Alchemy has been a protoscientific and philosophical tradition for centuries. While the crude minds of old times hungered in futile for a recipe, that could turn “base metals” (like lead), into “noble metals” (like gold), the more practical minds learned the alchemy of alcohol: how to turn “base ingredients” (like grapes or barley) into “noble drinks” like wine and beer.
Maybe it required a divine intervention to make this alchemistic transformation a success. It can’t be a coincidence, that Trappist abbeys throughout Belgium are legendary for their beer, and that the french, benedictine monk “Dom Perignon” invented champagne. Or maybe it just required time, patience and clean water – something most monasteries had in plenty.
(Beer) Fact is, that there are numerous good Trappist and abbey beers in Belgium. And because the Travel Team was fortunate enough to spend a month in the south of Belgium, abbeys had to be visited and beer had to be sampled! The result of our beer-adventure is a map, some information, useful links and an invitation to GO YOURSELF, to pick out the abbeys or breweries YOU want to be part of your Belgian Beer Bacchanal and start touring. If you’re in Bruxelles, don’t miss our guide to Beer in Bruxelles.
Here’s our pick of Trappist or Abbey beer visits, that’s not only for show (many abbey beers are brewed elsewhere under license) but for sample as well:
For a beer to qualify for Trappist certification, the brewery must be in a monastery, the monks must play a role in its production and the policies and the profits from the sale must be used to support the monastery or social programs outside.
While you might know Chimay as the name of the beer, it is not, however, the name of the Abbey, where the beer is produced. The name of the monastery is Scourmont Abbey.
It started in 1850 with a few hardy monks who took off from Westvleteren Abbey. These monks wanted to start a new adventure elsewhere. The place was Scourmont, south of Chimay. The monks were given a rocky piece of land provided by the local Prince, Joseph de Chimay. In the beginning they got beer from local breweries, but in 1862 after many years of hard work they were finally self-sufficient, which is the way the Benedictine monks live by.
Now the monks could brew beer, but did only so for themselves. However, it could not be kept a secret for long, what fantastic and natural beer they made, and quickly the demand grew.During the Second World War the brewery was completely destroyed and everything was lost, but Father Theodore did not accept this. He immediately took charge and began the work anew. In 1948 he made a new yeast, which all of Chimay Trappist beers today are the result of.
While you can visit the abbey for free, the brewery however (which is still on the abbey grounds) are off limits. You can sample and buy the beer (& the cheese!) in the nearby “Espace Chimay”, where you can also enjoy the local food – together with your favourite Chimay beer!
The Abbaye d’Orval that can be visited today is standing on the shoulders of many generations of hard-working monks and several (re-) constructions of the monastery buildings. The first Italian monks arrived in 1070 and started establishing an abbey. For reasons lost in history, they didn’t stay but instead, in 1132, a another group – this time Cistercian monks – arrived, and continued the work.
Around 1252, the monastery was destroyed by a fire, from which it took around 100 years to rebuild. In 1637, at the height of the Thirty Years War, the abbey was pillaged and burnt by French mercenaries and again in 1793, during the French Revolution, the abbey was completely burnt down by French forces. For more than a century, the charred walls of his once so great abbey stood alone and silent.
Finally, in 1926, the land and ruins – which after the French revolution had fallen into private hands – were donated by the Harenne family, so that monastic life could resume on the site. Between 1926 and 1948, a new monastery was constructed, and in 1935 Orval regained the rank of abbey. The enchanting old ruins of the medieval buildings remains on the site and are available to the public.
In 1931 the brewery was built and the first beer was shipped from the brewery on May 7, 1932, and was only sold in barrels. Orval was the first Trappist beer to be sold all around Belgium.
You can visit the ruins and an interesting interactive museum of the Orval beer, but the present monastery and the brewery are off limits for tourists. You can buy beer and cheese at the shop but unfortunately there’s not a place nearby to sample the fermented drops.
Originally, the l’Abbaye Saint-Remy de Rochefort was founded in 1230 for Cistercian nuns, but the nuns were ordered to leave the monastery in 1464 and were replaced by monks. During the Eighty Years War the abbey was ravaged by the Protestant armies, but perhaps it was this misfortune that forced the monks to venture into alternative businesses, since the first brewery was founded around 1595 within the abbey. In the 17th century, the abbey again suffered from war as an army from Lorraine invaded the abbey and the monks had to flee.
As with most other abbeys, the French Revolution was crippling and around 1797 the abbey was officially closed and sold to a Frenchman named Lucien-Joseph Poncelet. In 1805 Poncelet demolished the abbey and converted it to a farm. All building material from the monastery was used for buildings in nearby Rochefort.
In 1887, monks from the Trappist Abbey of Achel bought the buildings. The buildings were restored, new were constructed and a new brewery was founded. But it took 65 years for the brewery to produce enough beer to actually be sold to customers. Again, in December 2010 a fire destroyed a large part of the abbey, but the monks escaped unharmed and the flames did not damage the brewery.
Today, neither the abbey nor the brewery is open to the public and there’s nowhere nearby to sample or buy the beer. However, you can visit the abbey church or stay in their little hotel upon reservation.
