The Abbey Habit
Now working in Belgium for an English-language magazine, Tippler is
ideally placed to carry on his love of beer. Here he visits the Belgian
town of Chimay and the abbey of Scourmont, where Trappist monks
brew some of the best beer in the world
Chimay is among only six....
The first taste of a glass of Chimay trappist beer, back in England a
dozen or so years ago, planted the idea of one day visiting the famous
abbey brewery and nearby town. So, now living in Belgium, I grabbed
For the uninitiated, Chimay is among only six beer labels in the world
that can genuinely call itself 'trappist' and sport a logo to that effect
on its bottles. All are brewed in Belgium, the other five being
Westmalle, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren and Achel. Dutch beer La
Trappe once shared the distinction but is no longer brewed under the
supervision of monks.The nectar itself is created in a surprisingly hi-
tech plant to the rear of the Cistercian abbey of Scourmont-lez-
Chimay, close to the French border.
...a longish monk's hike....
The abbey can be found a few short car miles (or a longish monk's hike)
from the picturesque town after which its most famous product takes
its is not-so-grand but charming in a rural, off-the-beaten-track kind of
way. Under the shadow of a church and dotted with terrace cafes and
restaurants, it's a perfect place to eat, drink and soak up the
atmosphere on a hot summer's day.
The natives are friendly - helping to create the ideal location for
ordering a bottle of rouge, bleu or triple, pouring it gently into a
deliciously rounded Chimay glass (at the correct angle, of course, to
leave the beer's sediment in the bottom of the bottle) and absorbing
the following bit of history...
...the Order of Strict Observance....
The monks of Scourmont follow the doctrines of a celebrated and,
indeed, sainted sixth century monk called Benedict. Six centuries
after him the monastery of Citeaux was founded in Burgundy. From
that monastery we get the term Cistercian. Later, the 17th century
monks of La Grande Trappe in Normandy started to go in for austerity
in a big way - it caught on, and from that came the Order of Strict
Observance, or Trappist Order of monks.
Scourmont itself is relatively young - just 151 years old on July 25th, in
fact. On that day a bunch of Trappists from Westvleteren, near Ypres,
set about clearing a piece of land donated by the Prince of Chimay in
order to farm it. This they did, selling any excess foodstuffs to the
locals and, along the way, eventually building a simple but stunning
abbey which now brews some of the best beers in existence and
incorporates a cheese-making plant.
...millions of BF every year into social projects....
The manual tasks involved in these industries tie in beautifully with
the ethics of the monks and, so successful have they been, that the
monks of Scourmont are now, directly and indirectly, the biggest
employers in the Chimay region. Crucially, too, they have decision-
making seats on the company board and put millions of BF every year
into social projects both here and abroad.
While the monks spend most of their time in prayer, study and the
quest for God, they dedicate a few hours each day to making sure that
the food and beer industries run smoothly enough to support
themselves, various foundations in India, Wales and the Congo and
local social aid programmes. It's pretty impressive and stirring stuff
and makes the beer - brilliant though it undoubtedly is - almost pale
Except of course that the beer (and the cheese) is hugely significant.
Were the monks less successful at brewing then their ability to fund
projects and keep the area prosperous would be curtailed
dramatically. Hence the ultra-modern, hi-tech brewery gear that sits,
somewhat incongruously it must be said, alongside the abbey. To be
honest, the sight of habit-clad monks wandering the cloisters
alongside laboratory techie-types can be a bit odd. Enough to drive
you to drink, in some cases (ie mine - but fortunately I was in the right
...celibate monks whacking back gallons of bleu....
And while we're on the subject of drink - yes, the monks do
occasionally sample their own beer, but it's a much lighter version
that's, sadly, not available at all good retailers. Hence my pre-visit
vision of dozens of God-fearing and celibate monks whacking back
gallons of bleu every night proved to be merely a nightmare brought
on by too much good Chimay cheese before bedtime.
But I digress: the first beer produced at Scourmont saw the light of
day in 1862 and was sold in 75 CL corked bottles. By 1948 it was
available in 33 CL capped bottles. A coppery-brown beer weighing in at
7% alcohol by volume, it's the monks' most famous product - exported
across the world. Also in 1948 came the dark-coloured bleu, at a hefty
9%. It was originally brewed as a Christmas beer and back then, as now,
was not for the faint-hearted. Then again, as all Chimay products use
only natural ingredients, at least the subsequent hangovers are, um,
wholesome ones. This beer is a 'vintage' by the way, and will improve
over several years.
The last of the Scourmont Holy Trinity to arrive was the golden-
coloured triple, introduced in 1966 by the Reverend Father Theodore.
It's a light beer (ha ha - it's 8%!) with a lovely aroma of fresh hops and a
hint of muscat. All three Chimay beers are brewed using the top
fermentation method and are neither filtered nor pasteurised.
...sample the delights of Scourmont and Chimay....
But beer aside, you can still sample the delights of Scourmont and
Chimay even if you're teetotal. Visitors to the abbey are allowed into
the grounds, with the sun dappling the pathways through leafy trees, a
stunning silence that is in some ways more startling than any noise,
and exquisite floral smells. Scourmont's peacefulness is both humbling
and uplifting - broken only by the occasional lorry pitching up to
transport beer to the bottling plant in nearby Baileux or the even rarer
footfalls of a strolling monk. Quite frankly, if you're ever going to get
religion, this place is as good as any and better than most.
Oh yes, and the beer's not bad....
The brewery itself, being housed alongside a deeply religious order, is
off limits to casual visitors. But modern brewing plants - even those in
abbeys - are all pretty much the same these days, lots of stainless
steel mash tuns and people in white coats pushing buttons. The abbey
and the town are the best bits. Oh yes, and the beer's not bad, or so
they tell me........Cheers!