Belgium and beer go back a long way. As inseparable as Italy and pasta, Germany and sausages and Britain and anything without seasoning, the Belgians have a long, proud history of working wonders with hops and water. Experts believe that there are around 1,600 distinct beers produced around the country by 224 active breweries, making it one of the world’s most prolific alcohol-making nations relative to its size. You cannot get to grips with Belgium without first finding out about its beer.
Understandably for a country whose identity is so synonymous with alcohol, the centuries before it emerged as the centre for European politics were filled with countless thousands of drinks that have been sadly lost to the annals of history. Though 1,600 separate bevvies is not something to be sniffed at, one can’t help but wonder how many delicious ways of getting drunk are no longer available to us. However, a story has emerged to suggest that all is not lost when it comes to rediscovering ancient alcohol.
For hundreds of years, Grimbergen Abbey produced one of the most highly regarded beers in the whole of medieval Europe. The small community of Norbertine monks that lived there quickly became famous for the unique quality of their booze, brewing throughout the Middle Ages despite having their home burnt down on three separate occasions. In fact, it was this misfortune that caused the brewery to adopt the symbol of the phoenix as their sigil, along with the motto “ardet nec consumitur”, which translates as, “burned, but not destroyed.” But, despite this spirit of revival, it was thought that their recipe had finally been eradicated forever after the arrival of French revolutionary troops in 1798 and the destruction of the original buildings.
However, to the joy of beer connoisseurs everywhere, it was recently revealed that Grimbergen would be beginning brewing operations once again after a 12th-century formula was rediscovered concealed inside part of the monastery walls, having been hidden by prudent friars. According to serendipitous abbey subprior Karel Stautemas, the news marks the first time that Grimbergen’s original beer will be available for over 220 years. To mark the significance of the occasion, Stautemas’ announcement was made to a rapturous audience of over 120 journalists and dignitaries, including the local mayor.
The beer, which packs a punch at 10.8% ABV, is being produced in a small microbrewery, constructed on the same site as the monastery’s original facility and manned by Stautemas and 11 other monks. During the unveiling, Stautemas revealed how “We had the books with the old recipes, but nobody could read them. 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.” The result is a fully functioning operation producing beer that hasn’t been tasted for two centuries.
While alcohol and religion might not seem like the most natural bedfellows, monasteries all over the world have always had a surprisingly close relationship with drink. In fact, some of the world’s most celebrated booze still comes straight from religious producers. Internationally famous “Trappist” beer, for instance, is brewed exclusively by members of the Trappist order - either by the monks themselves or directly under their supervision. But the relationship extends well beyond the world of beer, with monks responsible for creating liquors such as Chartreuse, and even infamous Buckfast Tonic Wine. Though this might be surprising to anyone who associates religion with abstinence, the connection is an undeniable fact of history.
The new beer at Grimbergen, however, will not be an entirely religious endeavour. The monks have revealed that they have been contracted to produce three million 330ml bottles for the French and Belgian markets, starting in 2020. In order to cater for such high demand, they have teamed up with Danish beer-makers Carlsberg, suggesting that profits as well as production may well be on the agenda. A description of one of the new brews reads, "To begin with, the beer is aged in French oak barrels, which were previously used for bourbon and whisky, and yeast is added to give it a slight refermentation. During this time, the coriander, fruity and spicy phenolic flavours decrease allowing the malty, sweet, vanilla flavours from the whiskey barrel to infuse itself."
Despite the slightly unsavoury connotations of a collaboration with a major international alcohol conglomerate, the monks have insisted that any profits from the booze will go to good causes. According to a report in The Guardian, “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’”. Regardless of where the money ends up, the new venture promises to be an exciting opportunity for both beer buffs and historians alike.