Everyone in Europe seems to have an opinion when it comes to beer. On a recent Saturday night, I found myself at a pub in Rotterdam. The conversation at my table drifted from Oscar picks to Dutch politics before hitting a lull. To offset the momentary silence, I mentioned Belgian brews. Egor, a Dutch-Irishman sitting across from me, piped up: “Do you know about Trappist beers?”
I shook my head and he was taken aback. How could I have spent an entire month in Europe without hearing about “the finest beers in the world”?!!!
Trappist Brewing: A Quick History
And so began a crash-course on Trappist beers. They’ve been brewed by monks across Europe for centuries and were originally intended to supplement the nutritional needs of surrounding communities. Once upon a time, beer was a necessary staple of life. Considered safer than water, brews with low-alcohol content were served with breakfast, with stronger ones consumed in the evening. Allegedly, the Pilgrims loaded more beer than water into the lower decks of the Mayflower prior to departing for the New World.
As food production and sanitation evolved in the 17th and 18th centuries, beer was no longer considered a cornerstone of the average European’s daily diet. Not that this stopped the monks from continuing to produce their wares…or the locals from drinking it. Unfortunately, many Trappist breweries were destroyed during the French Revolution and the First and Second World Wars. Regardless, the popularity of the brews continued to slowly grow…as did the number of imitators. As part of an effort to chase away wannabes and bootleggers, a group of monasteries eventually formed the International Trappist Association.
Today, only seven of these breweries remain active and are allowed to label their beers with the “Official Trappist Product” logo. Of the seven, six are located in Belgium and each must adhere to a list of strict criteria. The beers must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision. Contributing to the scarcity, the breweries are not intended to serve as profit-making ventures. The monks only produce enough beer to cover their living expenses and to keep their monasteries in good repair. Whatever money is left over is donated to charity.
The legend and reputation of these brews continues to spread. “Beer Hunter” Michael Jackson raved about the stuff and pub owners across Europe often place orders months in advance. As with most brews and spirits along these lines, rareness and reputation often eclipse the actual quality. Were Trappist beers actually any good? I was determined to find out.
Off to Antwerp
Marie, a fellow American currently living abroad, tagged along with me on this quest. We caught a train to Belgium from Leiden. Egor, in addition to several other colleagues in the Netherlands, had provided me with more advice than I could handle on which beers and pubs to seek out. All of them agreed on one thing, though: Trappist beers deserved to be placed on a pedestal above the rest of Belgium’s output. While I was determined to try as many of them as I could get my lips on, I wasn’t about to limit my intake to just those in a country with a reputation as one of the beer centers of the modern world.
Marie and I tossed our bags down at the Sir Plantin Hotel, a chic crash pad in Zurenborg, an art district in Antwerp’s south-side, before heading off in search of something to quench our thirst.
Huisbrouwerij ‘t Pakhuis
Vlaamse Kaai 76, Antwerp
Our first stop: Huisbrouwerij ‘t Pakhuis, a “home brewery,” located near the Antwerp Photo Museum, which opened its doors in 1996. The modernist restaurant and lounge would be called a microbrewery in the states and is reputedly the only one in town. Its three craft beers are sold exclusively on site.
I went with Nen Bangelijke, ‘t Pakhuis’ best-known creation. Dubbed “a frightening one” by the brewmaster, this amber ale speaks softly but carries a big stick, so to speak. It’s smooth but hoppy with a fantastic aftertaste. Still, it packs a wallop. With 9.5 percent alcohol by volume, Nen Bangelijke is something to drink slowly and savor.
Marie opted for the gentler Antwerp Blond (5.1 percent ABV) and allowed me to have a sip. A hazy, unfiltered golden blond ale, it’s considered a “thirst killer” with an aroma of malt and fine hops. A perfect beer for a hot day…if you’re lucky enough to stumble upon one in a city where gray skies are the norm.
Vleminckveld 32, Antwerp
While researching which pubs to visit in Antwerp, one name kept coming up: Kulminator. This tiny hole-in-the-wall has one of the most extensive beer menus in the world and is considered a mecca for many aficionados. A book the size of an ornate Bible lists them all and can be found posted near the bar. If you can name it, they probably have a bottle stored somewhere on the premises. New Zealand, Estonia, Brazil, Kenya…I wish I had looked to see if Kulminator had anything from Antarctica.
Bottles from all over the world are stacked from floor to ceiling behind the bar. A cellar can be found near the smoking porch, with some dusty beers dating back decades from now defunct breweries. In addition to the bottles, the patrons were practically stacked on top of one another when we visited the place. Somewhere in this maze were a few of the Trappist brews we were searching for, but the staff was completely overwhelmed by the crowd. Getting to the bar to look at the menu was an ordeal in and of itself. Despite our best efforts, Marie and I decided we wouldn’t even have enough room to drink a beer, even if we had managed to order one. We headed off in search of a more low-key watering hole. The Kulminator is definitely not a spot to hit on a Saturday night.
Eetkaffee De Kleine Post
Groenplaats 23, Antwerp
As with most quixotic adventures in exotic lands, there comes a moment that tests the courage and commitment of all involved. We had been in Antwerp for hours and still hadn’t managed to taste a Trappist beer. Worse yet, the weather outside was getting nasty. With rain coming down and wind blasting through Antwerp’s narrow streets, we were quite literally blown into De Kleine, a small brasserie in Groenplaats Square.
While Marie contentedly munched on a bowl of pretzels, I dove into a pit of introspection and despair worthy of a 17th century explorer lost at sea. OK, not really. Nonetheless, my mood didn’t lighten when the waiter brought over a bottle of Hoegaarden Rosée (3 percent ABV). While Marie had enough good sense to contemplate her selection, I had gloomily pointed at a random string of words on the menu. While what I was drinking was technically both Belgian and beer, it may as well have been raspberry lemonade. The pinkish glow of the Rosée in the candlelight made it seem like it was mocking me.
I glared at the contents of my glass as Marie sipped a Vedett Extra Blonde (5.2 percent ABV). Also brewed in Belgium, this refreshing, premium lager can be found in pubs across Western Europe. It also comes in an iconic green bottle with unique curves. Fans of the brand can submit their photos via Vedett’s website for a chance to have their face appear on the beers’ perpetually changing labels.
Torfbrug 10, Antwerp
Morale was scraping the bottom of the barrel by the time we landed in the Kathedraalcafé, located on a tiny cobblestone street across from the Cathedral of Our Lady. Also known as “Het Elfde Gebod” (“The Eleventh Commandment”), this bar is the strangest one I’ve ever set foot in. Dozens of Christian statues and artifacts line its brick walls and many of the chairs look like they were lifted from the set of “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.” Eerie paintings of monsters lead the way to the second floor bathrooms, where the stall doors are covered in drawings of human organs. A group of Scottish gentleman sitting near us nervously eyed the decor. ‘Where did all of this stuff come from, anyway?” one pondered.
They’re actually from a private collection that has been creeping-out patrons since the Kathedraalcafé opened its doors nearly 30 years ago. Despite an overall ambiance worthy of a haunted church basement, this bar has drawn visitors from all over the world for a reason—the beer menu is outstanding.
Marie and I opted for a tasting of four Trappist beers on draft, a downright heavenly deal. For only 20 euros, a wooden case of glasses specifically designed for each of the beers was brought to the table. The waitress took the first glasses and returned with two La Trappe Witbiers (5.5 percent ABV). Brewed at the Koningshoeven Abbey near the village of Berkel-Enschot in the Netherlands, this one is light and delicate with a warm aftertaste, the suds equivalent of silk.
Westmalle Dubbel (7 percent ABV) was next. A reddish-brown beer with a creamy head and a fragrance of spice and malt, it didn’t disappoint. The Dubbel left behind a dry but pleasant aftertaste and an intricate lace pattern in my glass. The Chimay Triple (8 percent ABV) from the Scourmont Abbey in Belgium can easily be described as “scarci-licious.” With hints of raisins and muscat, its fruity aroma is worthy of the Garden of Eden. A bitter aftertaste plays the part of the snake in an otherwise blissful brew.
The two of us were feeling rather divine by the time the waitress brought over two St. Bernardus 12s (10 percent ABV) hailing from the Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren. The showpiece of the abbey’s brewery, the ebony-colored beer is as lush as the ones that came before it. Full-bodied and creamy, it’s reminiscent of a coconut brandy. There’s a debate over whether or not the beer is truly Trappist, but one thing is for sure—it definitely tastes like it was brewed by saints. A worthy contender for the title of “Holy Grail of Beers.”
Marie and I did our best to savor the beers over the course of several hours at Kathedraalcafe. A warm glow provided by these high-quality suds carried us along Antwerp’s streets, our spirits rejuvenated. Hallelujah!
Oh, and the Eleventh Commandment, according to the cafe? “Thou Shall Enjoy.”
Where Can You Find These Beers in the States?
The beers at ‘t Pakhuis are bottled and officially only sold on site, but there’s a slim possibility you might be able to find a reseller online. Both Vedett’s and Hoegaarden’s beers are far more common. While you’re unlikely to come across them in a tavern in the United States, there’s a good chance that your local bottle shop carries them.
A variety of Trappist beers can be ordered online via sites like Beer Planet, but be prepared to pay steep shipping fees. In recent years, they’ve become increasingly common in stateside specialty shops. Your best bet is to call around. Be sure to keep an eye out for the Trappist logo.