The designation “abbey beers” (Bières d’Abbaye or Abdijbier) originally applied to any monastic or monastic-style beer. Nowadays it can mean beer produced by a non-Trappist monastery, by a commercial brewery, branded with the name of a defunct or fictitious abbey by a commercial brewer or given a vaguely monastic branding, by a commercial brewer.
Abbaye de Brogne
Abbey of Saint-Gérard Brogne was a Benedictine abbey founded in 919 by Gerard Brogne and was modest in size until the 15th century. Yet with the river and two spring waters – which were said to have health-giving properties – the Abbey soon became a pilgrimage destination. The abbey was destroyed in 1525 during the wars of religion and the building we can see today dates back to 1743, but is built on the remains of the previous abbeys.
The last monks left Abbey of Saint-Gérard Brogne in the 1970s and the building has been owned by the town of Mettet since 1974. In 2013, a new micro-brewery was set up in the heart of the abbey and aptly named Abbaye de Brogne. The brewery was the first in Belgium to brew an organic abbey beer.
While the buildings are primarily rented out for seminars and festive occasions, a restaurant is open Saturday evening. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find anywhere nearby to try or buy the beer and the brewery is closed to the public.
The Abbey of Floreffe was founded in 1121 by Norbertines at the Earls of Namur’s request. The Abbey benefited from rich donations from the Earls of Namur in almost two centuries. Around 1250, a mill-brewery was built within the Abbey alongside many other charities in the region: seven hospitals, four abbeys, eight convents for women and the Priory of Leffe (that eventually also become an abbey).
During the 13th and the 14th centuries Floreffe was besieged on several occasions. In 18th century, most of the buildings that can be seen today were build. The Abbey reached the peak of its prosperity at the start of the French Revolution, but like other abbeys the revolution was the beginning of the end and in 1794 the Abbey was abandoned by the monks.
In 1960 the brewery was restored and run by the commercial brewery Het Anker brewery. In 1983, the Lefebvre Brewery took over the production of the Abbey beers and they still make the abbey beers after the old tradition.
You can visit the abbey grounds for free or pay for a guided tour to the buildings in thesummer months. The nearby mill-brewery is converted to a restaurant, where you can taste and take home the beer.
The Abbey of Leffe was founded in 1152 by an order of the religious community Norbertines with generous help from The Earls of Namur. Over the years the abbey was destroyed several times, by either natural or human circumstances: It was destroyed by a flood in 1460, by a fire in 1466, damaged in 1735 by troops that were housed here and finally in 1792 under the French Revolution it was abandoned and the brewery destroyed.
The order returned in 1902 and in 1952 the production of beer was continued after a partnership with the Lootvoet brewery. Today, the beers are brewed at the Stella Artois brewery, but still, the beers are being brewed according to the same recipe since 1240.
The abbey in the middle of Dinant is still active, and you can visit Saturdays and Sundays at 3 o’clock, but the beer experience is moved to Maison Leffe, on the other side of the river. Here, in the hotel “La Merveilleuse”, you can sample the different Leffe beers and visit their interactive museum where 7€ will buy you an entrance ticket, a beer sample AND a gift. Which might (or might not) be a Leffe glass.
Maredsous Abbey was built in 1872 with money from the Desclée family, which were known for their printing business of Catholic literature and had thereby generated capital for construction of Maredsous Abbey.
Today around 30 monks live, pray and work in the abbey, as everyone follows the rules of Saint Benedict. After 1963 there has no longer been brewed beer in the abbey. Knowledge and recipes were handed over to Duval brewery, which since 1963 has brewed the abbey beer Maredsous.
Although the beer isn’t made here anymore, a visit to the abbey is still worth your while. You can visit the imposing church, partake in guided tours of the abbey and probe and purchase the beer and the cheese, some of which is still produced on premise. They have a restaurant, a cafeteria and nice outside seating, which makes it a popular activity in the summertime.
The Cistercian Abbaye du Val-Dieu was built in the 13th century. This year 2016 the abbey will celebrate its 800th anniversary.
Throughout its history it has experienced difficult times, looting and invasions and it’s one of the few abbeys that actually survived the French Revolution. The abbey always managed to recover and now the buildings are located in a beautiful location hosting many visitors.
Historically, the Cistercian orders were known to be talented brewers. The monks of Val-Dieu were true to this reputation. The abbey was home to Cistercian monks until 2001. A Christian community living by the rules of St. Benedict is now based at the abbey.
In 1997, brewer Benoît Humblet and Alain Pelsser established the modern brewery in the former farm buildings on the abbey site. They took up the torch to brew Val-Dieu while trying to respect the inherited tradition of the monks of the abbey. We did a guided tour of the charming abbey but could also have done the guided tour of the brewery. A shop selling ticket for the tours also market their beer, cheese and cider.
There’s loads of more information on the internet, as there are plenty of other beer-enthusiasts out there, that want to share their passion. Here’s our pick of the best:
- Belgian Beers on Wikipedia
- Belgium Beer Tourism – a comprehensive site with lots of good info
- Visit Belgium’s Beer website
- Belgian Beer Routes – itineraries for your roadtrip
If you’re visiting Belgium and are looking to burn some beer-induced calories check out our guide to hiking and biking, go visit some amazing castles, and if you’re in Bruxelles, you might want to try all the Beer in Bruxelles!