If you love beer, and Belgian beer in particular, you must take a trip to Belgium to discover the Trappist Abbeys where the brewing tradition has been carried on for centuries.
It is not a very large country, so you will be able to visit a lot of beautiful places even in a short time, provided, however, that you are very organised and have established in advance the places to visit in Belgium.
Belgian Trappist Abbeys
Trappist abbeys are a must-visit, not least so that you can taste beers with a unique taste that only in these places will you have the opportunity to try… Maybe stock up for yourself or for friends. Trappist beer, in fact, is a very special type because it has to comply with process rules laid down by the International Trappist Association.
The Trappist monks, let us remember, are an order of monks of French origin who, over the centuries, specialised in the production and marketing of this exquisite beer in order to provide for the economic sustenance of the order itself.
In this article I tell you about the best Trappist abbeys I have visited and which I recommend.
Taste journeys. Discovering typical products
After having been to Holland to discover Gouda cheese, to Portugal to understand Port wine, to Marsala to taste the liqueur wine of the same name and to Scotland to learn about whisky, we decided to see Belgium to discover the golden nectar produced by Trappist monks: Belgian Beer.
Belgium beer – our itinerary in a nutshell
Belgium what to see: our trip to Belgium over seven days and more than 1200 kilometres took us to beautiful places and to drink fantastic beers:
Trappist Beer Tour of Belgium
I had a wonderful experience together with my travelling companions, visiting Belgium and in particular the days dedicated to discovering Trappist abbeys, tasting special, tasty beers with unique aromas.
The country is ideal for beer lovers, but especially for those who wish to experience the production of abbeys.
The production follows very strict rules and the result is outstanding. If you like beer as much as I do, I highly recommend this itinerary.
As you savour the drink in various variations, learn about Belgian history and see corners of rare beauty.
I was excited about this trip as I had planned it before the arrival of the pandemic and I was happy to return because it was an unforgettable trip, one to be repeated.
Belgian Trappist beers
After gathering some information about it, I decided to create a tour that would take me to a different place every day. In seven days I tasted the best abbey beers to be found in the country, staying overnight in enchanting places steeped in history.
Obviously, the drink pairs well with the local gastronomy, which holds unexpected and particularly delicious surprises, even if limited in number. I recommend a full immersion in traditional recipes, some, like the stracotto alla Birra are irresistible.
Belgian craft beers – Our itinerary
I must say that Trappist beers are indeed the best of Belgian beer production. There are breweries that are worth visiting, also to give vent to my curiosity.
Selecting the stops was quite easy, actually, because today there are only six breweries inside Trappist monasteries in Belgium, so I could include them all in my tour of the country.
These are excellent products with genuine ingredients and ancient recipes that are jealously guarded and handed down among the monks.
The beers are full-bodied and mostly unfiltered or pasteurised, ensuring a sublime flavour.
The result is unmatched by many commercial craft drinks.
Among the ingredients are yeasts that allow the product to mature even in the post-bottling phase. That is why their goodness should not be described, but tried.
Famous Belgian Beers
In order to discover the intense flavours and aromas of the beers brewed in the abbeys, and to understand their history, I decided to organise actual visits to the abbeys, and since the sale of the drink has always been a way to support charitable causes and the maintenance costs of the monasteries themselves, the monks are happy to welcome travellers from all over the world.
I started my journey from the capital Brussels and then continued, changing destination every day, to Rochefort, Orval, Chimay, Bruges, Westvleteren, Westmalle, Achel and Tongerlo. In conclusion there was the return to Brussels and then home.
My tour of the Trappist beers of Belgium
The itinerary I followed lasted seven days and allowed us to move between different locations around the country. Some are not very far apart, but dedicating a day to each place allows you to taste the beer, but also to get to know the places and especially the monasteries.
The beauty of the landscapes and towns captivates you. In fact, my belief is that the taste of the drink is better if you know the history of the production area. Here is my tour with all its stages, characterised by good drinking, fantastic cuisine and enchanting destinations.
Departing from Brussels Charleroi airport, we headed south to visit Wallonia and its Beers
Abbey beers Belgium – Rochefort beer
This enchanting location is home to one of Wallonia’s abbeys. The medieval town is 110 kilometres from the capital. About 3 kilometres from the village centre is the monastery of Notre Dame de Saint Rémy (Rue de l’Abbaye, 8) where an exceptional beer has been brewed since 1595 with water from the well in the building.
The monks prepare three types of drinks:
- Rochefort 6 has a reddish colour and some bitter notes with an alcohol content of 7.5%;
- Rochefort 8 has a brown colour with a fruity taste and an alcohol content of 11.3%;
- Rochefort 10 shows a red-brown hue and has a gradation of 11.3%.
