In the 1790s, French revolutionaries on an anti-Catholic rampage destroyed an abbey in the Belgian town of Grimbergen. The site was ultimately rebuilt, but without the facilities that had allowed its Norbertine clerics to brew beer for centuries before the attack. Now, according to the Guardian’s Daniel Boffey, the abbey is reviving the practice—with the help of historic recipes that survived the fire.
Grimbergen Abbey’s reputation as a brewery is so legendary that mass producers have borrowed its name; Carlsberg sells a Grimbergen line on the international market, while Alken-Maes produces it for sale in Belgium. But Father Karel Stautemas, the abbey’s subprior, recently announced that beer will be brewed at the abbey for the first time in some 220 years.
The project, which is being financed by Carlsberg, was inspired by the discovery of historic texts describing the clerics’ original brewing methods. NPR’s Bill Chappell reports that before the abbey’s library was destroyed, the clerics knocked a hole in the wall and ushered out a number of books, which is how the texts survived to the present day. Volunteers were called in to help decipher the ingredient lists and instructions, which were written in Latin and Old Dutch. In total, the research process took four years.
“For us, it’s important to look to the heritage, to the tradition of the fathers for brewing beer because it was always here,” Karel explains to Reuters’ Philip Blenkinsop. “Brewing and religious life always came together.”
Karel will be among five or six workers who will produce small batches of the beer at Grimbergen. They are sticking to some traditional methods—like using wooden barrels, relying on local soils and leaving out artificials additives—but the new brew will include some modern touches to make it more appealing to contemporary palates. Marc-Antoine Sochon, an expert at Carlsberg who has been appointed the abbey’s head brewer, tells Boffey that the beer of yesteryear “was a bit tasteless … like liquid bread.”
The new edition of Grimbergen beer will rely on the same Belgian yeast that Carlsberg uses, which will infuse it with “fruitiness and spiciness,” Sochon tells Reuters’ Blenkinsop. Karel is also studying beer-making at the Scandinavian School of Brewing in Copenhagen. Plans for the new microbrewery include a bar and a restaurant for visitors.
Hops have been planted in the abbey’s garden, and the brewery is scheduled to start serving its first beers in late 2020. The revival of the beer making tradition at Grimbergen seems a fitting pursuit for the abbey, which prides itself on its resilience. Its motto is ardet nec consumitur, or “burned but not destroyed” in Latin, and its symbol is the phoenix—the mythological bird known for its powers of regeneration.