Tuesday, March 25, 2014

La Trappe - taste the silence

In the last couple of months of 2013 the exclusive family of Trappist breweries increased from eight to ten when The Spencer Brewery in Massacusetts, USA, and Zundert in the Netherlands joined. I've earlier written a post about Orval, so in this one I'll summarize my impressions after the three visits I've made to one of the oldest and most visitor-friendly beer brewing Trappist abbeys: Onze Lieve Vrouw van Koningshoeven, outside the city of Tilburg in the Netherlands, the famous home of the La Trappe beers.

Our Lady of Koningshoeven Trappist Abbey

Our Lady of Koningshoeven
Onze Lieve Vrouw van Koningshoeven or Our Lady of Koningshoeven in English was founded on March 5, 1881, by Trappist monk Sebastian Wyart. He had been sent out from Abbaye du Mont des Cats, in northern France, to find a safe refuge during a phase of strong anti religious sentiments in France. While it turned out that the brothers at Mont des Cats didn't have to abandon their lofty mountain abbey, the new monastery at Koningshoeven grew rapidly and would eventually eclipse its mother house both in size and fame.

The first important steps were taken in 1884, when the monks had a brewery built at Koningshoeven and sent the monk Isidorus Laaber to Munich to learn beer brewing from the very best of that era. The first beer that Brother Isidorus brewed at Koningshoeven he called "La Trappe", referring to the French abbey of Notre Dame de la Grande Trappe from which the order and the name "Trappist" hails. The brewery would continue to use the name "La Trappe" for all its subsequent beers.

A good indication of the rapid growth of the Koningshoeven abbey is the fact that in the year 1900, less than 20 years after its founding, the abbey could spare a group of monks who were sent out to found a daughter house in the village of Zundert, near the Belgian border. This became the second Trappist abbey in the Netherlands and 113 years later, at the end of 2013, the country's second Trappist brewery!

Like other Trappist abbeys, Koningshoeven experienced a decrease in the number of monks after World War II, so in order to preserve the monastic life they had to take certain measures. One of these was the creation of a limited liability company, Brouwerij de Koningshoeven B.V., as an independent subsidiary of the large Dutch commercial brewery Bavaria. Since 1997, Brouwerij de Koningshoeven has rented the brewery buildings from the abbey for brewing La Trappe beers, under the authority and supervision of the monks. The monks also set up a monastery store where handmade products are sold, including bread and chocolate.

The income from the store and the brewing activities has become the most important source of money for the abbey and its 16 monks, aged between 24 and 81. They use the income to maintain the buildings and for sustaining the daily life. The abbey also supports poor people at home as well as daughter houses in Uganda and Indonesia.

A field at Koningshoeven where the monks farm vegetables

Getting there
The Koningshoeven abbey is located near the village of Berkel-Enschot on the eastern outskirts of Tilburg, about 4 km from the railway station in Tilburg and about the same distance north of the border with Belgium. Many local visitors come by bike but as far as I know there's not much in the way of public transportation to rely on so you either have to take a cab from Tilburg, which I did once, or come in your own car (if you have a designated driver).

The first thing visitors to Koningshoeven will see, whether they come by bike or by car, are the three tall towers of the abbey, visible from far away in the flat landscape. The towers are also printed on the La Trappe logo, as a symbol of the abbey. The car parking is on the right side of the main gate, it's not a large parking space so it can be full if you arrive at popular times, but it's probably possible to park for a short while along the country road passing by the abbey (but don't quote me on it).

Entrance is not through the closed main gate but through a smaller gate by the parking, which takes you across a small ditch - resembling a miniature moat - up a tree lined path towards the monastery store, where you can buy the local products as well as religious artifacts, and from there on to the Proeflokaal which is a far as most guests will come. Beyond the Proeflookal you need to be in a tour group, if you want to visit the brewery and parts of the abbey. I did just that back in 2011, and it's well worth the money.

The outdoor seating area at Koningshoeven Proeflokaal

The Proeflokaal, which is Dutch for "tasting room / hall", is a large building located between the abbey and the car parking, partly surrounded by shading trees. It's a fairly recent construction built in brick stones, like the abbey, but with a charming medieval-style thatched roof hanging down on two sides. It functions both as a tasting room and a simple restaurant, and seems very popular with families from the area - who often cycle out to the abbey during weekends, with children in tow, to have lunch together.

There is a large seating area inside the Proeflokaal, with the bar along the wall next to the entrance, but I prefer to sit outside at one of the many wooden tables - if weather permits. Nothing beats enjoying a La Trappe beer, fresh from tap, while taking in the view of the imposing red brick stone buildings of the abbey and, sometimes, smelling the sweet wort from the brewery.

