monks living at the monastery.
b) How many of the monks are priests.
c) If there is a nearby convent.
d) Whether the monastery is Benedictine or Trappist.
e) If the brewery operates a cafe that serves its beer.

Don’t spend too much time thinking about it. It is a trick question. The answer is “f) all of the above.”

But you wouldn’t know it based on this headline (and the story below it): “Fewer Monks Means Less Belgian Beer For Its Fans.”

Forbes contributor Cecilia Rodriguez writes that Orval, located in the south of Belgium, is in danger of losing its Trappist appellation because of a dwindling number of monks at the monastery.

Due to a shortage of monks … their traditional drink can’t keep up with demand — and it’s about to lose its distinctive and elusive Trappist appellation.

No, Orval is not in danger of losing the right to label its beer Trappist.

Rodriguez reports the number of monks has fallen from about 35 in the 1980s to 12 today. That’s down from 16 when I visited the abbey before writing Brew Like a Monk”. But, here’s the thing: When I visited I was told that one monk had ever been involved with any aspect of the brewing operation since it resumed in 1932, and he drove a forklift truck in the packaging hall.

The number of monks is decreasing, sometimes dramatically, in Trappist monasteries around the world, although the actual number of monasteries more than doubled between 1940 and the beginning of this century. It is something to take seriously, more seriously than beer, but totally unrelated to how much beer a monastery brewery might produce. In order for a beer to be labeled Trappist it must be brewed under the supervision of the monks, not necessarily by the monks themselves. And “supervision” does not mean overseeing day-to-day operations within the brewery. As long as there are monks living at Orval there almost surely will be Orval beer.

Here’s a chart assembled from research in 2005:

Monastery Production Brew staff   Monks   Monks in br’y
Achel 2,000 HL 2 17 1
Chimay 120,000 HL    82   20   0  
Orval 45,000 HL 32 16 0
Rochefort 18,000 HL 15 17 6
Westmalle 120,000 HL 41 20 0
Westvleteren    4,750 HL 10 28 7

Since then, during the same period the number of monks at Orval decreased one third, beer production rose from 45,000 hectoliters to 70,000. Output now is equivalent to a little more than 38,000 U.S. (31-gallon) barrels, or what Georgetown Brewing in Washington produced in 2012.

Coincidentally, three days after the Forbes scare story appeared (which promotes beer and food in Belgium) had an interview with Anne-Françoise Pypaert, who recently took the reins from longtime Orval brewmaster Jean-Marie Rock. Pypaert began working at Orval in 1992 and has see the brewery expand and modernize several times over. She talked how space constraints limit production, but not at all about a shortage of monks in the brewery or concerns Orval will lose the right to label its beer as Trappist.

She also discussed the cheese operation, because she also inherited supervision of cheese making — 260 tons annually — from Rock. It’s dang good cheese. How come we haven’t seen a “Fewer Monks Means Less Belgian Cheese For Its Fans” headline?

Session #82: The sound of silence

The topic for the 82nd gathering of The Session today is “Beery yarns.” Host Steve Lamond suggests that both beery tall tales and gentle recollections are appropriate. I’ve chosen the latter, and what follows is taken almost directly from “Brew Like a Monk” — and written, yikes, going on nine years ago.

Saint Benedictus Abbey of Achel

Inside the brewery café at the monastery of the Saint Benedictus Abbey of Achel, only a single food server and one monk putting items on his cafeteria tray remained when Marc Beirens opened the door and stepped into a chilly December evening.

Beirens, a businessman who has been visiting monasteries since he was a child, took a few strides into a terrace area that was once the abbey’s courtyard. As the sky above turned from dark blue to black, he nodded back toward the brewery, located in a space that once housed the monastery dairy, then to a new gallery and gift shop to his right. Those buildings held pigs and more cattle, before it became obvious agriculture would not sustain the community.

“You should have seen this all a few years ago,” he said, his voice bouncing lightly about an otherwise silent courtyard.

The SessionBeirens appreciates the importance of commerce to the monasteries, and that the six Trappist breweries are part of a larger family. He distributes a range of monastic products — beer is the best selling, but they include cookies, soap, vegetables, wine, and other goods — throughout Belgium and France. His father did the same. “I’ve been visiting monasteries since I was this high,” he said earlier, holding his hand below his waist. That’s why he understands something else about monasteries.

It was dark now, and the courtyard empty.

“I love the silence,” Beirens said. “I used to have a friend who was a monk. He’s gone now.”

We walked along in silence.

“When he was 80 or so, I’d still call him. If I had a problem I could go see him. He didn’t have to say anything and I’d feel better.

“All it took was silence.”


Achel’s is the smallest of the six Trappist breweries in Belgium, yet I can buy its beers a 20-minute walk from my home in Clayton, Missouri. Unfortunately those don’t include the two lower alcohol beers, one pale and one dark, sold only on draft at the pub. The 5° Blond is a particular delight, showcasing subtle fruity aromas and flavors, spicy and properly bitter. It is a reminder how satisfying a relatively “simple” beer can be.

‘Taste and Believe’ – Should you?

Mount Angel Abbey

Friday, Jeff Alworth at Beervana posted the news that the monks at the Mount Angel Abbey plan to build a brewery on their hilltop that overlooks the town of Mount Angel and surrounding farmland, much of covered by hop plants this time of year. And Teri Fahrendorf commented:

I am very happy to hear this. I love visiting Mt Angel Abbey, especially in the spring when the stately chestnut trees are blooming. The flat abbey hilltop is a place of respite and peace. There’s a great bookstore, vespers brings you back to in time to the traditional spirit of medieval Europe, and there are benches to enjoy your picnic lunch while you gaze out across the hop fields. I began visiting when I was brewmaster at Steelhead in Eugene, and I always thought they should have a brewery there. I am very pleased the monks think so too.

