It came as a surprise to discover that monks were no longer involved in the beer-making at Trappist brewer Westmalle during a visit to research for a feature of Trappist beers. With the exception of small-scale Westvleteren that is pretty much the case at all seven Trappist breweries in Belgium and the Netherlands.
It is largely the result of demographics – the average age of monks at many monasteries in western Europe is up in the 50s, 60s or 70s, hardly an age to be pushing around barrels. The modern brewery is also very much automated, requiring fewer people on the factory floor, but a number of trouble-shooting experts – a monastery has no guarantee of having an brewing engineer in its flock.
Monks at Koningshoeven Abbey in the Netherlands do still prepare gift packages of its La Trappe beer. It helps that their average age is just below 60. “We are a bit lucky,” admitted brewing chief Gijs Swinkels.
So what makes a Trappist beer different from any other brew? It’s not the taste, the colour or even the strength – from 5 percent Achels to the 11.3 percent alcohol of the Rochefort 10.
The answer is threefold and applies to other Trappist products such as cheese, biscuits and chocolate: 1. It must be made within the walls of a Trappist monastery; 2. It must be controlled by monks; and 3. The profits must be used for upkeep of the monastery and its community and for its charitable projects.
Sure enough monks do take key decisions on investment, production size and the limited level of marketing.
However, the very ageing that has forced monks to cease day-to-day tasks raises questions about the future of the beers — the pinnacle of brewing to some beer connoisseurs, but just a means to an end for the monks.
Trappist monks accept that some communities may die out, while others emerge. Will some of the Trappist beers die out too?
A Belgian court is due to rule next week on a ban on the Muslim headscarf at two schools in Dutch-speaking Flanders, an issue that has led to a death threat for one school principal and graffiti sprayed on walls. The schools in Antwerp and nearby Hoboken introduced the ban at the start of the school year last week, arguing that Muslim girls were being pressured to wear headscarves by their families and peers.
Remember the Singing Nun? If you’re old enough to recall the song “Dominique”, you might want to see a new Belgian film“Soeur Sourire” (“Sister Smile”) about the nun whose hit song topped the charts in Europe and North America in 1963. Then again, you might not … The song was far more upbeat than the sad story behind it.