The Abbey of Rochefort is a former Cistercian monastery founded in 1230 by a group of Cistercian monks from the Abbey of Clairvaux, France and was dissolved in 1796 during the French Revolution, in the municipality of Rochefort, Belgium.
The monks chose to settle in Rochefort because of its remote location and lack of distractions from the outside world. Rochefort Abbey quickly became one of the most important monasteries in Belgium and experienced a period of great prosperity during the 14th century.
This is partly due to the fact that it was located on the trade route between Bruges and Cologne. The abbey also had a large farm that provided the monks with food and income. However, this period of prosperity ended in the 15th century, when the abbey was damaged by fire. Rochefort Abbey continued to decline in the 16th century. mainly due to the Protestant Reformation and the incursions of French troops during the Thirty Years’ War. Because of these factors, the abbey was forced to close its doors in 1796.
Oggi, le rovine dell’abbazia di Rochefort sono una popolare destinazione turistica. The abbey is beautifully situated and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. Visitors to the abbey can explore the ruins, which include a church, cloister and other buildings.
Rochefort Abbey – how to buy beer
Rochefort Abbey is a great place to learn about the history of the Cistercian Order and the history of Belgium even if it cannot be visited.
The new factory is located next to the monastery complex and making our tasting was not so easy.
However, there is a small wooden door with a bell on the façade of the abbey. A monk came to open the door and led us into the abbey’s small shop, where we could buy our beers.
Be aware that it is not possible to buy more than 6 beers per person.
Since we had to drive to our next stop, we opted for the Rochefort 6, the lightest of the three, a Belgian red beer with some bitter notes.
Our journey southwards, towards the Ardennes and the French border, stopped in Buillon, the site of the fortress of Godfrey of Bouillon, one of the captains who led the First Crusade.
This small village also produces an excellent Belgian craft beer, which we naturally enjoyed together with a good Rochefort fillet.
We stayed overnight in this beautiful village and I must say that our hotel was really nice even if the rooms were a little outdated.
Our Belgian abbey tour took us to Orval. The Abbey of Orval is located about 30 kilometres from Buillon and about 85 kilometres from Rochefort.
The brewery was established in 1931 in order to finance the reconstruction and renovation of the monastery complex. La Orval trappist ale is perhaps the most famous abbey beer in the world. The bottle is shaped like a skittle to allow the yeast sediment to remain at the bottom when serving the drink. Two Trappist beers are produced:
- Orval Trappist Ale with a light colour and slightly cloudy but very frothy, the alcohol content is 6.2%;
- Petite Orval which has an alcohol content of 3.5%.
Fish beer with a ring
The Orval mark shows a fish holding a ring in its mouth. This is due to a legend that Countess Matilda of Canossa dipped her hands in a fountain and lost her wedding ring.
Out of great sorrow, he begged the Virgin Mary, who made him find her by bringing up a trout with a ring in its mouth from the waters of the river.
The entire structure can be visited, as can the adjoining museum. The Abbaye d’Orval is at Route d’Orval 1 in Villers-devant-Orval and is open daily: November to February from 10.30 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., March to May and October from 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. and June to September from 9.30 a.m. to 6.30 p.m. The cost of the ticket is 7 euros. After tasting the beer, I bought some bottles in the well-stocked abbey shop.
Once we left Orval, we travelled about 100 kilometres north-west. We preferred to stay on Belgian territory (also because the car rental contract did not cover the change of state, be very careful when renting a car), but if you want to save kilometres and time, you can go through France to reach Chimay quickly.
Incidentally, in this case, you pass through a beautiful town: Charleville-Mézière. At Notre-Dame de Scourmont, they brew beers using water, wheat starch, barley malt, yeast extract, sugar and hops. Each beer is highly fermented and the entire variety can be found at the Auberge de Poteaupré inn at Rue de Poteaupré 5.
In the search for our abbey, by mistake we ended up in the centre of Chimay at another one run, however, by nuns. No beer, sigh! Handicrafts only.
We got back in the car and 10 minutes from the town of Chimay we finally reached the Trappist Abbey of Chimay.
Visiting the Trappist Abbey of Chimay
A truly unique place, where peace reigns supreme and the smell of baked malt floods the air.
Unlike other abbeys we have visited, it can be visited, but it is not possible to buy beer inside.
You can do this in the large bar-restaurant located 2 minutes’ drive from the abbey.
Entering through the main door, a large covered area introduced us to the abbey’s large inner garden. which connects the prayer area to the inner brewery.
Well-tended grass, trees, plants and flowers are a tonic for body and mind. Walking along the walkways, to the small chapel in the park for meditation and prayer, to the monk’s cemetery was really beautiful.
We also entered the abbey church and like all those we visited and would visit in the following days in the abbeys, it was very austere and devoid of artistic elements.
I think in order not to distract attention from prayer.
