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A visit to La Trappe for the 125th Anniversary

A visit to La Trappe for the 125th Anniversary

Ian Clay, Managing Director of James Clay, was one of a very select handful of people invited to the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Koningshoeven, the home of La Trappe, as part of the brewery's 125th anniversary celebrations.

Good old EasyJet. Actually, pain in the backside EasyJet.

If I can be bothered to haul myself out of my bed on a cold and wet November morning to catch a plane, you'd have thought that members of their cabin crew could do the same, but no. Nothing warms the heart more than a delayed plane...

On the Continent at last and all is forgotten (Dutch trains incredibly efficient) and it wasn't long before I arrived at my destination: the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Koningshoeven and the home of La Trappe.

I was met by Thijs Thijssen, the Managing Director at the Proeflokaal ‘brewery tap’ and shortly afterwards was enjoying my first beer of the visit, La Trappe Rafte, a 4.7% beer that is currently only available at the brewery. Rafte is a light beer with a good hop bitterness, an ideal choice for a lunchtime drink – a bit like the Taylor’s Golden Best of Holland!

During a slightly unusual yet delicious lunch (tomato soup and a plate of 3 fried eggs) Thijs and I talked cycling: he tells me he is going to take on Alpe d’Huez (a 1100m climb in the French Alps and a regular tormentor of Tour de France cyclists) in aid of charity, not just once but hopefully 4 times - I don't think I know many MD's of British breweries who could even drive this, let alone ride it!

Over at the Abbey I was booked in to my accommodation for the night; I have to say I was a little surprised to see my name on the room board as Sir Ian Clay, but not as surprised as the American chap who was referred to as 'Mrs' on his.

I was incredibly honoured to be invited to stay the night in one of the Abbey guest rooms – a very small basic room with a sink and small desk and normally available only for visitors wanting to follow monastic life. 

My only previous visit to the Abbey was over 20 years ago and it was interesting to see the many improvements which have been made to the small but perfectly formed brewhouse, one such improvement being that the beer is now only centrifuged rather than being filtered.

The brewmaster was very proud to inform me they buy all their own hops ‘from the land’ by visiting the  growers and checking the hops before they buy. He explained their hop farmer is experimenting with some new Hallertau variants (could be very interesting) and they also grow some of their own hops right there in the Abbey grounds.

Father Abbot Bernardus welcomed us to the Abbey and, using the wonders of a PowerPoint presentation, explained that theirs was a life of encounter: Encounter with God, Encounter with Ourselves and an Encounter with Others. It was a very emotive insight into a very different way of life.

The Abbey of Koningshoeven, near Tilburg, was founded in 1881 by French monks and was the 1st Roman Catholic monastery for 400 years in Holland. Brother Isi D’or started brewing at the abbey in 1884 as there was not enough income from agriculture to sustain daily life and the revenue from beer would help the coffers.

The Father Abbot himself would give us a tour of the Abbey which once boasted 150 monks yet today their numbers had dwindled to a mere 18, of which the average age was 57.

An industrious place, the Abbey has a small bakery and bakes bread from the spend grain from the brewery as well as making biscuits for the shop and restaurant for which they also make chocolate as well.

The tour was finished by us joining the monks for their 4th service of the day, very different to any service I had ever been to before with long periods of silence interspersed with harmonic chanting and readings. I doubt whether anyone could fail to be touched by this very moving experience.

Time to sample the range of 8 beers the brewery have available on draught - Rafte, Blonde, Dubbel, Triple, Quadrupel, Isi D’or, Bock and Wit – followed by a superb six course menu, ingeniously cooked and matched with the La Trappe beer range.

The meal was interrupted half way through: would we mind adjourning to the brewery? Ushered in to a room full of oak casks, we were there to witness the Father Abbot tap the first barrel of oak aged La Trappe.

An innovative move by the Brewery and the oak flavours were certainly apparent in the taste of this fine beer. A successful creation, to be sure, with suggestions that experimenting with old whisky barrels could follow, something to really look forward to.

La Trappe is certainly a brewery with deep history and a passion for brewing great beer; always respectful to their heritage and spiritual calling, yet willing to adapt to trying new and innovative ideas .

A wonderful, unforgettable day followed by the most restful night's sleep.

Until 4:30am.

I have to be honest and say I was not totally expecting the bells to start ringing at 4.30 for the first of seven services of the day for the monks to attend.

In fact, even as I departed from the Abbey at 7.00am, with the bells were ringing for 2nd service of the day, I decided that the life as a speciality beer importer is the real calling for me!