Trap­pist in the Amer­i­can Tra­di­tion

It’s time to con­sider the evo­lu­tion of Trap­pist beers in the New World. As the Amer­i­can craft-beer move­ment en­gages with and de­vel­ops Trap­pist styles, it is also keep­ing some Trap­pist brew­ing tra­di­tions alive.

Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine - - Contents - By Josh Weik­ert

As the Amer­i­can craft-beer move­ment en­gages with and de­vel­ops Trap­pist styles, it is also keep­ing some Trap­pist brew­ing tra­di­tions alive.


Brew­ers make changes to their beer; they re­act to chang­ing cir­cum­stances and shift­ing in­gre­di­ent avail­abil­ity. It seems to be in the na­ture of brew­ers to tin­ker, tweak, tem­per, and try. At the same time, brew­ers value or­der and pro­mote a sense of sta­bil­ity and sys­tem. They en­joy process, pat­tern, pro­gres­sion, and per­fec­tion. Over time, this push-pull di­chotomy leads to steady but in­evitable changes in the beers of the world.

Some­times, though, evo­lu­tion gets a help­ing hand thanks to a change of scenery. Ge­og­ra­phy is the great jump-start in beer evo­lu­tion. When a style trav­els great distances, it is forced to adapt to a new cli­mate, new con­di­tions, new in­gre­di­ents, and even new mi­cro­biota.

It’s with this in mind that we con­sider the evo­lu­tion of Trap­pist beers in the New World. Trap­pist brew­eries in Europe have found their way across the At­lantic, but that’s not the whole story: Even if we didn’t have Trap­pist monas­ter­ies here, we would still have craft brew­eries pro­duc­ing beers in the style of Trap­pist monas­ter­ies. It’s time to ex­am­ine the (not nearly as hide­bound as you think) ori­gins and tra­di­tions of Trap­pist brew­eries and how the Amer­i­can craft-beer move­ment has en­gaged with and de­vel­oped Trap­pist styles—and, in­ter­est­ingly, how Amer­i­can craft brew­ers are also keep­ing some Trap­pist brew­ing tra­di­tions alive.

The Trap­pists, Briefly

“Trap­pist” is some­times used in­ter­change­ably with “monas­tic” (that is, re­lat­ing to monks). It’s not en­tirely apt, but it’s close enough for “beer” pur­poses. The Trap­pists are an or­der of monks af­fil­i­ated with the Cis­ter­cian monastery in La Trappe, France, and the term is trade­marked to pre­vent its use by non-trap­pist brew­eries or in­dus­tries (Trap­pist monks pro­duce more than beer!). To re­ceive the Trap­pist la­bel, brew­eries must meet sev­eral con­di­tions.

Trap­pist brew­eries are brew­eries that are su­per­vised by monks re­sid­ing in a Trap­pist monastery (even if lay peo­ple are hired to do the ac­tual brew­ing). Fur­ther, the monastery’s re­li­gious life is of pri­mary im­por­tance (it’s a monastery with a brew­ery, not a brew­ery with a monastery), and the brew­ery ex­ists to sup­port the monastery and its char­i­ta­ble pur­poses rather than to turn a profit.

Monks have been brew­ing for cen­turies, but most Trap­pist brew­eries (and the styles they de­vel­oped) are much more mod­ern, dat­ing gen­er­ally to the early nine­teenth cen­tury in­stead of the Mid­dle Ages. Since then, fewer than a dozen Trap­pist brew­eries have been rec­og­nized and are still in op­er­a­tion, though there are also “abbey” brew­eries, which brew sim­i­lar styles and may (or may not) be as­so­ci­ated with a re­li­gious or­der. There—all caught up!

Then there are what we think of as the Trap­pist styles. Gen­er­ally, this is a some­what-limited set of beers: the Sin­gle, Dubbel, Tripel, and Quad (or Grand Cru or Bel­gian Dark Strong—there’s no con­sen­sus on what to call the strong­est and dark­est of the Trap­pist/abbey styles). The beers gen­er­ally in­crease in strength as we work up­ward from Sin­gle to Quad, and the Sin­gle and Tripel are pale beers while the Dubbel and Quad are darker.

Each is rel­a­tively strong—most ex­am­ples are at least 6 per­cent ABV, with Tripels and Quads reach­ing up into the

dou­ble-dig­its. They also share a trend to­ward be­ing light-bod­ied, dry-fin­ish­ing, higher-car­bon­a­tion beers, thanks to the ad­di­tion of sim­ple sug­ars (most no­tably, Bel­gian candi sugar), and most also fea­ture no­tice­able fer­men­ta­tion fla­vors (usu­ally but not ex­clu­sively of pear, pep­per, and cit­rus), whether from re­gion­ally-se­lected yeast strains or lo­cal mi­cro­biota.

