Orval and the Trappist Designation

Eno Sarris, December 18, 2013

In what seems mostly like a job posting, Forbes laments the possible / probable loss of the trappist designation for Orval in Belgium. There are too few monks, you see, and that means more hiring of non-monks to help brew the beer. The piece ends with a bang:

The scarcity of those willing to enter a religious vocation is a global crisis for the Catholic church, and many monasteries in Europe have been closed.

To maintain production at any level, the Orval monks increasingly have been forced to hire workers from the outside – hence the loss of the Trappist label.

“All we can do is to hope that people who want to take this path of life present themselves to the Abbey,”  brother Bernard concluded.

Maybe beer lovers’ best hope is that Pope Francis’s growing popularity will bring new monks to Orval’s door.

There are some head-scratchers behind the story, though. For one, check out the rules for the trappist designation, as far as we could find:

  • The product must be made within the walls of a Trappist abbey or in an immediate vicinity.
  • The equipment necessary to the production must clearly express a dependency in regard to the monastery.
  • The product must be made by or under the supervision of the monastery community.
  • The largest part of the profit must be spent on social work.

These are vague. The beer needs to be made near a monastery and 'under the supervision' of the monastery community? Orval is down to 12 monks right now, yes, but couldn't as few as five or six monks supervise a brewery operation nearby? Could one do it?

Beer and religion might have some commonalities. People in both sectors can take things seriously. Is it being too agnostic to wonder if this matters a lot?

Two qestions are important:

1) Does anyone buy beer based solely on its designation as a trappist beer or not?

2) Will the beer fundamentally change under the direction of less religous men instructed by the monks in the ways of making their beers?

The first is hard to know. It's impressive, at first, to know that only three of 73 beers made by the trappist breweries are under replacement on our leaderboards. That percentage is 30% sample wide. It's less impressive once you realize that most beers from Belgium are highly-sought after and well-rated. Only 26% of beers from that country are under replacement overall. It's certainly possible for a handful of good breweries to exist independent of being Trappist. And there's some evidence that smaller breweries get better ratings. But if they could keep the designation by nominally following the rules, maybe this wouldn't matter so much.

The second is also hard to know. Perhaps there is a bit of pixie dust in the whole thing, or a few very real mechanical secrets that are only passed down in the order. But if you keep a monk or two around, it seems like things would still be fine.

Probably makes sense to not worry too much about this. Don't cry for Orval: they're already gone (or they'll still be there in the future, regardless of designation).