When beer lovers think of Belgium, they think of Trappist beers. Yes, the most famous and cherished beers of Belgium originate within the walls of prayer. Trappist beers are strong ales that are created inside a Trappist Abbey, where monks have made beer for hundreds of years in order to support their way of life, causes, and of course drink! How many Trappist breweries there are depends on who you ask. For this article we will only be discussing the Authentic Trappist Beers which require the brewing process to occur within Belgian Trappist abbey walls. While these ales pack a punch, most ranging between 6%-10% alcohol, on the pallet these beautifully constructed ales are smooth and full of rich flavors. These beers are not all the same but generally come in three varieties, blondes, dubbels ,and triples. Blondes are the lighter of the three and also tend to have lower alcohol contents. Dubbels are brown ales that sit around 6%-8% alcohol while Tripels are the strongest Trappist beers and range between 8%-10%. With 6 authentic Trappist breweries scattered across the country, it can be difficult to choose which ones to go to. Claire and I are here to make that decision easier for you.
Choosing Which Trappist Breweries to Go to
If you are looking for a brewery tour then Trappist breweries are not for you. All of the breweries are not open to visitors and only a few even allow you onto their abbey grounds. However, if you want to have a chance to try some of the rarest beer in the world and special Monk table beers made available only at the abbeys themselves, then hit the road and start abbey hopping!
Perhaps the most difficult part of visiting Trappist breweries is getting to the breweries themselves. Most of the breweries are located in small towns in the middle of nowhere with scarce means of public transportation. Due to this, the best way to experience all of the breweries is to hire a private car. As a car was not an option for us, and we knew we didn’t need to visit all of the breweries, a few trains and your own two feet can get you to one of these legendary beer sanctuaries in due time. Below you will find a description of what you will find at each brewery in order to help you decide which ones to go to.
Located up towards the Netherlands, the abbey of Westmalle is not open to visitors. They do however have a cafe where you can try all of their beers along with cheese that the monks also make. The special opportunity for coming here is to try the monks table beer that they make only for themselves. The cafe is the only place outsiders can buy this beer.
To the Southeast of Belgium lies Abbey Trappist Rochefort. This is the least open of the breweries as they do not allow visitors to the abbey and they also do not have a cafe where you can try their beer.
Orval is located very close to the French border and is the most welcoming of the Trappist breweries. The abbey grounds are open to walk around and you can even stay at the abbey as long as you are there for spiritual reasons. While you can visit the abbey and taste all of their beers, there is no tour of the brewery itself.
Also located in Flanders, Chimay is perhaps the most well known Trappist beer internationally. Like Orval, parts of the abbey are open to visitors and there is a cafe that serves all of their beers. Like Westmalle, visitors have the treat of being able to try the Monks’ table beer.
Located directly across from the Dutch border (part of the Abbey is actually in the Netherlands), Achel does not allow visitors into the abbey but the cafe is perhaps the nicest of the breweries. Inside the cafe, you can watch the monks brew the beer in front of you through a large glass window that looks into the brewery.
Westvleteren, situated in an area of Belgium that took the heaviest toll during WWI, is the most secretive of the Trappist beers and as such has become a Holy Grail of beers for enthusiasts. The only way to get your hands on these brews is to go to the abbey itself. The cheapest and most difficult way to get the beer, is to call the abbey and reserve a case of 24 for pick up. Chances are, you will not get through and have to resort to the option that Claire and I took by going to the only other place in the world to legally buy the beer, going across the street to the abbey’s cafe where you can savor this sacred nectar. While the beer costs more here (5 euro a glass), you can sit back and know that you are now one of the privileged few to have the opportunity to try one of the most sought after and highly rated beers in the world. At the cafe, you can also buy some of the monks abbey cheese which goes excellent with their beers.
If you only have time for one Trappist Brewery…
Make it Westvletern. This is the only beer that you will not find at home and IF you do find it back home, it is technically against the law and will come at a price of over $20. Getting here is a little tricky without a car however. To get there, take a train to the town of Popringe from where it is a four mile walk to the abbey. The walk is rather scenic, taking you through Belgian countryside and hop farms. There is a bus that runs daily which will cut the distance in half (once or twice a day) but the times are very inconvenient for tourists. Claire and I were planning on using the bus to get us closer to the abbey, but our train was delayed and we missed it. If your coming without wheels, plan on walking A LOT.
The walk was rather enjoyable as it felt more like a pilgrimage than a brewery visit. Trust me when I say that the beer is well worth the 8 miles of walking you will do that day. After having all of the authentic Trappist beers, this is by far my favorite and is among my top three beers that I have had the pleasure of consuming.
Eric, I have time for more than one! Where else should I go?
As for the others, since you can buy most of their beer all over the world and in every beer store in Belgium, I would recommend a trip to either Westmalle or Chimay. While you can’t get inside the breweries themselves, at least you have the opportunity to try something that you can’t get anywhere else but at the abbeys themselves.