That might be all we need to know right now.

However, Jeff has plenty more details that don’t need repeating here.

of course there’s going to be considerable chatter. And certainly skepticism, starting with the slogan “Taste and Believe.” Believe what? In the quality of the beer? In the spirit behind it? In the role the monks will play in the decision making process and eventually brewing? In a time that marketers have pretty much made words like “tradition” and “genuine” unusable is it enough for monks to explain they live by the rule of Saint Benedict? It was written about A.D. 530 and has a pretty good track record. It calls on monks to be self-sufficient through their own labor. It really is that simple. The brewery will be small, but it will be one more way the monastery sustains itself.

As Jeff wrote, the monks invited us to visit the monastery last September. Among other things we sat in on discussions about branding (more about the “swanky brand identity” at and listened to members of the community discuss in all seriousness everything related to getting into the business of brewing.

I thought about this when I was reading the third installment in Evan Rail’s Triplebock: Three Beer Stories. He emphasizes in the afterword that all are fiction, but that, of course, truth is sometimes best revealed through fiction. “The Brewery at Stelsov Abbey” is the story of a small community of monks who, basically out of desperation, strike a deal for the production of beer within their walls. They do not exhibit the due diligence Jeff and I saw last fall. And the story does not end well.

All of this seemed as if it should have been written down somewhere . . . We could have learned in advance how much Abbey Strelsov would have been asked to change, and we could have seen the price of rushing after money, and how it was not to be treated as an implement or utensil, but as something else entirely. And somewhere, in some missing second volume or torn-out appendix, we could discern the future of our beloved cloister, whose future now is sadly not so clear.

There’s no guarantee that the brewery at Mount Angel Abbey will be a success, but chances are that it will remain the “place of respite and peace” that Teri Fahrendorf remembers.

Further, I would guess that the beer will taste like it comes from that particular place, rather than being from nowhere or anywhere. We’ll find out in a year. Or maybe two. There’s a funny bit of wisdom I once heard visiting another monastery: “If monks had been building the pyramids we’d still be working on them.” They take a long view. From the hilltop on which Mount Angel Abbey sits that’s a particularly long view.

A Westvleteren XII pack not bought

Westvleteren XII in Spain

The point is not whether six bottles of Westvleteren XII and a couple of glasses is worth $85. That’s $5 more than it costs for a National Parks annual pass.1 Pretty easy to tell which of those is a better buy.

The point is not whether it is the World’s Best Beer.2

It’s not that a story on NPR (if you are shaking your head at this point, wondering what I’m rambling on about, that’s a good place to start) has drawn more than 100 comments.

Of course, I can’t perfectly describe the point. If there is one, I do think context is involved. When you get the right bottle, it’s an amazing beer. At that moment, particularly if you are seated in the In de Verde cafe beside the monastery, it is hard to imagine a beer being better.

It’s that good in West Flanders because of the context. It can be elsewhere as well. Although Patrick Emerson provides perspective of value from the point of view of an economist, he also puts it in very human terms: “So is Westvleteren 12 worth $85 for six? Well that is for you to decide, for some it will not be and for others it will. This will be a function of how much enjoyment you’ll get from drinking it, how much you cherish the opportunity to try it and your ability to pay for it (among other things).”

And when you are in Toledo, Spain, there may be no context. That’s where the picture at the top was taken in August (I think I posted it on Twitter). The package was €50 (about $63 at the time).

It might still be sitting there.


1 Unless you are 62 years old. Then it costs $10 for a pass that lasts as long as you do.

2 There is no such thing.

There is no ‘I’ in sugar

Excuse this crabby little rant, but I’ve started reading The Naked Pint: An Unadulterated Guide to Craft Beer and the author’s repeat a misstatement I’ve come across several times in just the past week, writing Belgian brewers often use “candi sugar.”

No the don’t. They mostly use what we call plain old sugar.

Yes, there are historical references to “candi sugar” and a few brewers use a product called by various names that include “candy” but they are not at all like the rocklike hunks sold as “candi sugar” in the United States.

Nope, when you taste a brooding beer like Nostradamus from Caracole that’s barley malt and about 15 percent sucrose. I’ve been to the brewery. I’ve seen the big sacks of sugar. They look a lot like the bags of plain white sugar at Westvleteren (which also uses a dark syrup). The whole sugar/syrup thing can get a little dense, so since rather than clutter this space I’ve posted a sugar primer at Brew Like a Monk.

So back to my rant. This matters because:

- What makes Trappist ales and beers they inspired special is not a secret or special ingredient.
- The brewers add sugar for a practical reason — not because of any flavor the sugar might contribute — to boost the level of alcohol yet deliver a beer that isn’t sweet or cloying. Put in positive terms the beer should be “digestible.”
- It’s an adjunct. And that’s not bad.

Phil Markowski, author of Farmhouse Ales: Culture and Craftsmanship in the Belgian Tradition an brewmaster at Southampton Publick House, puts it better than I:

“I believe that there is still a fairly prevalent anti-adjunct bias among many American brewers, both amateur and professional, that makes them hold back from using enough sugar to achieve the same level of dryness that the classic Belgian examples exhibit. It seems that many of these brewers tend to think of adjuncts as ‘dishonest’ ingredients.”

They’re not, so let’s call them what they are.

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