Signifiers

One Shareholder — The Trappist Brewery of Westmalle, Belgium

In Café Trappisten, they order Trip-Trap. The little bar sits directly across the road from the large estate of the Abbey of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart in the village of Westmalle. It’s the property of the monks, the only café they own. The bus stop outside the café is simply called “Abdij” (Abbey).

Trappisten’s location was once the mid-point between the cities of Antwerp and Turnhout in the Campine region of Flanders (“Kempen” in Flemish). A steam tram, now no longer in operation, took day-trippers from both cities to the “Trappist station.” As visits to the monastery and the brewery are not permitted, a trip by beer lovers to Westmalle today starts and ends at the café.

Before public utilities, a pipeline crossed the 500 meters underground from the Abbey to supply the café with water. Its existence gives rise to tongue-in-cheek rumors among regular café visitors today that the beer is pumped straight from the abbey brewery to the tap through an underground system of pipes.

Manu Pauwels—who’s worked at Westmalle Brewery since 2002 in a sales and marketing role—regularly has a Trip-Trap with his lunch here. 

“Trip refers to the Tripel,” he explains. “Trap is the abbreviation of Trappist, and what people in the Antwerp region order when they want a Dubbel of Westmalle. Trip-Trap is half and half, a blend of the two beers in one drink.”

Westmalle was the first brewery in the world to brew a Strong Golden Ale and call it a Tripel. You can look it up. In the Beer Judge Certification Program’s guidelines, the Tripel’s “history” section consists solely of these eight words: “Originally popularized by the Trappist monastery at Westmalle.” In his seminal book, Trappist, Jef Van Den Steen describes the beer as “the Mother of all Tripels.”

“When the World Beer Cup defines their Tripel category, they ask us to say how a Tripel should be,” says Philippe Van Assche, Westmalle’s general manager. “It’s a nice compliment that they consider Westmalle to be the reference.” 

There remains some debate, however, about who conceived the actual style. In Great Beers of Belgium, Michael Jackson suggests it was Hendrick Verlinden who created the first golden Tripel in 1906 when he released Witkap Pater from his Drie Linden brewery. Stan Hieronymous digs deeper in Brew Like a Monk, establishing a consultancy relationship between Verlinden and the Abbey in the 1920s. Westmalle acknowledges the relationship with Verlinden, but suggests that it’s impossible to know exactly what form the contribution took. 

“Verlinden had a brewery and he had some connections with this Abbey,” Van Assche says. “I don’t think Hendrick ever brought yeast into the brewery. I think he helped the monks with problems that they had during the brewing process in a consulting role. He was a friend of the Abbey and he helped them with some major brewing issues.” 

It’s largely undisputed that Westmalle Tripel is now the model for the modern Belgian Tripel. It makes up 70% of what is brewed at Westmalle and due to its pronounced carbonation and complex flavor profile, it has been christened by the people of the surrounding region as “the Champagne of the Kempen.”

Westmalle Tripel (9.5% ABV) brings together in calculated balance a soft, biscuity maltiness, a pronounced ester profile (mostly banana, but with some dried fruit notes), and a flowery, earthy, almost drying hop character.

“The pale orange-golden Tripel is the stuff of eulogies,” Tim Webb and Joe Stange write in their Good Beer Guide Belgium. “It’s a strong ale that darkens and sweetens with (strongly recommended) cellaring, and is fruitier in the larger bottles.”

The 175th anniversary of the Abbey’s official recognition occurred in 2011. Pauwels approached the monks to propose that something might be done to celebrate the occasion.

“I thought it might have been a good idea to brew a special beer for Café Trappisten,” he says. “They refused. It’s only 175 years, they said. They told me there was nothing to celebrate.” 

“There’s only one shareholder here,” Van Assche says. “And that’s the Abbey. The monks are very nice people with values that I cherish, and for that reason, it’s very motivating for us as a team. If you have a shareholder who thinks about money and market share and improving margins and growing all the time, it’s a completely different mentality.” 

The monks are very nice people with values that I cherish. If you have a shareholder who thinks about money and market share and improving margins and growing all the time, it’s a completely different mentality.
— Philippe Van Assche

Westmalle is, of course, a Trappist brewery producing International Trappist Association-approved beers with the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo on them. The majority of profits from the brewery are re-invested into the monastic community and selected charities, and their beers are produced only within the walls of the monastery.