A brief di­ver­sion here for those who are think­ing, “Hey, aren’t Bel­gian strong ales and abbey beers sweet?” No, not re­ally. Some might seem so be­cause they’re com­ing to you with some age on them thanks to tran­sit times, and as a re­sult they’ve lost some of their orig­i­nal hops aro­mas/fla­vors (the Sin­gle and some Tripels, in Europe, can be quite hoppy) and bit­ter­ness. Oth­ers might seem so be­cause higher-al­co­hol and sweeter beers travel well and have of­ten been brewed specif­i­cally as “Ex­port” beers.

“At home,” though, most Trap­pist styles fin­ish dry.

There’s just one more thing to ad­dress be­fore we move on to the un­couth Amer­i­cans and their bas­tardiza­tion of these an­cient styles born of cen­turies of brew­ing tra­di­tion: they’re not as stuck up as you’re pic­tur­ing them to be. Trap­pist brew­eries have a long tra­di­tion of chal­leng­ing typ­i­cal beer styles and recipes, which is one rea­son they were born in the first place and sur­vived into the present day. Trap­pist brew­eries have ex­per­i­mented with dif--

fer­ent strengths, dif­fer­ent ad­juncts, with ag­ing on oak and fruit, and more.

So, a key el­e­ment to con­sider is that the Amer­i­can­iza­tion of these styles, to the ex­tent that it has hap­pened and is hap­pen­ing, is com­pletely in keep­ing with their ori­gins.

Com­ing to Amer­ica

While stay­ing true to the gen­eral struc­ture of Trap­pist beers, mod­ern craft brew­eries have grabbed on with both hands and worked the recipes for these styles into new and in­ter­est­ing cre­ations. Hops, spices, bar­rel ag­ing, and more have yielded new ver­sions of revered styles.

I should be­gin here by point­ing out that vir­tu­ally none of the changes de­scribed be­low are nec­es­sar­ily ver­boten in Trap­pist brew­eries—in­di­vid­ual brew­eries have drifted into these ar­eas al­ready, some­times ag­gres­sively so! But they rep­re­sent a change in the col­lec­tive and over­all ap­proach to these styles.

Most Trap­pist brew­eries are still pro­duc­ing mostly stan­dard Trap­pist styles. By com­par­i­son, most Amer­i­can craft brew­eries are pro­duc­ing mostly “mod­i­fied” Trap­pist styles. There’s a lot of ex­per­i­men­tal over­lap be­tween those two pools of brew­eries, and you could also ar­gue that the suc­cess of Amer­i­can craft beer has bled back into Trap­pist brew­houses, which some­times adopt the new ap­proaches, but the typ­i­cal beer brewed by each is still rather dif­fer­ent.

HOPS Hop­ping is an in­tu­itive place to start, since what de­fines most Amer­i­can styles (and, it might be said, Amer­i­can­ized craft beer in Europe) is an in­crease in the use of fla­vor and aroma hops—but of a par­tic­u­lar char­ac­ter.

Jeremy My­ers, Brew­mas­ter and Owner of Ne­shaminy Creek Brew­ing Com­pany, says, “I think the most no­tice­able thing Amer­i­can brew­ers have done is use cit­rus and trop­i­cal fruit–for­ward Amer­i­can hops to push some of the typ­i­cal Bel­gian yeast ester pro­files more in that di­rec­tion rather than in a more spicy and pep­per-like di­rec­tion.”

This drift to­ward the fruitier ex­pres­sion of the styles is sig­nif­i­cant. It isn’t sim­ply a ques­tion of in­creas­ing hops; it’s that they’re be­ing used to make a choice about the fla­vor pro­file of the beer style. BAR­RELS We’re also see­ing more Trap­pist-style beers in bar­rels. This isn’t un­heard of in Trap­pist brew­eries (Chi­may Grande Réserve and La Trappe Quadru­pel are both now avail­able in bar­rel-aged form), but it’s a rel­a­tively re­cent in­no­va­tion for them. Nor are you see­ing Amer­i­can brew­ers stick­ing with your typ­i­cal charred-oak bar­rels: rum, whiskey, and te­quila bar­rel– aged Trap­pist styles abound.

As an ex­am­ple of how “new” these beers are get­ting, Josh Bushey, head brewer at Two Rivers Brew­ing Com­pany in Eas­ton, Penn­syl­va­nia, brews a te­quila bar­rel–aged tripel with Hull Melon hops and twelve strains of Bret­tanomyces (see page 67 for the recipe).

As bar­rel pro­grams have be­come al­most com­mon in even small craft brew­eries, it was in­evitable that Trap­pist styles would end up in them.

