CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- On July 9, my beer world changed.
It was the day it became it became legal to sell beer with higher alcohol in West Virginia, raising the legal limit from 6 percent to 12 percent abv (alcohol by volume), similar to the abv level in wine. Since then I have been receiving reports from friends and readers telling me about new beers that are showing up on the store shelves almost daily. It's an exciting time for a beer geek.
I had every expectation to see the obvious entrees into the market from established craft brewers like Harpoon and Rogue. What I didn't expect (at least not so soon) was the availability of some of the world's finest ales, such as the Trappist-brewed beers from Rochefort and Westmalle, both from Belgium.
You may have thought it was a myth that monks actually brew beer, but they do! The typical "monk beer" is usually brewed by Trappist monks. Of the seven remaining Trappist breweries, six are in Belgium.
The Trappists are an offshoot of the Benedictine order of priests who follow the rules for monastic life as laid down by St. Benedict. One rule is for the monks to live by the work of their own hands, so the typical Trappist monastery may operate a bakery or brewery and often will make artisan cheese.
When buying a Trappist-made product, social consciousness is built in. The typical monastery uses more than half of all profits to benefit the surrounding townspeople as well as being sensitive to the environment.
Most of these monasteries are challenged by the increasing demand for their high-quality products while struggling to maintain their numbers within their priestly population. This has resulted in the use of laypeople to run the majority of the production operations, though they are closely supervised by the brothers. I have talked to some employees at a Trappist brewery and they are well taken care of and wouldn't consider leaving.
Now let's talk about the beer!