Ale and hearty: Aging Trappist monks brew on

Tue Oct 20, 2009 8:21am EDT
 
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By Philip Blenkinsop

WESTMALLE, Belgium (Reuters) - A gold standard for beer connoisseurs, the Trappist ale in Westmalle Abbey streams through state-of-the-art equipment with not a monk in sight.

It's thoroughly in accord with strict criteria -- that brewing be carried out within the walls of a Trappist abbey and controlled by monks -- but shows the changes wrought on the potent ales by modern life and aging monastic populations.

"The requirements are a lot greater these days," said Westmalle director Philippe Van Assche as he stood beside a 10 million euro ($15 million) bottling plant.

"You need a lab, there are health standards to meet, bottling too -- so a certain size is required."

Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle and Westvleteren from Belgium and La Trappe from the Netherlands are the world's only Trappist brews.

They are distinct in Belgium from Abbey beers, which are commercially produced with links to a monastery or just given monastic branding. Anheuser-Busch InBev's Leffe, for example, is named after a real abbey, but brewed in a 6 million hectoliter capacity plant.

"Trappist beers are the ultimate appellation controlee in the beer world," said Tim Webb, author of Good Beer Guide Belgium. "Trappist breweries wish to be great quality, although there are some great Abbey beers around."

But the average age of monks in their late 60s or 70s in some abbeys begs questions about the future.   Continued...

 
<p>Bottles of Westmalle beer are seen at the production line at Westmalle brewery September 22, 2009. Monks may no longer show up on the factory floor at Westmalle, but they ensure its marketing is earnest and have capped production at 120,000 hectolitres (12 million litres), making it the second largest Trappist brewer, after Chimay. Picture taken September 22, 2009. REUTERS/Yves Herman</p>