How a Belgian Monastery Revived a 220-Year-Old Beer

May 23, 2019

By Diana Hubbell, May 23, 2019

In 1798, French revolutionary troops stormed through Belgium, ransacking towns and setting buildings ablaze wherever they went. Flames consumed the Grimbergen Abbey and with it, generations of brewing wisdom. Ever since the 12th century, the Trappist monks had been producing a dark, heady beer designed to help sustain them through the winter months. Most assumed that the monastic recipes went up in smoke along with the equipment.

Fittingly, however, the abbey’s symbol is a rising phoenix, and though it has burned down three times since 1128, it has always recovered. Before disaster struck on this particular occasion, a few fathers were clever enough to spirit away their notes and hide them for future generations. They stashed them in a secret hole in the walls of the library, then removed the manuscripts before they could be burned to ash. The only trouble with that plan was that the recipes languished in a vault for so long that by the time the monks decided to revisit them more than 200 years later, no one could decipher them.

“We had the books with the old recipes, but nobody could read them,” Father Karel Stautemas said to The Guardian. “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.”

We’ve 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.”

After years of work, the inhabitants of the Norbertine abbey proudly announced this week that not only had they been able to learn the long-lost secrets of their ancestral brewing brethren, but that they would bring a version of the beer back to life. The 12th-century monks had remarkably sophisticated methods for their era, including the use of hops. Although the name Grimbergen has been licensed to Carlsberg for years, the monks now plan to use this knowledge to brew their own beer in partnership with the macrobrewery.

“What we really learned was that the monks then kept on innovating. They changed their recipe every 10 years,” Stautemas continued in the interview.

In that same spirit of innovation, Stautemas and his 11 colleagues tweaked the recipes further in order to better suit modern palates. Still, they’ve kept certain techniques from those who came before, including the wooden barrels and a decision to steer clear of any artificial additives. 

The limited-edition Grimbergen Triple D'Abbaye, created by the abbey’s brew master Marc-Antoine Sochon and aged in whiskey barrels, clocks in at a hefty 10.8% ABV and will be produced mostly for the Belgian market. By 2020, the abbey plans to serve the faithful and the thirsty at its own onsite microbrewery and restaurant. The abbot hopes that will allow the monks to continue their work for generations to come.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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