Tasting Chimay beer
Back to the focus of this article: to taste the famous Belgian craft beers produced in Chimay (actually something can also be found in Italy, but I am not sure if it is the same product, mainly due to the restrictions on the presence of alcohol and the related Italian taxation), we reached the Chimay Bar and Restaurant near the abbey.
In addition to the Trappist beers produced in the Espace Chimay, you can also taste the typical products of the area, i.e. cheese and charcuterie from the neighbouring farms.
Chimay Trappist beers
There are basically four Belgian beers produced at Chimay plus a few special editions and we wanted to taste them all… in moderation, of course:
- Chimay Red with a brown colour, a fruity flavour and an alcohol content of 7%;
- Chimay Blue with a dark hue and a bitter taste, with a strength of 9%;
- Chimay Triple with an orange hue, a dry taste and a strength of 8%;
- Chimay Dorée is spiced and made of pure barley malt with an alcohol content of 4.8 per cent but is not commercially available, it is only available at the inn.
We stopped for lunch at the inn and had a full tasting, what the Scots call Flight for whisky and wine lovers Verticale, accompanied by local cheeses and cured meats.
Belgian craft beer from Bruges
After travelling another 200 kilometres in a northerly direction, we reached the beautiful and world-famous city of Bruges, where we would have the UNESCO-protected medieval city centre. On this stage I had a good local beer, but nothing like the Trappist ones.
Brewery of Bruges
Right in the city centre is De Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery, a stop on our Bruges tour. It is the last family-owned brewery, founded in 1856 and completely renovated in 2005.
We were impressed to learn that as there was no more space for all the work steps and it was difficult for trucks to reach the factory, De Halve Maan built a bottling plant outside the city and the beer is transferred in a very special way.
The Beer Pipeline, a river of beer flowing under the city
In order to limit the influx of lorries into the centre of Bruges, protect the city’s ancient cobblestones and limit the CO2 produced in the city centre, the first underground pipeline system was inaugurated in September 2016 to transfer Bruges beer from the production buildings to the bottling plants on the outskirts of the city.
A river of beer flows under the streets of Bruges! Realised thanks to crowdfunding and the city administration.
Visit to the De Halve Maan brewery
We wanted to make the The guided tour of the Bruges Brewery (45 minutes, in English) takes you through the history of the family business from 1857 to the present day. You pass through all the production areas and zones, reaching up to the roof on top of the old silos from where you can enjoy a priceless view of the city of Flanders.
Timetables and how much it costs
La visita con degustazione al De Halve Maan può essere effettuata tutti i giorni dalle 10.00 alle 18.00 e costa, compresa la degustazione finale, 12 €.
Beers brewed at De Halve Maan in Bruges
- Brugse Zot, the most famous: Belgian Ale, 6.5° blonde. Born in 2005.
- Brugse Zot dubbel: A 7.5° Belgian dark amber beer.
- Straffe Hendrik:9° blond tripel beer. Born in 1981.
- Straffe Hendrik quadruple: Belgian Strong Ale, 11° dark amber beer. Born in 2010.
- Straffe Hendrik Heritage:Quadruple aged 12 months in oak barrels. (limited edition)
- Straffe Hendrik Wild:Tripel re-fermented with brettanomyces. Born in 2014.
In our tasting we opted for the lighter Brugse Zot.
Visit Westvleteren and taste the best beer in the world
Whether this statement is true or not is not for me to judge, but in every communication about Belgian beer, it is always written that the beer brewed here is the best Belgian beer and the best beer in the world. I think, as with any gastronomic product, it is subjective.
Leaving the Flemish coast, a few kilometres from Dunkirk, we headed inland in search of the Sint-Sixtusabdij Westvleteren Abbey in Donkerstraat 12, where the best beer in the world is said to be brewed.
The beer brewed in Westvleteren was only destined for the monks of St. Sixtus Abbey from 1871, and in 1877 the first marketing began, but with a modest distribution network.
The beers of Westvleteren
Westvleteren beers are harder to find, although some websites and speciality beer shops sell them, but at a much higher price than you will find in the inn next to the abbey (around 20 euro per bottle).
They can be purchased at the actual price of 2 euro per bottle only in front of the Abbey on certain days of the week and for 6 bottles per person.
Beers produced in Westvleteren
- Trappist Westvleteren Blonde lager, green cap with an alcohol content of 5.8%;
- Trappist Westvleteren 8, blue cap with a brownish hue and 8% gradation;
- Trappist Westvleteren 12, dark yellow cap with an alcohol content of 10.2%.
The lack of a label on the bottles is another distinguishing feature of this beer. Each bottle is engraved with the amount of alcohol and all other necessary information, which is written on the cork.
Visiting the Westvleteren Abbey and guesthouse
Visiting the Abbey of St Sixtus is not possible and to taste the best Belgian beer, just go across the street to the guesthouse where, in addition to beer, you can have lunch and taste local food and cheese.
