Guest series by Christopher Barnes.
The St Bernardus brewery is located near the city of Ypres (Ieper in the local Flemish) and the French border in the small town of Watou. It goes without saying that it brews outstanding beer, but its story goes beyond the brewhouse and is linked to two Trappist abbeys.
At the end of the 19th century, the monks of the French Trappist monastery Mont des Cats decided to leave their abbey due to the French government’s anti-clerical attitude. They moved just across the border and took over an old farm and turned it into a refuge, Refuge Nortre-Dame de St. Bernardus.
One of the activities they continued was their cheese works. Eventually, the mood in France changed so the monks abandoned their temporary refuge and returned to their home at Mont des Cats in Belgium in 1934. The transformed cheese factory was taken over by Evarist Deconinck, although his products continued to use the name St. Bernardus.
In 1946, St. Bernardus expanded their Trappist associations when the monks of Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren decided they were done commercializing their beer. Westvleteren’s brewmaster became a partner of the new St. Bernardus brewery and helped them set up their brewery. He also brought the recipes and yeast with him. For the next 46 years, the former cheese factory became the world face of Westvleteren’s beer under the label of St Sixtus or Sixtus.
The return of St. Bernardus beer
In 1992, Westvleteren rescinded the license to use its name. This had nothing to do with St. Bernardus’s performance. Westvleteren, along with the other Trappist brewing monasteries, finalized the deal to create the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo (ATP). For years, the Trappist monks had been fighting legal battles to try to protect their right to use the “Trappist” word exclusively. Trappist had become a sign of quality so some secular breweries sought to use the word as a way to add extra prestige and mystique to their beers. The monks finally organized and created a way to protect their identity. Unfortunately for St. Bernardus, the rules of the International Trappist Association (ITA) stipulated that to use the ATP logo and the word Trappist, the beer has to be brewed within the walls of a monastery.
Once again, Westvleteren was responsible for their own beer. However, St Bernardus had recipes, yeast, and a reputation so they returned to the old St Bernardus name they’d used when the Mont des Cats monks pulled out their cheese works. Now sporting a brown robe, the happy, bald monk adorns beers that are revered worldwide for their outstanding quality and their reasonable prices. Also, they represent the closest most people will ever get to drinking a Westvleteren beer.
Are they still the same?
No. While St Bernardus represents what Westvleteren used to be, they are no longer the same. At some point after they pulled their brewing back within their own walls, Westvleteren changed their yeast. They’re now using yeast from fellow Trappist brewery Westmalle. Besides using Westvleteren’s historic yeast strain, St Bernardus is still brewing three of the old recipes, including one that Westvleteren discontinued and replaced a few years ago.
St Bernardus brews a mix of the old St Sixtus beers along with several that they created after they emerged as their own brewing entity.
Pater 6 – This is the ‘single’ or table beer that would have been consumed by the monks. It has lower alcohol and is more sessionable. This is the beer Westvleteren discontinued and replaced with their new Blonde Ale making St Bernardus Pater 6 your only opportunity to try this historic ale.
Prior 8 – An Abbey-style Dubbel Ale
Abt 12 – The most famous of the St Bernardus beers, this Quadrupel style ale is a favorite world-wide. This is what the famous Westvleteren 12 used to take like.
Tripel – This golden strong ale is one of the new St Bernardus beers.
Wit – This white wheat ale was developed in cooperation with Pierre Celis, the masterbrewer who revived the style.
Christmas Ale – A Seasonal Quad ale.
Where To Go
In De Gouden Ster – This is St Bernardus’s onsite cafe. Here you can sample your way through all their beers
In De Vrede – If you’ve made the effort to visit St Bernardus brewery on the edge of Belgium’s border, you have to go visit Westvleteren. And while you can’t get into the monastery, you can try their beers at their cafe. Enjoy a few Westies, grab a bite to eat, and pick up a few souvenirs from the rarest and most highly rated of the Trappist breweries.
Hotel de la Paix – Located in Poperinge’s square (the larger town Watou is part of), this hotel’s restaurant is a beacon of gastronomic delight. Headed by chef Koen Sambaer, you can try a range of local delicacies paired, including hop shoots if they’re in season. Poperinge is Belgium’s hop growing center.
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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