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Belgian monks tested by success of their beer

ROCHEFORT, Belgium -- Trappist monks leading a life of contemplation near the small Belgian town of Rochefort now find themselves in the global spotlight, under pressure to change as demand for their high-quality, home-brewed beer soars.

But change does not come easily.

This is a small, declining community of just 13 monks of the Cistercian Order, which was founded in France at the end of the 11th century on a commitment to “Pray and Work,” to focus on the spiritual, not the material world.

Traditionally self-sufficient, Trappist monks made enough beer for their own needs and then sold some to help fund charitable and other works.

From small beginnings, sales have taken off, building on a home market in Belgium to venture into France and the Netherlands, and now to China and the United States.

“The Trappists have a history, a story to tell, which attracts beer lovers,” said Thierry Fourneau, in charge of the Rochefort brewery operations.

“The religious origins of our beers is a plus because it is a guarantee of its quality and authenticity,” said Francois de Harenne, spokesman for the International Trappist Association (ITA) which certifies their origin and manufacture.

“Today, demand outpaces supply and it is picking up all over the world even though we have never tried to boost sales,” Harenne told AFP.

The ITA closely watches over the trademark which can only be carried by beer brewed exclusively within a Trappist monastery on a nonprofit basis, with any surplus used for charity or other social purposes.

Crucially, “the brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and it should (be) witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life,” the ITA says on its official website.

In Rochefort, the monks distribute about one million euros a year, out of sales of just over seven million euros, “to local families in distress, for missionary work and to help other monasteries in need,” said Father Luc, one of the monks.

“Making a profit is by no means an end in itself. We brew beer to ensure our monastery can survive and to help others,” he said.

The newest Trappist beer is made at Spencer, in the U.S. state of Massachusetts, where the monks put it on sale to help cover the ever rising cost of medical care for their ageing community.

Declining Communities, Growing Demand

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A Trappist monk oversees the bottling of Trappistes Rochefort beer at the Notre Dame de Saint Remy Rochefort abbey in Rochefort, Belgium on Feb. 19.

(AFP)

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