Although the Trappist order of Catholic monks is best known for their devotion to their vows, a close second is the beer they have been brewing for centuries. The most famous example, Westvleteren XII, is consistently cited as the best beer in the entire world.
The Early Days
Long before people would pay top dollar for Westvleteren XII, the order that would brew it was just a single monastery in Normandy, France. People began calling them Trappists, after the name of their monastery, La Grande Trappe Abbey.
When the French Revolution exploded, the Trappists, like many Christian orders, found themselves needing to flee. As Napoleon spread his influence over Europe, the Trappists needed to continue staying ahead of his grasp. This brought many Trappists to America and others to Belgium. While many Trappists would return to their home country after the French Revolution died out, many stayed where they had ended up.
Today, there are around 170 Trappist monasteries throughout the world. The pope recognized them as their own holy order in 1892. However, not all of them produce beer and only one brews Westvleteren XII.
Though Westvleteren XII has become one of the most in-demand beers on the planet, spirits have always served a practical purpose for the monks. Nowadays, they use Westvleteren XII and their other beers to raise money for their charities and own necessities.
However, they first began brewing because normal water was considered unsafe to drink. Beer and wine were not only free of the many diseases to be found in water, they also carried a number of key nutrients.
The first design for a monastic brewery dates back to 820. It was then that the Saint Gall Monastery built one brewery for paying customers, one for the poor who couldn’t afford it and one to make their own supply.
This eventually led to the economy of beer brewing. The monks realized that you could make “second run” beer, by running water through the grain mash a second time. From this, they would create the lower-percentage alcohol they would drink themselves. Not only did they prefer to sell the higher-percentage alcohol to others, they found out that people would gladly pay more for it. With this increase income, the monks could go and buy more grain.
Eventually, the monks would have up to four runs, with the strongest beer being sold or given away, theirs being one of the ones in the middle and the least-strong going to the poor.
Dawn of the Westvleteren XII
At the beginning of the 20th century, the monks received another huge advantage when Belgium outlawed liquor in 1919. This practically forced the market into buying beer brewed by the Trappists, like the Westvleteren XII. The monks responded by investing in the best possible machinery for brewing (the thought was that they were essentially brewing in God’s name and thus beholden to do their best).
In 1940, Trappists in the Saint-Sixtus Abbey would brew their first Westvleteren XII. Today, this beer is considered to be one of the best available in the entire world. However, there are nine other Trappist breweriess (they now carry an official logo) and each is considered to be of the highest-quality.
Though Westvleteren XII has found worldwide popularity recently, it’s been more than 70 years in the making. The Westvleteren XII also benefits from a long tradition of brewing that has been passed down over the centuries too.