Belgian abbey resuscitates brewery from ashes after 200 years

The priests of the Belgian abbey of Grimbergen began brewing for the first time in over two centuries, with a microbrewery making special editions of the mainstream beer bearing their abbey’s name.

The abbey, whose emblem is a phoenix with the Latin motto “Ardet nec consumitur” (burnt but not destroyed), was set on fire and sacked twice by French troops in 1798, putting an end to a tradition of making beer dating from the 12th century.

Karel Stautemas, the white-robed sub-prior of the abbey who is about to complete his brewing studies, said that brewing was a “second life” for Belgian abbeys and the community of 15 Norbertine canons was enthusiastic about his return.

“The main activity was religion, but brewing was necessary because water in the Middle Ages now was not drinkable and it was also a kind of payment,” he said.

The abbey, founded in 1128, has been linked to commercial brewers since 1958 when the local company Maes paid the monks to use the Grimbergen name and the phoenix emblem on their “abbey beer”. Danish Carlsberg (CARLb.CO) now owns the worldwide rights.

The new microbrewery aims to combine the 900-year-old tradition of beer making, evident in the books in the Abbey Library, with new techniques and innovation. To celebrate the opening Thursday, it is launching three new Grimbergen beers.

Marc-Antoine Sochon, a Carlsberg brewer overseeing the 10,000 hectoliters per year installation, said one of the new beers was inspired by a medieval tradition of using smoked malt.

“This is the idea that I think of doing trials, experiments and trying new things, in terms of raw materials, small samples,” he said.

The project aims to focus on using local crops and to this end, the abbey planted hops and herbs in its garden, discovering in the plot an old cow bone used to clarify beer.

The monks of Grimbergen will follow the rules of the Belgian Trappist beer makers, even if they are not a Trappist order, requiring them to brew within the walls of the abbey, control the operation and direct the profits towards the maintenance of the abbey and charitable causes.

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