In the waning days of summer, there’s a party experience that all expats living in the Netherlands or Belgium should sample … fabulous craft beer and food en plein air at one of Europe’s 11 Trappist monasteries. I know … you don’t often hear “monastery” and “party” in the same sentence, and most aren’t open to the public. A notable exception is in my family’s backyard.
Our Trappist Monastery, Achelse Kluis, a Saint Benedict Abbey, sits literally on the Netherlands/Belgium border. The Trappist monks are famous for distinctive beers, most of them pretty potent. In our neighborhood, the monastery is a community gathering spot for food, beer and outdoor activity. But it’s a fading tradition and one you’d be wise to experience while it’s still possible.
The last two monks at Achelse Kluis – pronounced “Aakel-say-klaus” in Dutch – left earlier this year to brew beer at Westmalle Abbey about 50 miles away in Malle, Belgium, which is the center of Trappist beer biz. But according to the Achelse Kluis website, the Abbot of Westmalle Abbey pays a weekly visit to Achelse Kluis to supervise brewing.
Still, the bottom line is, to be labeled “Trappist beer,” the beer must be brewed within the walls of the abbey, “in a place where there is a living community. There must be brothers in the community.” So, Achel has lost its right to call itself Trappist beer.
A big investment
That is, fortunately, not the end of the road for Achelse Kluis.
From the website:
Nothing changes in the recipes of the Trappist Achel. More than 5,000 hectoliters are brewed in Achel every year. The proceeds of the Trappist Achel will be used for the maintenance and upkeep of the abbey site, solidarity within the Trappist Order, development projects and charities.
In fact, our abby has gotten a big investment. Clearly, the good abbot sees Achelse Kluis as an important piece of the Trappist network and community because its has gotten a makeover from kind of a local pub with a cafeteria-style food setup, into a sleeker outdoor restaurant with table service in the vast and updated courtyard.
We’ve been a couple of times since the big makeover, and the food has gotten a bit fancier, going from sandwiches and bitterballen to cheese plates, charcuterie, tapas and excellent soups. A Sunday lunch for three in August ran us 37.20 euros.
Food ranges in price from 5.80 euros for soups to 23 euros for a four-person tapas spread with local meats and cheeses. There are a variety of offerings for drinkers and teetotalers including soft drinks, coffee and whatever. But the main attraction is the beer, and you can chose between blond and dark beers, and then between different alcohol contents – 8.5 percent and 9.5 percent.
A small 20 centiliter beer is 2.40 euros and a large 33 centilitre beer is about 4 euros. But, the Achel Bruin Extra and Achel Blond Extras are 11 euros for a 75 centiliter. And if you’re drinking those, we’re thinking you’d better have brought along a BOB for that drive home.
The real experience
What makes Trappist beer different is the depth of the flavor. If you’re drinking pilsner or – God forbid – Miller Lite, the Achel Blond will submerge you into a deeper, creamier and sweeter experience. The Bruin is tangier and, again, sweeter than, say, dark stouts such as Guinness.
Trust me … I am no beer expert. I don’t even drink beer very often, but when I do, it’s with gusto at Achelse Kluis. The beer never fails to satisfy.
With its enclosed courtyard, the Abbey was already a wonderful place to go, and locals and visitors from around the world pack in on sunny Sunday afternoons. We always take our American guests because it’s an authentic Dutch/Belgian experience. And to take photos of them straddling the border for their Insty feeds.
Now, there are new fancy sun/rain shades, fancy plantings and marble accents worked into the brick walkway in between the brewing area and the store where you can buy beer and religious items including statuary, books candles and decorative items. The store is huge and has great beers from many of the remaining Trappist beer-making monks in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Drinking and buying to-go beer at Achelse Kluis really has a positive impact on communities including this spot just a few kilometers from our house in Leenderstrijp, Netherlands. But you get a sense that this tradition of men dedicating their lives to manual labor at a religious order is reaching its end. So, seize the moment because as Tolstoy said, “What is passed no longer exists. What will be has not yet come. So, what then exists? Just the point where they meet past and future.
“There, at that point, is our whole life.”
• Unlike the Abbey of Gethsemani in my home state of Kentucky, you don’t get to hang with the monks at Achelse Kluis. They stay behind the scenes. All the kids you see working as servers at speak great English because this is the Netherlands. Sort of … the Abbey is technically in Belgium.
• If you want to work off that beer, there are miles and miles and miles of bike paths and hiking paths on the Dutch side, which takes you into the Leenderbos, an undeveloped area of pastures, forests and heaths.
• Many of the Trappist abbeys, such as Chimay, also make cheese. Some also have guesthouses, but remember, these are quiet religious retreats, not Airbnbs.
• The border at the abbey was the scene of shootings during World War I as people tried to slip through the barbed (electrified) wire between German lines in Belgium and the Netherlands. Check out the photos from the war. There are still fields nearby planted with poppies symbolizing the loss of life amid the carnage.
Other Trappist Monasteries you can visit:
La Trappe in Berkel-Enschot, a village next to Tilburg and just north of Eindhoven, serves food and beer and even hosts business meetings. (Those industrious monks!) You can see the details and schedule here. The brewery is actually operated by Dutch brand Bavaria, though the monks still call the shots and own the brand.
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.