It seems that the topsy turvy world of Pandemic life has affected everything and a new state of self reflection has forced people to change careers, leave roles and generally shake things up in their masses. Even the niche world of Trappist brewing seems to have been hit!
Over the last two years we have seen two authentic Trappist breweries leave the International Trappist Association (ITA).
We covered the closure of the Spencer brewery in these very pages, famously after I waxed lyrical about their possible future spanning 100s of years - lol. Spencer had only just appeared as the United State’s first authentic Trappist brewery and last year Achel brewery, the newest and smallest of the seven approved Belgian Trappist breweries was also hit.
If you’re not too au fait with the Achel brand (pronounced Arkul), then here’s a quick precis…
The brewery is located at the Abbey of Saint Benedict in the northeast Belgium border town of Achel. Parts of the abbey actually lie in Holland and it was Dutch monks who built the first chapel back in 1648. The chapel became an abbey in 1688, only to be destroyed during the French Revolution, but was thankfully rebuilt by the monks of Westmalle in 1844 and the first beers flowed there in 1871.The first world war saw it demolished and stripped for its copper by the Germans in 1917 and it wasn't until 1998 that the brotherhood decided to get back into brewing. With the help of the monks of Westmalle and Rochefort Abbey, In 2001 the brewery released the Achel 8° beers.
Unfortunately, over the last few years, the number of new callings at Achel has been in decline and the last few monks to live and brew there finally retired or moved on to greener pastures at Westmalle in 2021. As there is no longer a living monastic community at the site, the brewery can no longer be part of the ITA.
Luckily for us, the brewing is still going ahead under the supervision of the Westmalle monks and the beer won’t change in flavour or any other discernible factor. In fact there has even been further investment in a new brewhouse. The only thing that has changed in fact is that the prominent label stating Authentic Trappist Product on the bottles is now gone.
So it’s not all doom and gloom and maybe what we are actually seeing here is the reality of commercial brewing in an (almost) post-pandemic world, where every penny counts. At Spencer the issues were mainly financial, as I understand it, and the new set up at Achel might well be taking things down a more commercial avenue. I can’t comment on the company’s profits - but as part of the ITA they would have to go back into “monastic preservation”, whereas now, presumably the money can be invested elsewhere.
Brewing is a tough gig and making money from it gets harder and harder. Likewise, incorporating commercial brewing into a monastic lifestyle seems to be getting trickier too.
A sad thought indeed but, as I have said before, the world keeps turning and, one way or another, beer keeps flowing. Let’s cheer ourselves up with a taster of the Achel Bruin…
It pours a beautiful deep brown with an off white head. The nose hits you with muscovado sugar, caramel, dark fruits and figs - which are complexed by earthy mineral notes. The palate is richly and malty but the carbonation seems to take the edge off and lighten things up, as too does the restrained hop component. Gorgeous!
We might not be allowed to call it an Authentic Trappist beer anymore - but boy does it still tastes like the real deal!