Until 1990, three monks worked full-time in the brewery: Brother Thomas as brewmaster, Brother Amandus as sales manager, and Brother Lode as general manager. By 1998, all hands-on work was being carried out by lay people, albeit under the direct supervision of the monks. Their influence is maintained through the considered structure of the brewery board. 

“We have a board of administrators made up of monks and independent lay people with skills from the outside such as engineering, marketing and sales,” Van Aasche explains. “The monks have the majority. The lay people act as their sparring partners. It’s worked like this for almost 20 years. Most companies have four to six directors meetings a year. We have 10 meetings with the board of administrators a year. That says something.”

This includes all levels of decisions, too. 

“When we develop a coaster, for example, we’ll submit it to Brother Benedikt for remarks,” Van Assche says. “He has a background in architecture and design and will always keep an eye on what this will do to the Abbey image if it goes into the market. It should be modest, not outrageous, and it should be sober in the sense that it has a certain simplicity.”

There are 32 monks at Westmalle, most over the age of 50, and almost all from Belgium. Disengagement with the outside world is part of the deal. The brothers give up their birthday when they arrive and take on the birth date of the Saint whose name they have been given. Speaking is purely functional. The focus is on manual labor and prayer, with six services a day and hours set aside for private study of the bible. 

This desire for a more simple way of life permeates into the brewery. When they installed a new bottling line in 2002, they purposefully bought one with more capacity than they needed as a mark of respect to the lifestyle of their lay workers. Work-life balance is a priority. Pauwels lives next door and cycles to the Abbey for work. Van Assche moved to Westmalle to be beside the brewery. He’s been living and working here for 18 years.

“I think that the Trappist breweries we import are different from any other brewery in a significant way,” says Craig Hartinger of Merchant Du Vin, Westmalle’s importer in the U.S. since 2005. “They are more free of the commercial mandate or profit motive. I’ve been in the beer business a long time, and many of us proudly seek to drive sales! And Win! And outsell a rival! Our Trappist breweries are not out to drive, push, and win in that manner—they make and sell a product that brings real pleasure to people, provides jobs for lay workers, covers expenses for monks, and allows them to help charities.”

Most of Westmalle’s production—nearly 70% of it—stays in Belgium. The Netherlands gets 25%, and what’s left goes to France, the UK, the U.S., and Japan. The growth in awareness of “Brand Trappist” and the explosion in the beer market globally in the last five years have presented challenges to the monks that could not have been previously foreseen.

“There’s a lot of unknown export going on,” Van Assche says. “There are beer distributors that take mixed pallets and charge a price for one-stop shopping. There are third parties in China and South Korea who own the name ‘Westmalle’ in those countries. They registered the brand in their jurisdictions and we were not even aware that this was happening. We’ve been trying but we haven’t been able to recuperate our brand back from them.”

While the monastery has been brewing beer since 1836, it wasn’t until 1856 that it did so commercially. The Tripel in its current incarnation appeared first in 1934 after a brewhouse expansion and several years of tests, originally as a Strong Blonde Ale referred to as ‘Superbier’, and then for the first time as Westmalle Tripel in 1954 after Brother Thomas made minor alterations to the recipe by adding more hops.

I thought it might have been a good idea to brew a special beer for Café Trappisten. They refused. ‘It’s only 175 years,’ they said. They told me there was nothing to celebrate.
— Manu Pauwels

The Tripel emerged as a strong pale top-fermented beer that would compete with the influx of Pilsner-style Lagers into Belgium from Germany. The naming convention is born from the additional amounts of raw ingredients used in comparison to other beers being brewed at the time although the word Tripel wasn't always used in Belgium for beers similar to the type Westmalle would create. 

"My great grandfather was brewing an 'Ouden Tripel' in 1892," says brewer Omer Vander Ghinste of the West Flemish brewery which goes by his family name. "Tripel then had a different meaning than it does today. It meant more grain, more malt, more raw ingredients than the every day beers of 2% ABV which people drank on the fields in agricultural regions. Our Ouden Tripel was a beer of mixed fermentation, like an Oud Bruin, but almost triple the strength of those beers at 5.5% ABV."

