Godliness and beer — for Belgium’s Trappist monks it’s a winning combination.
Around the western world religious orders struggle to raise enough money to maintain their monasteries. Most struggle even to be noticed.
Not so in Belgium, where every Trappist monastery pays for its own upkeep and people queue outside the gates to get in. These monks could drive Lamborghinis if they didn’t give their profits to charity.
The reason for this success will resonate with beer-loving readers — Belgium’s Trappist monks make some of the world’s finest brews. Some experts argue that a Trappist beer called Westvleteren 12 is in fact the best in the world.
So when I asked a Dutch cousin to show me his favourite brew, he took me — where else? — to the nearest Trappist monastery.
Achelse Kluis is set in forest in the very north of Belgium, just 100 metres from the Dutch border. It’s the smallest of Belgium’s Trappist breweries but there’s nothing small about the taste of the six beers produced on site.
The brewery’s 5 per cent beers, called Achel Blond and Achel Bruin (brown), are available only on tap at the monastery. Four others, all top-fermented and with a mind-fogging alcohol content of 8 or 9.5 per cent, are sold in the monastery off-licence and occasionally in Belgian supermarkets.
If, like cousin Eric and I, you’re coming from the Netherlands, the best way to get to Achelse Kluis is by bicycle. The scenic two-hour ride from the city of Eindhoven through forest and heathland is a superb way to work up a thirst.
Due to time constraints — Eric had to go to work that afternoon — we went by motorbike instead. At Eric’s pace it felt like it took about 3.5 seconds to reach the monastery. All I remember is terror and forest scenery reduced to a green blur.
When we arrived the monastery car park was already crammed with bikes and the courtyard with lycra-clad cyclists babbling in Dutch, Flemish and German. Most were grey-haired; all were glowing with good health and possibly also with beer.
Unlike other Belgian drinking establishments Achelse Kluis has just two beers on tap, no table service — you have to queue inside at a functional stainless steel counter — and a 5pm closing time.
Eric ordered a Blond while I went for the fuller, darker Bruin, both served in bowl-shaped stemmed glasses. We also ordered a “potje kaas”, a pot of monk-made cheese cubes served with a splash of mustard.
Between mouthfuls Eric told me he visited Achelse Kluis every few months, mostly for the beer but also for a taste of the Belgian way of life.
“It’s not like Holland. The atmosphere, the people are different. The Dutch are loud and rowdy, they’re very direct. The Belgians are more reserved. The food is better too, and of course the beer. It’s probably the best in the world.”
In all the times he’d visited, however, he’d never seen the monks who make the beer. At times he’d been sorely tempted to scale the wall for a peek.
Emboldened by a few drinks I set off to explore the monastery and found a small museum, a busy off-licence selling Trappist beers, and a vast souvenir shop peddling religious paraphernalia such as Jesus candles and rosaries.
What I really wanted to see was the monks working their magic in the brewery but everywhere my way was barred by wrought-iron gates and high brick walls.
It turns out that life in the Trappist order — or, to give its full name, the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance — is based on quiet contemplation, prayer and manual work, not showing tourists around or answering inane questions.
I asked the lady behind the bar if she could let me in to the brewery to see the monks at work. She laughed.
“Pffft! Even we can’t get inside,” she said, then pointed to a glass wall with a view of a row of lagering tanks. In the distance I could just make out a hooded figure clad in a long brown habit shuffling among the tanks and pipes. One of the world’s great beer makers was at work.
Worldwide only 11 Trappist monasteries make beer — six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands and one each in the US, Austria and Italy. Others make everything from cheese to clothing and coffins. The monks at New Zealand’s only Trappist monastery, at Takapau in Hawke’s Bay, run a dairy farm.