Fewer Monks Means Less Belgian Beer For Its Fans

Among people in the know, Orval is not only considered a classic Belgian beer, but also rare and difficult to find.

And to those aficionados, that’s no surprise: It’s always been brewed in relatively small quantities inside a beautiful, tranquil Trappist monastery, and according to ancient methods.
Now, however, it will be even harder to get your hands on. Due to a shortage of monks at the centuries-old Abbey of Notre Dame d’Orval, in the Gaume region of Belgium, their traditional drink can’t keep up with demand – and it’s about to lose its distinctive and exclusive Trappist “appelation.”

Records show that the brewing of Orval beer dates back to the earliest days of the monastery. A document authored by an abbot talks of the consumption of beer by the monks in the XVII century. But it wan’t until 1931, when the monastery officially became a brewery as well, (of which the monks are the main shareholders and managers), that Orval was produced commercially in barrels, the proceeds used to help finance the reconstruction of the abbey.

Orval then evolved into the first Trappist beer to be sold nationally throughout Belgium and later internationally to selected stores.

According to the brewery, annual production is around 70,000 hectoliter (approximately 1.8 million gallons) and the monks have no plans to increase output, despite enormous demand. “Are we now at the limit of our capacities? We have to answer yes,” the monks write on their web site. “However much you value our beer, so much the more we regret having to tell you that we cannot offer more.”

They are limited, and hurt, by their decreasing numbers. In the 1980s, the monastery was home to 35 monks. Today that number has dropped to 12.

To earn the Trappist label, the beer must be brewed inside an abbey and under the supervision of Trappist monks. Only nine beers in the world are authorized to bear that appellation of origin — six of them in Belgium, one in Austria, one in the Netherlands and one in France.

“Obviously we want to see new people coming to us but monks are not found through headhunters,” brother Bernard, an Orval monk for more than 40 years, told a local daily.

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.