Smoke, mirrors and Trappist beer

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“The video will show you about the monk” begins the tour of the only Trappist brewery I have ever visited, and immediately the wind goes out of my sails. On a visit to the impressively-named Abdij Onze Lieve Vrouw van Koningshoeven in the Netherlands – the home of La Trappe – the only way to gain an appreciation of what the monks get up to is by filing into a small video hall inside a restored sheep stable and waiting for the enormously over the top tour guide Tony to press play.

What follows is a really interesting and thoughtfully shot video of the day to day life of the brothers, how the La Trappe beers are brewed, conditioned and packaged and what being the only Trappist brewery in the country means to the men who supervise its creation. So why did I feel like I was missing out? After a decent-sized glass of the spicy, raisiny 7.5% abv Isid’or (a deceptively easy prospect for 11:30am) it suddenly occurs to me why it’s been a let-down.

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It is because of Cantillon.

The ultimate in brewery tourism, Brasserie Cantillon in Brussels is everything a brewery should be – one visit and you’ll remember it for the rest of your life – even more so if it’s the first time you tried Lambic. Cantillon is easy to get to, being a fairly short walk from the centre of the city (and about a hundred kilometres from where I was having this train of thought at La Trappe). Crucially it’s slightly hard to find but not overwhelmingly so – which gives you just the right sense of achievement when you find the correct shuttered door down the correct side street.*

*The first time I went there was a man pissing in a doorway nearby; the last time a (different) man was standing outside wearing a Hill Farmstead brewery t-shirt.

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Cantillon are totally set up for tours, they speak perfect English and hand you a factsheet to ponder as you can wander around at your own pace; you get two beers afterwards and of course the brewery itself is a living museum piece – the smells, the spiders, the stickiness. It’s the kind of place you could take your partner, grandparents or kids (I don’t know if they let kids in, you’d best check) and they would all enjoy themselves. It is without doubt the most fascinating brewery in the world.

But the problem with Cantillon is that when you combine it with Twitter and Facebook, and become used to breweries communicating with their customers directly 24/7 you develop the worst possible affectation – a sense of entitlement. It doesn’t afflict me very often, but for some reason it did at Koningshoeven – I just expected the monks to be there, mashing in and pausing to answer questions in broken English, making motions with their hands to get their point across when the language barrier got in the way.

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I was waiting for this even when I knew they get ‘help’ from the brewers of Bavaria. A small part of me had expected to waltz into the cloisters and respectfully watch what they were up to (in the event the only person we saw working was a young man in overalls washing kegs). The success of the modern beer scene in engendering a sense of community with its consumers has resulted in this side-effect of giving a sense of privilege where it has no place existing – like inside the quietly reflective walls of a Dutch abbey. The monks inside only have time for ‘ora et labore’ (prayer and work) not beer writers from Scotland.

Brewing began at the monastery in 1884, to part-finance the daily operation of the buildings and to raise money to donate to charity. As the video goes on to say, “the brewery shows that heaven and earth cannot do without each other”; the monks devote eight hours a day to prayer, eight to work and the other eight to rest. They have done this day after day, century after century. It was that part of the video that made me sit back and realise my place as a beer tourist did not equate to what was happening the other side of the walls; a part of a life I will never get to witness.

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La Trappe may have a bottling machine that flurries through 12,000 an hour (which we did get to see), but sometimes it is what you are forced to imagine that is really important. Not all brewery tours are like Cantillon – when you realise that, it all starts to make sense.

Disclosure – the visit to La Trappe was as part of a guided tour during the 2016 European Beer Bloggers and Writers’ Conference, arranged by Visit Brabant.

4 thoughts on “Smoke, mirrors and Trappist beer”

  1. You can stay in the guest house if you want, eat in silence, and I believe you’re welcome to “some of the prayer services, including the daily Eucharist”. Also, they’ll probably be able to find someone to take your confession if that’s what floats your boat.
    Try that at Cantillon.

  2. Thanks for this very interesting article and good to receive postings from you again, I have missed them…

  3. Thanks Gary! It’s been a while, yes. Jon – you could probably hide somewhere in Cantillon at closing time and have a pretty interesting night of it (although the spiders might have something to say about that)

  4. Ah, but you’ve got to admire those gothic arches in the bottling hall – and Jesus on his cross looking down on you in the room with the brew kettles in. And does Cantillon do great beer-cheeses?

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