by Daniel Boffey in Grimbergen
It has taken more than 220 years but an order of monks living in Grimbergen Abbey, producers of a fabled medieval beer whose brand was adopted by mass producers in the 1950s, have started to brew again after rediscovering the original ingredients and methods in their archives.
In a sign of the significance of the moment for beer-loving Belgians, the announcement was made by the abbey’s subprior, Father Karel Stautemas, in the presence of the town’s mayor and 120 journalists and enthusiasts.
Uncasking the first glass, Stautemas said the development was the culmination of four years of research into the methods of the monks brewing in the Norbertine monastery before it was burned down by French revolutionaries in 1798. The monastery was later reinstated but the brewery and its recipes were thought to be lost to memory.
Stautemas admitted it might be best not to drink too much of the newly produced beer, which is 10.8% alcohol by volume. “One or two is okay,” said Chris Selleslagh, the mayor of Grimbergen, a town six miles north of Brussels.
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 only saved in the 18th century thanks to an audacious move by the fathers, who knocked a hole in the library wall and secretly removed about 300 books before the abbey was set on fire.
“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.”
Only some elements from the recipe books are being used by the monks. “I don’t think people now would like the taste of the beer made back then,” Stautemas said.
Marc-Antoine Sochon, the newly appointed master brewer for the abbey, said: “In those times, regular beer was a bit tasteless, it was like liquid bread.”
The lack of artificial additives, use of wooden barrels, and exploitation of particular local soil – or terroir – is being emulated.
Stautemas, who lives with 11 other monks at the abbey, said: “What we really learned was that the monks then kept on innovating. They changed their recipe every 10 years.”
The new beer is being made in partnership with Carlsberg, which produces the Grimbergen range of beers for sale around the world, and Alken-Maes, which sells it on the Belgian market.
The microbrewery will produce 3m 330ml glasses a year for a largely French and Belgian market.
Asked whether he felt comfortable with the commercial tie-up with big brewers, Stautemas said the royalties from all the Grimbergen beers would allow the monks to live in the monastery, make pilgrimages and help “those who come knocking on our door and need help”.
Grimbergen was founded in 1128 but burned down three times in all, giving it its symbol of a phoenix and the motto ardet nec consumitur – burned but not destroyed.
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