Grimbergen Abbey Brewing Again

  Yves Herman/Reuters

 Yves Herman/Reuters

Although “Grimbergen Abdijbier” is available everywhere in Belgium and selectively around the world, it hasn’t been brewed at the abbey since before the French Revolution. That’s about to change. In a grand event for media (where was my invitation??), the abbey announced that monks had decided to start brewing again. The media coverage has been extensive, and many of the details are intriguing. Before we get to the particulars, a bit of background neglected by most stories.

The twelve white-robed monks at Grimbergen belong to the Order of Canons Regular of Prémontré, known colloquially as the Norbertines. This makes them the first non-Trappist order to take up brewing again in Belgium—though Leffe, the first monastery to license its name for beer-production in 1952, is also Norbertine. The monastery was founded in 1128, eight years after the order was born, and then suffered the usual catastrophes. The latest was destruction in 1798 during the French Revolution—the same fate that befell all the other brewing monasteries in Belgium and interrupted production for decades or centuries at them. 

Grimbergen Abbey’s licensing arrangement is unusual. Heineken brews the beers in Belgium for the local market, while Carlsberg brews it at Kronenbourg in France for the international market. (An uninteresting story of conglomerates conglomerating and trading rights.) These arrangements will continue. The beer made at the abbey will only be made in small quantities—if my math is correct, a production capacity of 8500 barrels—and sold locally.

  Grimbergen Abbey

 Grimbergen Abbey

This isn’t ideal. The Trappists have worked very hard to create clarity for consumers. If a package contains the “authentic Trappist product” mark, it means that cheese or beer was made on the grounds of the abbey, and overseen by monks. For well over half a century, Trappists have battled the incursion of non-monastic breweries trading on the cachet of the “abbey” name. It didn’t help that monasteries like Grimbergen and Leffe helped launder monastic connections for multinationals like AB InBev and Heineken. That will get all the muddier now that the monks are actually brewing their own beers (which I understand will be different than the ones made elsewhere). Nevertheless, this is a very cool story, which I will now outsource to the reporters who were onsite for the announcement. 

  •  “Sketching out a new alignment of traditional monastic brewing and corporate support, the Rev. Karel Stautemas, the abbey's subprior, says he will get formal training to help run the new microbrewery. [He is pictured at the top of this post] ‘Beer has always been part of life in the abbey and we are proud of the beers we have today,’ Karel said Tuesday as he announced plans for the new brewery.” (NPR)
  •  “Father Karel and the Fathers of the abbey will support Head Brewer Marc-Antoine Sochon, who has been heavily involved in making the microbrewery a reality. Marc-Antoine said: ‘The microbrewery will be a place for us to combine modern, inventive methods with the ancient Grimbergen brewing heritage. We're excited to use these books to bring back the medieval techniques and ingredients to create new beers that perfectly complement the excellent offering and flavours of the existing Grimbergen beers, such as Blonde, Blanche and Double-Ambree.’" (PRNewswire
  • “The source of inspiration for the new microbrewery, located on the same spot as the original, was the discovery from 12th-century books of details about the original monks’ brewing methods, specifically their use of hops rather than fermented herbs, which put the monks ahead of many of their contemporaries. The books were saved in the 18th century when the fathers knocked a hole in the library wall and secretly removed them before the abbey was set on fire.” (Guardian
  •  “‘We had the books with the old recipes, but nobody could read them,’ Stautemas said. ‘It was all in old Latin and old Dutch. So we brought in volunteers. We’ve spent hours leafing through the books and have discovered ingredient lists for beers brewed in previous centuries, the hops used, the types of barrels and bottles, and even a list of the actual beers produced centuries ago.’” (Guardian
  Grimbergen Abbey

 Grimbergen Abbey

As I mentioned on Monday, I have a trip planned for Belgium this fall. I will have to contact the brewery ahead of time to schedule a visit. I am especially interested in the translations of those 12th-century brewing logs.