For more than 1,500 years, some of the best quality beer (generally ale) has been brewed in monasteries throughout Europe, (and later, to a limited degree, in the U.S. as well).

Monks have long brewed beer for a number of very good reasons.

First, a good strong ale covered up, and even neutralized, the taste of really, really bad food being served in refectories.

Often there was little more than hard, crusty bread, strong pungent cheese and ale set before a hungry monk.

Each in its own right was tasty enough, but leave the bread and cheese sitting around long enough and you really needed a dose of ale.

One of the fathers of monastic life was St. Benedict. He wrote the “Rule” under which most monastic orders function still today.

He also founded (in a sense) the tradition of monastic brewing.

In Europe, there are some pretty amazing breweries still up and running in monasteries - largely those from the Trappist, or Cistercian, tradition.

In the U.S., there are a couple monasteries in the southwest - one being the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, north of Abiquiu, N.M. which runs the Abbey Beverage Company.

Many monasteries ran successful breweries as a means to be self-sufficient.

At the same time, the dietary benefits of a good, hearty ale simply couldn’t be ignored. Good ale wasn’t considered a way to get drunk, but rather a means to feed the people of a given community.

Also, with monks pretty regularly taking on some rather strenuous fasting, a charger of high quality ale would supply a lot of calories needed to keep the supplicant relatively healthy.

Most monastically brewed ales are quite heavy, full of calories and just bursting with flavor.

Another reason for brewing for the community — both in and outside the monastery — was that water was generally just not safe to drink. While even the good monks may not have known it at the time, the boiling process that goes into good brewing actually made the ale safer to drink than water from the surrounding countryside.

Ales brewed at the time were relatively low in actual alcohol content - often 2 percent to 3 percent - and so were also used as a main beverage for children.

Beer was skillfully brewed in monasteries such as LaTrappe, in France. Brewing there began in 1685 and continues still today.

Today there are still seven Trappist monasteries turning out some inspiring brews. Six are in Belgium and one is in Holland.

Be careful though. “Trappist-style” brews are just that - in the style of the Trappists. They are not necessarily actually monastery brews.

The same can be said with brews labeled “Benedictine-style” or “Abbey-style.”

Real Trappist breweries use an interesting system in measuring the strength of their product.

This system directly relates to the Holy Trinity with a single, double, and triple strength rating - Enkel, Dubble and Tripel in German.

There are still some exceptional monastic brews on shelves throughout the area, including Achel, Chimay, Koningshoeven, LaTrappe, Rochefort, Westmalle, Orval and a few others.

Many of the smaller breweries, microbreweries and craft breweries up and running throughout the U.S and Europe really are carrying on the monastic tradition of small batch, quality brewing.

The taste coming out of local establishments is wide, varied, and exciting.

Try some of the traditional brews with an open and welcoming spirit.

Heck. You can’t hardly beat a brew that is being produced under the banner of: Ore et Labora or Prayer and Work.

Solitude Abbey Style Ale

Brewery Vivant

Grand Rapids

Now, we return home for a sip of “Abbey-style ale.”

A reader might think I would be disappointed or disparaging of the “abbey style” after having the real deal from Belgium. Not so. Not at all.

Solitude was a thrill.

A bright, clear mahogany pour, this wonderful brew developed a hearty, thick, tan head that hangs around a good while.

Solitude is clear, dark and bold.

A proud pour. Distinguished.

At first scent, one feels there was an obviously well-considered malt composition (grain list) from conception. This is a carefully envisioned, and lovingly imagined brew.

Malty with a hint of caramel and background scents that are mildly woodsy in the very, very best sense of the description.

There is nothing overwhelming. Nothing cloying. Solitude is exceptionally well balanced.

Then we sip.

Oh my gosh! Full and flavorful with subtle sweet malts. A touch fruity, but more earthy.

Even though this is brewed in Grand Rapids, there are some proud, happy monks smiling down from somewhere.

Full bodied. Pardon my description, but this is a very masculine brew while at the same time giving over to its warm and embracing side. Solitude is distinguished and reserved, and outgoing at the same time.

If this brew is “abbey style’ I want to join the abbey.

A wonderful modern expression of centuries of brewing tradition. Solitude is one of the nicest, calmest, most velvety abbey ales I have had in a long time - a LONG time.

Laud and honor to the brewmaster.

If you want to learn about ales, this would be a great place to begin. All you need is a simple monastic meal - a quality, crusty bread, (preferably a more hearty grain such as rye), and a musky cheese (try roquefort or stilton.)

No more.

Trappistes Rochefort No. 6

Belgian Ale

L’Abbaye Notre-Dame deSaint-Remy

OK, team. This is a real Trappist - a unique monastically produced ale. As such, take care in pouring. There can be yeasty sediment in the bottle that can take ages to settle in a glass. If you don’t want to drink the bits of yeast, decant this as you would a fine wine.

Rochefort No. 6 is a thick, opaque ale, auburn in color. (The Rochefort Abbaye produces ales in levels 7 and 8 as well - indicators of the alcohol content.)

There is little head, and what there is settles fast, little foaming or creaming color except for a light beige that rings the glass.

This ale is dull and cloudy - almost viscous, slow to settle into the glass. (Take note, however, that this doesn’t mean there is anything “wrong.” Just that there is a different process.)

The smell is sweet and grainy at first nose. There are some fruit notes - somewhat cidery. This isn’t a surprise considering the thickness of the brew. There are background notes of chocolate, although you may have to work a bit to catch them.

The No. 6 is a touch musty.

Despite a strong, thick appearance (and the yeasty sediment), there is little yeast smell.

No. 6 is strong, tart and assertive. There is nothing mild about this ale. It is obviously bottle-finished with a very immediate alcoholic ring - even a bit metallic.

This is quite an intense ale. The taste doesn’t “develop.” It is simply there. Immediate.

The finish is warming, decidedly sweet, and holds an almost bready, alcoholic aftertaste.

Very zesty in the mouth. Very active and demonstrative.

It makes itself known immediately. This ale is no wallflower.

Rochefort No. 6 is a fine example of a monastery brewed ale that is bottle finished.

For those starting out - don’t be intimidated.

This is a dense, robust offering and definitely needs the accompaniment of a salty cured meat like a thin sliced ham (Prosciutto or Parma ham) or hearty salami.