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Monk exodus may foretell beginning of the end for Trappist Ales

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Speak to any knowledgeable beer lover and you are likely to find out that they hold Trappist Ales in high regard. Most would agree that beer brewed within the confines of a monastery, under the watchful eyes of monks is some of the best in the world. Indeed, at least one of the beers designated as Trappist is widely considered the best beer in the world by rating sites like RateBeer.com and BeerAdvocate.com.

But, in order to be considered a Trappist beer, there are strict rules that must be followed.

1. The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.

2. The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and it should witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life

3. The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture. The income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Whatever remains is donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need.

It is because of these stringent rules that Trappist beer may disappear in the near future.

In an article published by the French newspaper L’Union L’Ardennais, Brother Bernard at the Orval monastery in Belgium explains, ““Anyone who is interested can always come along and stay in the monastery for a couple of days. If that is a success, the candidate can come and live for a month in the monastery. If the candidate fits into life in a monastic community, he can then start a trial period of five years.”

Becoming a monk, and thereby a brewer in a Trappist monastery, is a long term proposition.

Even with the new addition of the first Trappist brewery in the United States last week, the pool of monk brewers is still far too small. At the Orval monastery, there are only 12 monks brewing a number that is down from 35 several decades ago. And at the Achel monestary there are only six, five of them over the age of 70.

“We are looking for more recruits, but unfortunately we cannot hire a headhunter,” said Brother Bernard.

Because of the declining numbers, it is likely that Trappist Ales will become even more scarce than they already are. Westvleteren XII, produced by the St. Sixtus monestary is already one of the most sought-after beers in the world because of its scarcity. American beer lovers did get an opportunity in December of 2012 to purchase the rare beer when the monastery released a very small amount to the U.S. But, since then anyone who wants to taste this beer considered by many to be the best in the world had to obtain it from the monastery or a collector willing to part with it.

But, the Dutch newspaper Trouw reports that the Trappist brewery in The Netherlands is not reporting any loss of brothers. And, the newly designated Spencer Trappist Ale from St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass. seems to indicate that there is no shortage of brewers at the American Trappist monestary.

For now, all beer lovers can do is wait and hope. Beer of the caliber made by the Trappist monks may be slowly slipping into history. But, for those who see the writing on the wall that is more an indication that the beer should be celebrated and perhaps cellared, than mourned.

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