Westmalle Trappist Beer
30 kilometres north-east of Antwerp, we reached the place where I was able to make a good stop at the Café Trappisten tavern, adjacent to the abbey, at Antwerpsesteenweg 496. The shop is open from 7.30 a.m. to 11.30 a.m. daily. Despite the limited hours, it is worth tasting and buying the various beers produced by the Trappists:
- Westmalle Dubbel has a reddish-brown colour, a fruity flavour with some bitter notes and an alcohol content of 7%;
- Westmalle Tripel clear, fruity and with an alcohol content of 9.5 per cent;
- Westmalle Extra full-bodied and with an alcohol content of 5%.
Westmalle is one of twelve beers (six in Belgium) allowed to display the hexagonal Authentic Trappist product logo
Back in the car for the last leg of my tour of the Trappist beers of Belgium before returning to the capital. After 70 kilometres in the direction of the Dutch border I found the monastery of Sint-Benedictusabdij de Achelse Kluis in De Kluis 1. The brasserie is open Wednesday to Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and serves traditional local dishes for lunch. The beers are:
- Achel Blonde: white with an alcohol content of 8%;
- Achel Brune brunette with a 10 per cent alcohol content;
- Achel Extra black and with an alcohol content of 9.5%.
A few kilometres from Brussels is the Tongerlo Abbey founded in 1128. Until the French Revolution, beer was brewed directly in the abbey. Production was stopped because it was confiscated and the assets sold to the French until 1840 when it was bought back by its refounder and a small brewery was built adjacent to the monastery complex.
Tongerlo is a truly beautiful place, the perimeter of the monastery hides an immense central garden around which the buildings and the large church are built.
Leonardo da vinci in Tongerlo
The abbey was a great educational centre, housing one of the 16th century libraries. With the rise of Calvinism there were great conflicts and Tongerlo became a refuge for local Catholics.
It was then, due to the destruction of the works of art by the Calvinists, that a contemporary copy of the original of theLeonardo’s Last Supper, of the same dimensions as the original and in which the direct contribution of Leonardo da Vinci who painted Christ and another figure in the composition.
During our visit we attended mass with beautiful Gregorian chants.
Trappist beers brewed in Tongerlo
Various types of beers are produced at the Tongerlo Abbey:
- Tongerlo Brown, a reddish-brown beer with an alcohol content of 6.5 per cent, this beer was known as Doubre Brown, and for the introduction of the blond variety as Doubre.
- Blonde, copper-coloured beer with an alcohol content of 6%. This variant was previously known as Double blonde.
- Tongerlo Triple, a blond beer with an alcohol content of 9%.
- Tongerlo Christmas, an amber-coloured beer with an alcohol content of 7 per cent, only available during the winter months.
Although there is a shop inside the abbey, opposite is a guesthouse with a hotel and restaurant where we stopped for a tasting stop in a relaxing garden.
The capital is definitely not to be missed, the city is a marvel, combining the modern architecture of the European institution buildings with that of past centuries of historical buildings. Ancient and contemporary art characterises Brussels’ offer, with museums and galleries for all tastes.
After tasting the best Belgian beers brewed by the Belgian Trappist monks, I decided to sample the other artisanal beers, enjoying the city and its many monuments.
I confess that I tasted the famous chocolates and then visited a few museums, including the Belgian Brewers Museum dedicated precisely to beer and its producers. It is located at 10 Grand Place and opens daily from 11am to 6pm.
Our trip had one focus: the best Belgian beer.
So I left the urban tour among the artistic and architectural sights for the last day, focusing on the breweries. You can, in fact, enter two very important factories to taste their product.
Cantillon is a brewery opened in 1900 and known for its Lambic beers.
The same family of founders is still at the helm of the company. The traditional method succeeds in creating a fruity-tasting drink, the long fermentation mitigating the acid notes typical of this type of beer.
The brewery has a museum showing the production steps. The Musée Bruxellois de la Gueuze – Brussels Museum van de Geuze is located at Rue Gheude 56, 1070 Anderlecht (Brussels), attached to the factory and brasserie, which open to the public on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The De La Senne Brewery
It has a shorter history, but is definitely worth knowing. It was founded in 2005 by two young people with experience in the industry. The beers on offer are divided between regular, seasonal and experimental and have already won the company an award as best craft enterprise.
Accompanying the groups of at least 15 visitors are the owners, alternating between them, who explain the activity during the tour of about an hour followed by a tasting session with four different beers.
The cost is 10 euros per person. The company is located at 19/21 Drève Anna Boch in Brussels and has a brasserie open Tuesday to Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. and on Saturdays from 12 to 8 p.m. For visit bookings, you should refer to the Once in Brussels website (onceinbrussels.be).