HY­BRID AND FU­SION STYLES Amer­i­can brew­eries are also de­vel­op­ing hy­brid or fu­sion styles of Trap­pist beer. One brew­ery in par­tic­u­lar is worth notic­ing since it’s ac­tu­ally a Trap­pist brew­ery in Spencer, Mas­sachusetts. Spencer Brew­ery—the brew­ing arm of St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Cis­ter­cian monastery—was rec­og­nized by the In­ter­na­tional Trap­pist As­so­ci­a­tion as a Trap­pist brew­ery in 2013 (though the monastery was founded in the 1950s), and since then, they have pro­duced sev­eral well-re­ceived Trap­pist beers.

They brew some tra­di­tional Trap­pist styles—a pa­ters­bier (a tra­di­tional re­fec­tory ale) and a quad (al­beit with Amer­i­can hops)—but also a Trap­pist IPA? And a Trap­pist im­pe­rial stout? And what ap­pears to be a bar­rel-aged Bock-in­spired beer? Nowhere does the de­vel­op­ment of Trap­pist styles in the Americas come home as clearly as it does at Spencer.

AD­JUNCTS Beyond hops and bar­rels and styles, ad­junct in­gre­di­ents and spices are also get­ting an up­date. Even “tra­di­tion-minded” Amer­i­can brew­eries such as Brew­ery Om­megang and The Lost Abbey don’t stick ex­clu­sively to Bel­gian candi sug­ars for ad­junct sugar, pre­fer­ring dex­trose in­stead, and some use honey, light mo­lasses, or golden trea­cle.

Amer­i­can brew­eries also are more likely to add ac­tual spices to the beer (rather than re­ly­ing on fer­men­ta­tion char­ac­ter). This might not sound all that rad­i­cal, but it’s ac­tu­ally be­come quite rare in Trap­pist brew­eries.

“Our Abbey Ale does con­tain spices, which is not par­tic­u­larly com­mon in cur­rent Bel­gian beers,” Om­megang’s Phil Lein­hart says, but notes that this prac­tice “hear­kens back to Bel­gian brew­ing in the past rather than an Amer­i­can in­no­va­tion.”


Lein­hart’s point is an im­por­tant one. For as much as Amer­i­can brew­eries are push­ing the bound­aries of Trap­pist styles, they’re also main­tain­ing or re­viv­ing some brew­ing tra­di­tions rather than buck­ing them.

Tomme Arthur, COO and co­founder of The Lost Abbey, says it best: “I feel there is room on both sides of the aisle here. That be­ing said, I ap­proach abbey and Trap­pist styles from a more con­ven­tional sense of things and tend to es­chew Amer­i­can hops and that sense of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion de­rived from their new fla­vors. While I have had some nice beers that take lib­er­ties with these in­gre­di­ents, I feel very strongly if we’re look­ing at these Old World styles, then per­haps we shouldn’t chase too much of a fu­sion sort of ba­sis.”

In­no­va­tion for its own sake—if the orig­i­nal, au­then­tic prod­uct is al­ready great—isn’t nec­es­sar­ily a good thing. If it isn’t bro­ken, why fix it? Arthur goes on, “Ba­si­cally like French cook­ing... fidelity is where I tend to land.”

My­ers at Ne­shaminy Creek would seem to agree. They like “buck­ing Bel­gian brew­ing tra­di­tions,” he says, “but then again we also go the other di­rec­tion, too, and try to make beers true to form and style as well, such as us­ing tur­bid mashes in some of our sour beers and do­ing mixed-cul­ture fer­men­ta­tions.”

That Amer­i­can brew­eries are in the busi­ness of preser­va­tion as well as in­no­va­tion might seem like an odd jux­ta­po­si­tion, but it isn’t. Tra­di­tion and in­no­va­tion in the ser­vice of beer is very much in keep­ing with the Trap­pist brew­ing ethos. There is no one “right” way to make any beer, even one with as long a his­tory as a Trap­pist.

De­spite that lengthy his­tory and the im­pres­sion of stolid or­tho­doxy found in the rules for what con­sti­tutes a Trap­pist brew­ery (and, of course, in the monas­tic Rule of St. Bene­dict it­self), Trap­pist brew­eries are in­sti­tu­tions that have nur­tured, de­vel­oped, and grown their own styles over time. The Amer­i­can craft-beer scene is sim­ply con­tin­u­ing that tra­di­tion of in­no­va­tion. As you drink and brew these beers for your­self, you should take this as li­cense to ex­per­i­ment and con­trib­ute. Use new in­gre­di­ents, pro­cesses, and tools lib­er­ally, right along­side the tra­di­tional.

Heck, the monks might be fol­low­ing your lead even­tu­ally.

Beer evolves—but maybe brew­ing hasn’t changed quite as much as we think.

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