When is a beer not a beer? Answer: when it’s a Trappist. Chimay is one of only seven beers in the world (six of them Belgian, there’s one in the Netherlands) that can genuinely and legally call itself by that name. For the record, just so you can impress your mates, the others are Westmalle, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren and Achel. The seventh is Koningshoeven, more commonly known as La Trappe, brewed in the Netherlands.
Contrary to popular belief, Duvel isn’t one.
The nectar that is the world-renowned Chimay is created in a high-tech plant behind the Cistercian abbey of Scourmont-lez-Chimay, which in turn is a brief drive, or a longish monk’s plod, to the picturesque village, near the French border south-west of Namur, that gives the beer its name. Old Europe meets New Europe at the abbey? Definitely, in technology terms at least.
The beautiful Scourmont Abbey is relatively young - 161 years old this year. On 25 July in 1850, Trappists from Westvleteren, near Ypres, set about clearing land donated by the Prince of Chimay in order to farm it. This they did, selling extra produce to the locals and, along the way, finding time to build an abbey, which now brews the beers and incorporates a cheese-making plant.
The manual tasks involved in these industries tie in successfully with the monastic ethos and they are among the largest employers in the region.
The ‘brothers’ still have decision-making powers on the board and pump euro after euro into social projects.
Although the monks spend most of their time in prayer and study in their gorgeous surroundings, they dedicate a few daily hours to ensure that the beer production runs smoothly in the ultra-modern brewery. The sight of habit-clad, silent monks wandering piously through the cloisters only yards from laboratories manned by techie types sporting white coats can seem weird.
While the sun dapples the pathways that gently weave their way through leafy trees and the breeze wafts the delicious scent of blooms across your face, there exists a silence that is more startling than any noise. Day-trippers will find the abbey’s atmosphere both humbling and uplifting, enhanced still further by the rare but gentle footfall of a passing monk, head down, hands clasped and mindful of prayer.
The brewery itself is off-limits to casual visitors, being so close to a deeply holy order, but they all look the same anyway - trust me. It’s the abbey and the small town itself that are the highlights.
But I’ve missed something out here...what about the beer? Well, here’s a bit of history: the first beer at Scourmont was produced in 1862 and was sold in corked bottles - the height of technology back then. By 1948, drinkers could pour the brew from capped bottles. This original beer - a 7% light, coppery-brown creation - is now shipped across the world. The famous ‘red cap’.
Also in 1948, the ‘bleu’ first saw the light of day. This one weighs in at 9% and was
originally intended to be a dark, festive beer. You’ll be jolly after a couple of those.
The Holy Trinity became complete with the ‘white cap’ in 1966. This, ‘light’ beer (a trifling 8%) has an aroma of fresh hops and an unexpected hint of muscat.
These beers are not for the faint-hearted but, as they are all created using natural ingredients, the hangovers are at least worthy ones. No nasty chemicals - just good old-fashioned, tasty ale. Adam’s ale, you might say - but just a bit stronger.
While we’re being Biblical, what about the monks? Surely not even the most devout could resist the occasional tipple of the fantastic beverages they play a part in
making? No, they can’t resist. Truth is, there’s another brew (not as strong as the ones that you or I would jealously guard in some bar off Brussels’ Grand’Place) that’s tasty and refreshing in its own way. It’s a lighter version of the ‘famous three’ and the monks enjoy a glass or two from time to time.
Even among monks, old habits die hard.