Belgian Trappist monks turn water into beer

CHIMAY, Belgium - At the Notre-Dame de Scourmont abbey in southern Belgium, beer is as much part of the lives of its Trappist monks as prayer.

"Here, in this heaven of peace and silence where since 1850 Trappist monks have dedicated their life to God, products are made which in themselves, gladden the heart of man," enthuses the brewery's website.

Similar to their Benedictine brother Dom Perignon, who in the seventeenth century invented sparkling wine, the monks at Scourmont Abbey near the town of Chimay, have gladdened the heart and palate of many a discerning drinker with their rich, potent brews of Red, Blue and Triple beers.

Since 1862, the monks who belong to the strict Cistercian order, have produced Chimay beer at the austere monastery which is run according to the rules laid down by Saint Benedict.

"The goal of monastic life is not to make beer. You come to the monastery to live a life of prayer," Abbot Armand Veilleux told Reuters during a visit to Scourmont. "But monks cannot live off charity."

Vowing a life of celibacy and renouncing all worldly possessions, they brew beer to help fund their local community and religious foundations in Africa and Asia.

Veilleux said beer making had a long tradition in Belgium and the Netherlands.

"And the Trappists, because they try to do things well, made good beer."

In true Trappist form, Chimay's brown, blonde and amber beers are brewed to high levels of alcohol, ranging from a heady seven to a sinful nine degrees.

The monks drink a weaker "biere menage" home-made brew, containing 4.8 percent alcohol.


Though these days few of the diminished community of 18 monks tend the pristine fermentation vats or work the malt mills, they control the board of directors and have veto rights.

"The brewery could not be sold to (Belgian beer giant) Interbrew, for example," Abbot Veilleux said, insisting that Chimay beer would lose its valuable title as a Trappist beer if it were sold.

Recent measures to protect the monks from imitators insist that an authentic Trappist beer has to be produced inside a monastery and monks must own the brewery.

There are only six such beers that can lay claim to the "Authentic Trappist Product" label. Five are in Belgium -- Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren -- and a sixth, La Trappe, is in the Netherlands.

Chimay, second in its domestic market only to abbey beer Leffe, licensed by Interbrew, will be assured of a loyal following for years to come, Veilleux said.

"In all humility it's only been able to survive by its quality."

The recipe for Chimay beer, which has remained largely unchanged over the years, requires rain water collected underground and relies on a system of double fermentation. The entire process takes about one month.

Just over 100,000 hectolitres are sold annually, with a third of the volume exported to France, the United States, Britain, Italy, Spain and even Australia.

"It's nothing in comparison with Interbrew but it continues to sell," Veilleux said.


Given the vital link between the monastery and the brewery, there is little to suggest the presence of God's hand in making Chimay beer but for a discreet silver crucifix above one door in the brewery.

Likewise, all is silent and still in the meticulously kept grounds of the monastery where the brewery is tucked away in a corner, but for the occasional splutter from the chimney coughing up malty fumes.

Across the neat lawns in front of the brewery is the freshly painted chapel where the monks convene for their daily prayers.

Seven times between four o'clock in the morning and eight o'clock at night the ageing monks, dressed in black and white habits, gather to say prayers and sing grace.

The number of monks has diminished to around 20 from 80 at the beginning of the 20th century.

Asked if he feared a drop in people with a vocation would jeopardise Scourmont's future as a monastic community and brewery, the softly-spoken abbot was philosophical.

"The number of vocations as a whole is slightly increasing every year, but not in every part of the world. Western Europe is a kind of exception and the vocations have decreased considerably," said the 63-year-old abbot.

"If you look at this European phenomenon in the context of the whole history of monastic life you will see that it's a small parenthesis in history. A parenthesis, which to my mind, will be closed soon.

"A lot of people are going back to spirituality after abandoning it for a while."

But aren't beer lovers more likely to discover vice rather than virtue in a glass of Chimay ale?

"There is excess in alcohol but alcohol in itself is not excess. It's mentioned plenty of times in the Bible," Veilleux said.

"Whether it is beer or wine, if it is used moderately it can be part of the diet."

"If you drink some good liquor it will be 35 or 40 degrees but you drink a little glass. Nobody would be stupid enough to get drunk on Cointreau or Grand Marnier. It would be expensive," he said with a burst of laughter.