A peaceful stroll through the monastery grounds on a lovely spring day?

Guess again.

The upper buildings of Hauterive Abbey perch on a hill above the Sarine River.

Reuniting Travis with the amorous bovine who lavished him with soggy kisses last fall?

Not exactly.

Everyone in Switzerland is friendly, even the cows.

An afternoon of silent contemplation and reverent worship?

Now you’re definitely getting colder.

Perhaps Travis could pull off an afternoon of silent reverence, but anyone who’s met me knows I’m only quiet when I’m asleep. Normally an excellent test taker, I can just imagine sitting down to the entrance exam for the nunnery, reading the single-sentence instructions to sit for 5 minutes without saying a word, and leaving a minute later with a giant red F scrawled across the top.

I don’t know what the requirements are for sainthood, but I’m pretty sure it requires performing a miracle, which certainly puts Travis squarely in the running.  Anyone who can listen to me prattle away while they’re trying to read science journals, compose a single email, or just catch up on videos of kittens tussling on YouTube (he’s tough but he’s not made of stone, people) and still maintain their sanity has completed not one, but a continuous string of miracles.

Hauterive Abbey on a sunny spring day

So what were we really up to, visiting the abbey on a Sunday?

While it’s true that the setting is idyllic and the architecture is stunning, kudos to anyone who guessed that we were actually there for the divine nature of…

BEER!!!

But not just any beer.  We had heard that the monks at Hauterive Abbey make and sell their own jams, breads, and spirits on site, and we were keen to investigate for ourselves.

Belgian Trappist beers for sale at Hauterive Abbey in Posieux, Switzerland

As it turns out, they do, in fact, bake bread that is available for purchase on weekends, and it was the warm, yeasty smell of freshly baked bread that drew us toward the entryway of the sunken vault housing the abbey’s shop.

Filled with a rich variety of artisanal grocery items, beautifully hand-carved wooden bowls, and stunning silver and gold jewelry, it was their small display of craft beers lined out in a vintage chest that drew us in first.  Disappointed to discover that none had actually been bottled at Hauterive, our interest was piqued anew when we noted they were from several Belgian Trappist breweries.

Shop at Hauterive Abbey, Switzerland

Monks at Hauterive Abbey’s sell artisanal items in their partially sunken vaulted shop.

Who are Trappists?

In the face of increasing liberalism of Cistercian monasteries in the 1600s, the abbot at La Trappe Monastery in France drafted a series of new, more austere rules for its members, creating an order of monks that would become known as Trappists.  Though they take several vows, they’re probably best known for their commitment to “celibacy, fasting, manual labor, separation from the world and silence”, though evidence of these vows differs amongst monasteries.

Most of us, even those with strong religious convictions, likely read this and cringe.  I’ve already mentioned my inability to maintain silence.  I won’t even get started on how much I like junk food, vegging out on the couch to watch a good movie, socializing with friends, and drinking to excess – among other things.

Arched halls of the inner sanctum of Hauterive Abbey

Trappist monasteries aren’t terribly uncommon.  Even the US, which didn’t see their existence until the 19th century, harbors monasteries in 15 states, including the Guadalupe Abbey near Portland, Oregon.  What is uncommon, though, is Trappist beer. Of the 169 Trappist monasteries worldwide, only 10 have breweries that meet the stringent requirements of the International Trappist Association, allowing them to officially classify their brew as “Trappist”.  Nine of these are in Europe, while the 10th, St Joseph’s Abbey, is in Massachusetts in the US.

Why is this even interesting?  For several reasons.

  1. The beer must be made within the walls of the monastery using water that’s typically drawn from wells or springs on the same land.  You can’t get any more local than that!
  2. God comes first.  Beer comes second.  Brewing cannot in any way interfere with a monk’s primary duties of prayer and reflection.
  3. The monks eschew profit.  All proceeds from product sales support the monastery and the rest is donated to charity.  This is pretty impressive when you consider that Chimay Brewery in Belgium grossed over $50 million in 2007 – not exactly chump change.
  4. The beer is good.  It’s really, really good.  And I don’t even typically drink beer!  Breweries like Rochefort in Belgium have been brewing since 1595, so I suppose it shouldn’t be a surprise that they’ve pretty much figured out what tastes good by now.  Over the centuries, they even developed their recipes to perfectly complement the calcium-rich waters of the Tridaine, a stream near the monastery that’s the source of water for their beer.

After perusing the selection of beers, we chose 4 different bottles to sample later, including a Rochefort 10: a dark, rich beer with the flavor of caramel and fruit and an impressively high alcohol content of 11.3%.  We also bought a few things to add to our growing pile of gift items to eventually mail to friends and family in the States, and Travis handpicked a loaf of fresh bread that was still warm from the oven.  Satisfied with our day of discoveries, we lingered a moment longer to admire the stunning architecture and languish in the abbey’s utter silence.

A peaceful fountain and immaculate hedges form the central courtyard at Hauterive Abbey

Staring out into the pristine central courtyard, I practiced my vow of silence (for two loooong minutes) and speculated that by merely loitering about the abbey, some of the monks’ self-discipline and charitable spirit might osmosize my way.  Of course, if it’s possible for the spirit of what they embody to osmosize my way through their tasty, dark, unfiltered Belgian beer, even better!


Know Before You Go:

  • Osmosize is not a real word.   If you’re thinking you’ll whip it out at the next cocktail party to impress your host – don’t.
  • Fresh bread is available for purchase on weekends only.
  • The shop is open Tues-Sat from 1400 to 1700 and on Sunday from 1100 to 1140 and 1445 to 1700.
  • Official website for Hauterive Abbey

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