Belgian brothers resume beer brewing after more than two centuries

James Crisp
Norbertine Father Karel poses with a Grimbergen beer, symbolised by a phoenix, in the courtyard of the Belgian Abbey of Grimbergen - REUTERS

After more than two centuries, and three devastating fires, the brothers of Grimbergen Abbey in Belgium will soon once again be brewing their famous medieval beer.

Four years of research into ancient recipes are set to bear fruit as the Norbetine order of monks resume the traditional practice at the site close to Brussels after an incredible 220 years.

A new microbrewery will be built at the Abbey, marking the resumption of a practice dating back to the Middle Ages, it was announced yesterday in front of Grimbergen’s mayor and 120 journalists and beer enthusiasts.

Belgian monks are rightly celebrated for their skill in brewing powerful characterful brews but the art was lost to Grimbergen Abbey in 1798 after it was burnt down by French revolutionaries.

"We will house the new brewery in the place where the brewery once stood,” said the abbey’s subprior Father Karel Stautemas.

It was the third blaze to raze the abbey to the ground but while the monks’ home was rebuilt, the on site brewery was not. Fortunately, books from the library were saved from the flames by the monks.

Years later those archives were to reveal the traditional recipe used on the abbey’s new microbrewery. The recipes were thought lost until the documents were translated from the old Latin and old Dutch by volunteers.

The monks found the old recipes after volunteers translated the books  Credit: Yves Herman/Reuters

“We had the books with the old recipes, but nobody could read them,” Father Stautemas, one of 11 monks living at the abbey, said.

“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,” Father Stautemas said.

But the brewing brother, who is undertaking formal training in preparation for his new role, admitted that the recipe for the limited edition 10.8 percent beers had been altered to suit modern tastes.  The beers are expected to be ready for sale in 2020.

The abbey, founded in 1128, has been tied to commercial brewers since the 1950s when local brewer Maes asked the monks to use the Grimbergen name and emblem on its "abbey beer".

About 1.5 million hectolitres of that brand are now produced globally, with Heineken unit Alken-Maes making and selling it in Belgium, while Carlsberg brews it largely in France for other markets. The abbey earns royalties.

Grimbergen's monks will follow the rules of Belgium's Trappist beer makers, even if they are not a Trappist order, requiring them to brew within the abbey walls, control the brewing and steer profits towards maintaining the abbey and supporting charitable causes.