So successful was the beer from Westmalle, and so synonymous with the word “Tripel” did it become, that other breweries in Belgium like Omer Vander Ghinste were forced to change the way they described their beers to consumers.

"It was Westmalle who changed the meaning of Tripel," Vander Ghinste says. "They launched this Westmalle Tripel and people started to see Tripels as something completely different. We were forced to change the name of our beer because when people were asking for an Ouden Tripel, they believed they would be getting a blonde beer of 8-9.5% ABV and not a sour brown ale of 5.5% ABV as it always had been with us."

In recent years, the monks have invested in production in a big way. Ten years ago they installed a pilot cylindrical conical tank (CCT) to run several tests on fermentation, maturation, and beer quality. 

“We wanted to gather experience with this technology,” Pauwels says. “After a long testing period we decided to continue and we installed 14 CCTs which we have used successfully now for one and a half years.” 

Last year, they placed a new Steinecker brewhouse alongside the copper kettles of yesteryear. Brewmaster Jan Adriaensens heads up a team of lay people who work in different capacities in the brewery. There’s also a small team working in the bakery, cheese production facility, and farm—all within the walls of the Abbey’s estate. 

“Our barley malt is French, harvested in the summer, and we work with three Belgian malteries who follow specific Westmalle instructions,” Adriaensens explains. “For hops, we’re using five aromatic varieties as flowers, added in different stages during the boiling.” 

The Tripel comes out at 39.5 IBUs and the commitment to the use of whole hop cones has become part of Westmalle’s story. 

“If you use pellets, you cannot see the flower in its original condition,” Van Assche says. “We still love to see what we get and examine the quality of the hop flower. We can still send hops back if they are not the quality that we require. And we do this. If you have a pellet, you are a little bit lost. It’s more like a final quality check.”

While Westmalle’s hop contribution is often underestimated, it’s true that the yeast does the majority of the lifting when it come to the Tripel’s personality. “Our yeast is cultivated in-house and shared once a week with Westvleteren,” Adriaensens says. “It develops a typical fruity Westmalle aroma with strong hints of banana.”

But where does that yeast come from?

“It’s hard to know, exactly,” Van Assche says. “We have some very old bottles and have carried out DNA analysis. What we can say is that there has been a very low evolution in the yeast strain. We have consistency over time.”

A team of five lab technicians and an obsession with healthy fermentations means Westmalle’s quality control has become the standard bearer in Belgium.

“If any other Trappist brewery asked assistance of our lab we would give it to them,” Van Assche says. “Our working relationship with Achel, for instance, is very concrete. Westvleteren uses our yeast. If you go to the Walloon Trappist Abbeys, you would find out that Orval and Chimay will help Rochefort. The smaller breweries are helped by the bigger ones because we are more equipped with our tools.”

There are third parties in China and South Korea who own the name ‘Westmalle’ in those countries. They registered the brand in their jurisdictions and we were not even aware that this was happening. We’ve been trying, but we haven’t been able to recuperate our brand back from them.
— Philippe Van Assche

Production of the Tripel takes just less than two months in total. “We ferment for one week at 21-22°C,” Pauwels says. “Conditioning takes place at 10°C for 3 weeks in the case of the Dubbel and between 4 and 5 weeks for the Tripel.” 

After conditioning, the beer is centrifuged and several brews are blended for consistency before the beer is primed with liquid sugar and yeast for bottle conditioning in a warm room for about 10 days.

The monks are firmly in control of the Abbey, and their values permeate almost every element relating to the production, marketing, and consumption of the beer. When their French importer asked that the Tripel be brewed to a slightly lower alcohol content to circumvent prohibitive changes to the tax regime in France, it wasn’t even considered. 

“The monks said no straight away,” Pauwels says. “It’s their beer and they call the shots.” 

One shareholder. No airs. But also plenty of grace.

“In 2000, we made the decision to package the Tripel in 75cl bottles,” Pauwels says. “We wanted to make it a bit more special by calling it ‘Reserve.’ The monks didn’t want that. They told us that it was the Tripel. If it’s the Tripel, call it the Tripel.”

Words + Photos by
Breandán Kearney