Guest series by Christopher Barnes.
Situated outside the tiny village of Baileux a few miles from the French/Belgian border, Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont, as it is officially known, was founded in 1850 when the Prince of Chimay requested the Abbey of St. Sixtus (Westvleteren) to send some monks to help start a local monastery which would help develop the area and increase commerce.
By 1862, the monks had started brewing beer for their community and they began selling it to the public in 1875. With the exception of WWI and WWII, the monks have brewed continuously ever since. For Chimay, the real push to become a world class brewery began with Father Theodore and famous the Belgian brewing professor Jean De Clerck.
After WWII, the quality of the beers began to suffer so Jean De Clerck was brought in to consult. He would only agree to help if the monastery dedicated a monk with scientific training to follow his courses. Father Theodore was selected, and the rest is history.
Under Father Theodore the brewery and its techniques were modernized and the brewery’s capacity was expanded. Once Father Theodore got full control over the brewery, he began his ambitious social program. The south of Belgium is much like the ‘rust’ belt of the United States, built on older industries like steel and coal that have been in steady decline for decades. This has lead to a long period of high unemployment in the Walloon portion of Belgium. Father Theodore’s solution was to grow Chimay’s brewery and hire as many people as he could. Today, Chimay is the largest of the Trappist breweries distributing beer throughout the world. Between the brewery and the cheese factory, Chimay provides over 200 good jobs with benefits.
Authentic Trappist Product
There are currently eight fully recognized Trappist breweries with two more that are about to join. In fact, the ninth, Zundert in The Netherlands, has released its first beer, although it doesn’t have the Authentic Trappist Product (ATP) logo quite yet.
The International Trappist Association monitors and regulates the products its member monasteries produce. Besides beer, there are liquors, cheeses, breads, soaps and many other products that can carry the ATP logo. There are three main rules that a Trappist monastery must follow to use the logo:
- The beer must be brewed within the walls of the monastery and be brewed by or be supervised by the monks.
- The brewery exists to support the monastic lifestyle of the monks and all business practices must be done in accordance with their ethics.
- The profits are used to pay for upkeep of the monastery and to fund the monastery’s charitable ventures.
Chimay brews four beers for sale: Chimay Doree, Chimay Red, Chimay White,and& Chimay Blue. It’s easiest to refer to them by color as the different sized bottles have different names due to the fact that the beer ages differently in different sized vessels. Even though the beer starts out the same when it goes into the bottles, it evolves differently and will taste differently over time.
Chimay Doree is the newest beer the monks are offering for sale. It used to be exclusively made available at the monastery as the table beer of the monks and for the breweries employees. However, they monastery decided to start some limited sales around Belgium as a test market. It’s a pale colored, lower alcohol beer under 5% ABV. It would be considered an Abbey Single.
Chimay Red is the oldest beer and can trace its history back to the first beer the monastery sold in 1875. This would be considered an Abbey Dubbel at 7% ABV.
Chimay White is the brewery’s Abbey Tripel, a blonde beer of 8% ABV. It’s also the only beer that the monastery kegs.
Chimay Blue or Grand Reserve is the brewery’s strongest beer at 9% ABV. It also forms the majority of their production. It started out life as a Christmas beer but was so popular that the monks brought it full time a few years later in 1954. The other three beers should be drank relatively young. Chimay Blue, though, can handle considerable aging which will cause the beer to evolve and improve over time. When I visited the monastery and brewery in 2012, they opened a bottle of Grand Reserve from 1996. It tasted magnificent.
Where To Go
To get to Chimay, you have to take the train to Couvin, which is the last stop on that particular line. From there, you’ll have to arrange your next form of travel to get into Baileux which actually isn’t that far from Couvin. The bottling plant and cheese works are actually contained within the town of Baileux. The monastery is outside of town. You can visit the monastery and even stay in one of their rooms. It’s quite popular with students looking for a quiet space to study in or folks looking to get away for some quiet and meditation. However, you can’t visit the brewery. The brewery is closed to all visitors except industry VIP’s.
There are however two great places to explore the beer side of Chimay. The monastery owns an inn on their land which also has a small museum/exhibition center dedicated to the history of Chimay. The Poteaupre Inn features all of Chimay’s beers and cheeses and also is the only place you can get the Chimay Doree on draft! The Espace Chimay, the museum, costs €6,50 and you get a free glass of the Doree. The museum is really well curated and worth the extra Euros, especially if you’d like to enjoy a tasty beer afterwards.
Another great place to experience the culinary side of Chimay is Ferme des Quatre Saisons. You’ll want to sit near the huge glass windows or the terrace that overlook the beautiful Walloon country side. You can try Chimay beer and cheese pairings or try one of many seasonal and local dishes.
Both The Poteaupre and Ferme des Quatre Saisons have impeccable seasonal menus featuring the bounty of Chimay and the farms of the surrounding countryside. While Chimay is relatively new in the scheme of Monastic life, it’s an amazing chance to see a monastery in action and to experience their centuries old way of living: living off the land and producing goods by their own labor for the upkeep of their community. The trip through the beautiful Walloon country side is worth the trip in and of itself, but the wonderful beer paired with world class food in a rustic setting makes the trip a cultural adventure that must be experienced.
Don’t drink and drive!
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Christopher Barnes is an American beer writer, blogger, and brewing industry professional with a passion for travel, Belgium and its beers. You can find his writings at I think about beer or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
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