Visiting a Trappist monastery is a unique experience as normally they don’t invite many visitors. In the woods near Zundert, the birthplace of Van Gogh, you will find one of two Dutch Trappist breweries, kept away from prying eyes by long iron gates surrounding the entire monastery. Once a month they open the doors to the lucky few who manage to register fast enough for the tour. I was told it fills up within 20 minutes after they send their newsletter announcing the tour dates. Last month I received the exciting news someone had canceled and I could take their spot!
The tour involves an introduction and presentation at the nearby Café In den Anker, followed by a lovely walk through the woods and former peatland to the brewery located within the monastery walls, a short stop at the gift shop (which is always open to the public), to return to the café on foot for a beer tasting. The tour is guided by Henri Reuchlin, owner of BIERburo, who has been the brewery’s advisor since the beginning in 2012. Brother Christiaan, who assists in brewing, did pop in the brewery to say hello. The tour takes approximately three hours and gives a good insight into the Trappist and Zundert beer history.
Ora et Labora – a way of life
You’ve probably tasted a Trappist beer before or at least heard of them. They are generally heavier beers, ranging from a dark blond to an amber or brown hue. Most people know it as a Belgian beer, which is probably why it’s so easy to mistake it for a beer style. Trappist doesn’t take its name from the beer but from a town in Normandy called La Trappe, where the reformed Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance was founded in 1664. The religious order is based on the original Cistercians, who follow the rule of St. Benedict, but had relaxed some of their practices over the course of centuries. As a reaction to this, the reformed order went back to a stricter observance of the original rules ‘Ora et Labora’: hard work and prayer, by practicing silence and solitude (though they do not take a vow of silence, but speak only when necessary). To be independent from the world, they seek means to be self-sufficient, such as producing cheese, bread, clothing, and most famous of all: beer. There are currently 169 Trappist monasteries worldwide, 12 of them brew beer. Five monasteries are located in The Netherlands, of which two operate their own brewery: Our Lady of Refuge (Abdij Maria Toevlucht in Zundert) and Abbey of Our Lady of Koningshoeven, where La Trappe beers are made (Tilburg).
Boerderij De Kievit – A place of refuge
During the French Revolution the Trappist monks were forced to flee France. Over the next hundred years they settled across Europe, many taking refuge in Belgium and The Netherlands. This led to the establishment of Trappist abbeys like De Koningshoeven in Tilburg (1880). To further aid refugee monks, De Koningshoeven founded three priories at the end of the 19th century, one of them at a cattle farm in Zundert called “Boerderij De Kievit”. As luck would have it (or divine intervention?) a rich widow had gifted them the farm and its surrounding land. It is outside of the Zundert town and lays secluded in the woods amidst the former peatlands. Large metal posts scattered throughout the area show how high the peat lay that was exploited (see photo). In 1938 the Zundert priory was elevated to the status of an abbey. After taking their solemn vows, the monks remain there their whole life. Currently 9 reside within its walls; at its peak in the 1950s there were 80 monks living there. They supported themselves by continuing to raise cattle until in 2009 the work became too heavy and arduous and it was decided to seek other means of income. In 2012, after much deliberation and planning, the construction of the brewery began.
Brewery De Kievit – From farming to brewing
Starting a brewery is no small feat. I imagine starting one in a monastery is an even bigger challenge. How much beer is needed to be self-supporting without becoming commercial? Where to put the brewery? Money is an important factor too, but what monks have that most people don’t is patience and time. It took a good year to realize the plans with the opening taking place on December 6, 2013. The big fermentation tanks need space and the second highest building – after the church – was the hay shed. Only the monumental concrete beams remain. The walls were replaced with glass, creating an extraordinary light space. The current capacity is 3000 hl, which can be expanded to 5000 hl in future. The beers are brewed under the watchful eye of brewmaster Constant Keinemans (Brouwtechniek Nederland) and Brother Christiaan one week per month, as to disturb monastic life as little as possible. For this reason bottling takes place elswhere. Since 2022 this is done at the Koningshoeven (La Trappe) brewery in Tilburg.
For the first five years they brewed one beer, now known as Zundert 8. The monks tasted many beers before deciding what color and flavor their own Trappist beer should have. They settled on a copperblond, slightly herbal (made with herbs from the region, but those remain a secret), bitter, with a subtle caramel note. The smoked malts used (which are not prominent in the flavor) hint at the history of the Zundert peatlands.
After many requests from the outside world, the brewery decided in 2018 to launch a second beer. This is a darker, heavier beer (10%) similar to a Quadrupel, with hints of dried fruit, licorice and chocolate but with the Zundert herbal signature.
Both beers carry the Authentic Trappist Product label awarded by the International Trappist Association, which was established in 1998 to protect the authenticity of the Trappist products. To receive this label, an application must be submitted and approved. All Trappist products, like beer, cheese and chocolate, are eligible. An authentic Trappist product is made within the walls of a monastery by (or under supervision of monks) with the purpose of attaining self-sufficiency (i.e. non-profit). This is what marks the difference between the authentic Trappist beers and the many abbey beers available on the market that are monastic inspired but not actually brewed by monks in a monastery.
The Zundert logo is immediately identifiable and unique: it shows a depiction of the local bird ‘kievit’ (in English lapwing or peewit) with a splendid crest on its head in a four corner keystone shape, the type you see above abbey windows or classical window arches. The bird’s crest is also reflected in the special shape of the letter ‘d’ in the Zundert name on the label. The purple color was not a deliberate choice. The designer used it for one of the proofs, but it turned out to be ‘the one’. Not completely an odd choice, as historically the color purple was very expensive and therefore reserved for kings, nobles and priests. Very befitting for a monastic beer!
All photos were taken by Tina Rogers.