Belgium's Trappist monks – too adept at beer brewing for their own good?

Numbers may be declining but production is thriving, leading to some soul-searching

Brother Xavier is pragmatic about the declining community of monks at Orval Abbey in a leafy corner of southern Belgium. “Monastic life is not a question of numbers,” he muses during a brief break in his daily routine of prayer, work and meditation. Besides, he says, while fewer European men are finding their vocation, Orval is now welcoming monks from as far away as Rwanda and Mexico.

Beer aficionados will be breathing a sigh of relief. For Orval not only serves as a place of quiet contemplation and worship: it is also one of a handful of monasteries in the world producing beer granted the hallowed label of Authentic Trappist Product. This means the ale is made behind abbey walls under the supervision of monks from the Trappist branch of the Cistercian order. When an erroneous report that Orval might lose its Trappist status because of the dwindling number of monks spread across beer blogs last year, the product started flying off the shelves.

In fact this year marks an unprecedented expansion of the centuries-old tradition of Trappist beer. For the first time, a monastery in the United States has been granted permission to start its own brewing operations.

“There are 160 houses of the order in the world,” says François de Harenne, Orval’s commercial director, who is also the spokesman for the Belgium-based International Trappist Association. “Each of them must earn money for their own needs, and the activities of the Belgian breweries are the most successful. We can sell our beers worldwide, and they were looking for new earnings.”

Production at Orval has shot up 70 per cent in a decade, with demand surging in markets reaching from Canada to Japan. But commercial success has provoked some soul-searching for the monks. Their life is one of austerity and piety adhering to the strict rules of St Benedict: ora et labora – pray and work. Communities must be self-sustaining with the proceeds of their labour supporting the monks or going to charitable projects, but no one can make a profit or materially benefit from their work.

Orval’s community was first established in the 13th century, and the brewery was set up in 1926. Proceeds from Orval’s ale are first spent on upkeep and charitable endeavours, before being reinvested in the brewery. The result is a small building tucked in a corner of the grounds and crammed with the most modern brewing equipment available.

Brother Xavier says the monastery has capped output as ‘we have no other needs’ Brother Xavier says the monastery has capped output as ‘we have no other needs’

However, global attention has been a mixed blessing. Since the Westvleteren ale produced by Saint Sixtus abbey in northern Belgium was named best beer in the world in 2012, the monks appear exasperated by the customers queuing up at the gates, and have refused to increase production beyond 4,750 hectolitres a year. At the other end of the spectrum, the Trappist Chimay brewery is increasing exports and does advertise, but has special dispensation as it is in an area with high unemployment and expansion meets a social need of the community.

When Orval’s production peaked at 70,000 hectolitres in 2012 – up from 40,000 hectolitres in 2000 – the monks looked around at their handsome church, state-of-the-art brewery and portfolio of charities, and decided to cap production. “We have no other needs,” says Brother Xavier.

While it is an adherence to their spiritual goals rather than their dwindling community which is now causing shortages of Orval, a demographic crisis could threaten the smallest Trappist brewery, Achel, which has only six monks left in the community, most of them over the age of 70.

For decades religious orders of all denominations have been battling a decline in recruits, with a rise in secularism and declining trust in the church blamed for the fall. The Trappist order reports a decline of 20 per cent since 1940. Developing countries are providing some replacements, with 22 Trappist monasteries and nunneries across Africa and the same number in Asia. Orval’s community is down to 12 monks from 35 a few decades ago, but the brewing is left in the hands of 35 lay people. This approach means that production is not affected by the fluctuating number of monks.

The expansion outside Belgium is also helping to keep the unique tradition alive. In 1997, Trappist status was bestowed on the Koningshoeven brewery in The Netherlands, and the last two years have seen a second monastery in The Netherlands, one in Austria, and St Joseph’s of Spencer, Massachusetts, all being allowed to call their brews Trappist ale.

The US beer blogger Charles D Cook, who runs, believes the expansion demonstrates the Trappist label can survive. “The Trappists have monasteries all over the world and Spencer has over 65 monks,” he says. “So if the Trappists want to they can definitely have some monks move around here and there as they have done for hundreds of years.”

Silence is golden: Life inside the order

At the last official count of members within the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists, released at the end of 2013, there were around 2,000 monks and 1,700 nuns, who are sometimes referred as Trappistines.

Despite it being one of the things that the order are seemingly best known for, the members have never actually been asked to take a vow of silence. However, in following the Rule of St Benedict, an atmosphere of silence is a promise the monks and nuns take when pledging ‘conversion’, or fidelity to monastic life, after around five or six years in the monastery. For the order, silence is important in contributing to continual prayer.

The main reasons for speaking in the monasteries is functional use in helping to complete work, spiritual exchanges with superiors, or group prayer. Many monasteries have libraries which contain not only books used for study or prayer, but newspapers or periodicals, meaning those in the order can keep up to date with events.

There are examples of internet use being allowed for the purpose of study, and the use of email to contact family members. Writing letters is a key way that many of the monks and nuns contact those outside their monastery.

Life and Style
Customers can get their caffeine fix on the move
food + drink
Life and Style
techCould new invention save millions in healthcare bills?
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
peoplePamela Anderson rejects ice bucket challenge because of ALS experiments on animals
Life and Style
food + drinkThese simple recipes will have you refreshed within minutes
Arts and Entertainment
tvExecutive says content is not 'without any purpose'
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
Arts and Entertainment
tvSpielberg involved in bringing his 2002 film to the small screen
sportLeague Managers' Association had described Malky Mackay texts as 'friendly banter'
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
peopleCareer spanned 70 years, including work with Holocaust survivors
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Generalist HR Administrator, Tunbridge Wells, Kent - £28,000.

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Generalist HR Administrator - Tunbri...

Head of IT (Not-for-Profit sector) - East Sussex

£45000 - £50000 per annum + 5 weeks holiday & benefits: Ashdown Group: Head of...

Supply Teaching jobs in Thetford

£21588 - £31566 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education ar...

KS1 teachers needed in Peterborough

£110 - £125 per annum: Randstad Education Cambridge: Randstad Education are ur...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape