Is Your Abbey Beer Really Made by Monks?

There are 11 monk-run Trappist breweries in the world. Credit: Philip Rowlands

The beer world is filled with tasty brews inspired by the traditional ales brewed by monks, but few are actually made in monasteries. For one drinker, navigating the line between real monk-brewed beer and imitators proved frustrating enough to sue. Now Anheuser-Busch Inbev is facing down a class-action lawsuit that alleges the Belgian beer enthusiast was mislead into believing his Leffe — a Belgian ale brewed alongside Stella Artois lager — was made by monks.

The Leffe label does include an illustration of an abbey and include the words "Abbaye de Leffe." And the Notre-Dame de Leffe abbey does have an agreement with AB Inbev, so you can call it a monk-associated beer. But if you taste a Leffe next to any Trappist beer, the name for legitimate monk-brewed ales, there's a very stark difference in flavor — it's like stepping up from hamburger to dry-aged steak*.

To find true monk brews, look for the hexagonal Trappist logo on labels. Also, the biggest giveaway that an abbey-style beer isn't made by monks is if there's actually a picture of a monk or abbey on the bottle. Trappist beers are even monastic in label design.

Today there are 10 Trappist breweries in Europe and one in the U.S. To carry the "Authentic Trappist Product" label (there's also Trappist cheese, liquor, and wine), the beer must be made in a monastery by monks, or under their supervision.

The beers mostly fall into four simply named styles: enkel, dubbel, tripel, or quadrupel. The enkel (translates to "single") is a Belgian pale ale, usually only brewed for the monks to enjoy. The dark-hued dubbel, and stronger, blonde tripel, are the most common. And the heavy, dark quadrupel style is home to a few of the world's highest regarded beers. Abbey styles, compared to Belgian ales of similar color and strength, are typically drier and spicier, instead of fruity.

If you're ready to dive into true monk-made brews, here's our six-pack starter kit:

Westmalle Tripel

First brewed in 1934, Westmalle is believed to be the first modern tripel. It's also among the strongest of the style at 9.5 percent alcohol.

Rochefort 8

Rochefort doesn't fit typical Abbey styles, or the pale-dark progression. The 8, at 9.2 percent, is the most dessert-friendly Trappist ale, with a huge chocolate character.

Westvleteren 12

This quadrupel is the white whale of the Trappist brews. It's rarely sold outside the rural Belgian brewery, but with a quick Google search you can find an online bottle shop willing to ship overseas for a generous fee.

Orval

Orval, which is the only beer made at Abbaye Notre-Dame d'Orval, is also the only sour beer made by monks. When fresh, it's a bright, hoppy amber ale. Give it six months in a cellar, and the funky yeast comes forward.

Chimay Red

The stronger Chimay Blue gets more attention, but the Red, a dubbel, is a great introduction to the style. At 7 percent, it's dry and easy drinking, but offers a wonderful mix of caramel and dried fruit flavors.

Spencer Trappist Ale

America's first and only (so far) Trappist brewery came online in late 2013 in Spencer, Massachusetts. The monks say this enkel was inspired by the house beers of Belgian monasteries.

*While Leffe can't stand up to Trappist ales, there are a few non-monk brews we highly recommend, namely St. Bernardus, Tripel Karmaliet, Allagash Tripel, and Ommegang.