The bar at Proeflokaal usually offers all eight La Trappe beers on draught, at least that has been the situation on my three visits in 2011-2013. Normally they also offer bottled La Trappe beers, such as a couple of oak aged versions of Quadrupel and Isid'Or. If you're seated outside, simply flag down a waiter or waitress (no, the monks do not wait on their guests, the waiters are all civilian) to place your order - they prefer that on busy days, to avoid lines at the bar. Tasting the bottled beers, in particular different batches of the oak aged, is very useful if you consider buying a few bottles at the shop to bring home.

The food served at Proeflokaal is simple but filling, I've tried their burger and the tasty mushroom soup. Even if the food is simple it is usually locally sourced, well made and fairly reasonable.

One of the 4-tap beer towers at the Proeflokaal

Brouwerij de Koningshoeven
If you plan to visit Koningshoeven you should consider joining a tour of the brewery, but beware that it's recommended to book ahead (for updated information see their www.latrappetrappist.com website). The tour lasts about 45 minutes and will take you through both the old and new brewery and through the abbey yard to inspect their vegetable garden and an old firetruck.

A funny story we were told during the tour was that because the monks were living under a strict vow of silence only a few decades ago, if a fire broke out the monk who discovered the flames was to call an internal emergency number but instead of speaking he would knock the handset against the phone three times to indicate fire. The monks would then send out the firetruck they've got parked inside the abbey yard.

The old "Trappist firetruck" at Koningshoeven

Though a brewery has been in operation here since 1884, Brouwerij de Koningshoeven is a very modern brewery plant thanks to the cooperation with Bavaria who modernized the brewery in the late 1980s, adding a new brewing hall and a new fermentation and lagering cellar. All the La Trappe beers are brewed according to traditional methods, using top fermenting yeast, only natural ingredients and water still drawn from a well at the abbey. After the primary fermentation the beer is bottled, with extra yeast and sugar added, allowing it to undergo a secondary fermentation in the bottle and thus create natural carbonation.

In 1991, the brewery introduced its flagship beer, La Trappe Quadrupel, a massive 10% abv malt-driven ale. This was the first beer in the world that was termed a "quadrupel", so La Trappe Quadrupel effectively created a new style when it was launched 23 years ago. Today this category is usually termed Abt/Quad to include the strong Abbot ales from St Bernardus, Westvleteren and Rochefort.

The final beer in the La Trappe line-up was launched in 2009, to celebrate the 125th anniversary of the brewery, it was named La Trappe Isid'Or after the first brewer monk, Brother Isidorus. Including this one, but excluding the various Oak Aged releases, Brouwerij de Koningshoven now brews 8 different beers, all under the La Trappe brand, which is more than any other Trappist brewery. Contrast this with the three types of Rochefort and single type of Orval.

Stainless steel brewing vessels at Koningshoeven

The La Trappe beers
The modern Brouwerij de Koningshoeven is one of the largest Trappist breweries. According to Wikipedia the brewery produced 145,000 hectolitre (hl) beer in 2004, compare this to less than 5,000 hl by Westvleteren and 18,000 hl by Rochefort.

As of March 2014, the eight beers in the La Trappe line-up are:

- La Trappe Blond (6.5%)
- La Trappe Dubbel (6.5%)
- La Trappe Tripel (8%)
- La Trappe Quadrupel (10%)
- La Trappe Bockbier (7%)
- La Trappe Witte Trappist (5.5%)
- La Trappe Isid'Or (7.5%)
- La Trappe PUUR (4.7%)

It's worth mentioning that La Trappe Witte is the only wheat beer made by a Trappist brewery and that La Trappe PUUR is the only certified organic Trappist beer. The brewers may follow traditions but it's obvious they also enjoy experimenting with new beer styles!

In addition to these "base" beers, the monks make special oak aged blends of La Trappe Quadrupel a few times every year. The first blend, Batch #1, was released in June 2011 and as of this moment they've made 15 different blends or batches - using a range of different oak barrels for aging the beer, from former Port wine and French red and white wine barrels to Whisky and Bourbon. The results are always different and often surprising.

At the end of your visit, on your way out, you should stop at the monastery shop to pick up some chocolate truffles and a few bottles of La Trappe Quadrupel Oak Aged while exchanging a few words with the robe clad monk manning the counter - yes, despite the famous Trappist vow of silence the monks do speak with their customers.

A bottle of La Trappe Quadrupel Oak Aged
- enjoyed at Koningshoeven Proeflokaal

Click here for photos from my visits to Koningshoeven in 2011, 2012 and 2013.