On the 19th of January 2021 Belgian Smaak posed the challenge on Twitter of listing the Belgian Trappist breweries from 1-6 in order of preference. Among the questions over the criteria for the list (were they to rate specific beers or breweries as a whole) and arguments for honorary inclusion of Abbey-style breweries (such as St.Bernardus) a clear pattern occurred: Achel Brewery consistantly appeared at number 6. Two days later, as though condemned by popular opinion, the news broke that Achel Brewery had lost its status as an official Trappist producer, after the last two monks at the Abbey of St Benedict in Hamont-Achel retired. To many this came as no surprise. Aside from religion playing a decreased role in a modern world dominated by science and technology, the Catholic Church has in recent years struggled with recruitment and public image (to put it mildly) and the quiet cloistered lifestyle of the monastery has inevitably lost it’s lustre.
The history of the Abbey at Achel is a torrid one with the site being traced back to 1648, when a group of Dutch monks built a Chapel in Achel. From its humble beginnings St Benedict’s became an Abbey in 1686. Unfortunately, the Abbey was destroyed during the French Revolutionary Wars (1789-1799), was resurrected in 1844 by monks from Westmalle, who also brought agriculture to the site. The first beer to be brewed on site was in 1852 and the Abbey officially became a Trappist monastery in 1871. But once again the Abbey had to be abandoned due to German occupation in 1914, and in 1917 the Germans dismantled the brewery to claim 700kg of copper. The Abbey was rebuilt after WW2 between 1946 and 1952, but brewing did not resume until monks from Westmalle and Rochefort came together to rebuild the brewery in 1998, which is when the beer received the Authentic Trappist Product label. As the beer brand steadily grew the incumbents of the Abbey dwindled. Achel was already living on borrowed time and in 2017, it was stated in Trappist Beer Travels :
“The quiet when the cafe is closed alludes to something far sadder: The Community of Achel is incredibly small — only four brothers. Achel is an aging community , with the youngest being seventy-three at the time of our tour.“P46. Trappist Beer Travels by Caroline Wallace, Sarah Wood and Jessica Deahl
Achel was already the smallest of the Belgian Trappist breweries, but it was also the youngest as far as receiving certification as an Authentic Trappist Producer.
In 1996 the International Trappist Association (ITA) was established and along with it the Authentic Trappist Product (ATP) seal. This prevented breweries with no association to Abbeys or Trappist Monasteries from branding their beers as Trappist and take advantage of the rising demand for true Trappist products. To qualify for this prestigeous certification a product such as beer, liqueur, cheese or chocolate must adhere to a stringent list of criteria as laid out by the ITA with the three key ones being:
- All products must be made within the immediate surroundings of the abbey;
- Production must be carried out under the supervision of the monks or nuns;
- Profits should be intended for the needs of the monastic community, for purposes of solidarity within the Trappist Order, or for development projects and charitable works.
According to Belgian Brewer and writer Jeff Van Den Steen ‘Every Trappist beer is an Abbey beer, but not every Abbey is a Trappist one‘ and as is evident from this list of criteria above, now that the last Monks have left the building, Achel beer will no longer qualify for this much revered distinction.
Although there is no longer a community of Monks at the Abbey this does not spell the end of Achel as a Brewery, with much of the brewing and related management having already been performed by a layperson – Marc Knops – and so production can continue. In fact all of the Belgian Trappist breweries currently rely upon a team of laypeople and the role of the monks in the process serves to reach the minimum requirements laid out by the ITA. For example, at Chimay barely a dozen monks are left in residence and therefore require more laypeople than there are monks remaining to maintain the considerable output of this particular brewery (the largest of the Belgian Trappist producers). While at Westvletern Brewery production involves each monk being paired with one layperson allowing them to remain actively involved throughout the process while ensuring necessary breaks in their work to remain focused on the prayer side of their vocation. After all, the rule of Saint Benedict and the motto of the Trappist monks is Ora et Labora (Pray and Work); prayer is ranked above work in the daily lives of the monks. So, with the increase in demand from thirsty beer geeks and rabid collectors, coupled with an aging monastic community, how much longer can the Trappist breweries maintain their accredited Trappist status and what does it mean for the future of the Trappist seal?
There appears to be no Deus ex machina in the story of monastic brewing; with post-war globalisation and industrialisation, the modern world has, if anything, brought about the death of God by the machine. The involvement of the lay community with production may now be the only way to ensure the survival of these products. However, there is no guarantee that the Catholic Church would continue to fund even the most lucrative breweries if the proceeds are no longer directly benefiting an active community of monks, and without an influx of people taking Holy orders the ATP seal is likely to disappear along with communities.
This leaves us to question how significant a role the ATP seal will play in the future of these beers. Breweries such as St.Bernardus had previously been termed as a Trappist Beer producer (brewing under official license for St.Sixtus) until 1962 when the term Trappist became a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO). This has not affected the continuation nor high regard with which the brewery is held or the enormous success that they have had. There is no reason therefore that Achel could not continue in the same vain. The quality of products in these monastic settings does not diminish with decreased involvement of the Trappist community, and the hard work of the lay community actually helps to secure a future for these products long past the seemly inevitable end to the Trappist way of life. Surely the seal is of little importance when compared to the assured continuation of these traditional beers?