The church spire beckons. I drive out of the village of Chimay deep into bucolic Belgium, where a Romanesque-style abbey spreads out amid lush fields. Inside the walls, near the medieval house of prayer, stands a Trappist monk dressed in his traditional black-and-white habit. "Welcome to our brewery," says Dom Thomas.
The monks at Chimay's Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont have been producing beer here for 135 years. This small country accords beer the same respect reserved elsewhere in Europe for wine, and it produces endless varieties: pale and dark, bitter and sweet, light and strong. In this beer lover's paradise, Chimay's classic Grande Reserve is held in the highest esteem. For connoisseurs, nothing compares with Chimay's golden-amber body, rich head, and strong, perfumed taste.
But such renown has brought the monks a big problem--godless imitators. Giant multinational brewers, such as Interbrew in Belgium and Danone in France, have copied the Trappist style and licensed the names of Belgian abbeys Abbaye de Leffe and Grimbergen, neither of which produce beer. Other secular brewers pick names echoing ecclesiastical ruins, shrines, churches, and local saints. Many put pictures of monks on their labels. One brand, Corsendonck, marketed its product as "Monk's Ale."
The deception infuriates Dom Thomas and his fellow Trappists. "If you see a monk and an abbey on the label, you think we make it," he says. "It's dishonest." Only six Trappist monasteries still brew beer, five in Belgium and one just over the border in the Netherlands. Most of the real Trappist beers don't show abbeys or monks on their labels; such blatant self-promotion comes close to sacrilege. To protect their good name, the monks have filed suits against several offending secular breweries, and this year they formed the Authentic Trappist Assn. to ensure integrity.
Money as well as pride and morality are at stake. While beer consumption is declining internationally, specialty beers, including those inspired by the Trappists, are taking a small but healthy swig of the market.
In the U.S., for instance, beer consumption, which peaked at 193 million barrels in 1990, fell last year to about 187 million barrels. But specialty beer imports boosted their market share from less than 7% in 1990 to more than 11% last year. Interbrew's Abbaye de Leffe alone notched up a 230% increase in sales in the past decade.
Leffe and other Trappist imitators aren't bad beers. "A second string Belgian beer is better than most countries' best," concedes Michael Jackson, author of Beer Companion. "But the abbey producers have made more concessions than the Trappists to the marketing man's perception of consumers." In contrast with the unpasteurized, all-natural ingredients of Chimay, Leffe is pasteurized and brewed with extra sugar for a smoother taste. "Our beers are challenging," says Dom Thomas. "Leffe goes down easier for a larger public."
Monasticism, of course, is not about what's easy. Strict Cistercian monks such as those at Chimay eat only fruits, vegetables, and dairy products. They drink wine and beer only on special occasions. Their brews pack up to 11% alcohol, almost as much as wine, making it dangerous to drink more than one 12-ounce bottle.
AGRARIAN ETHIC. Cistercians have always viewed manual labor as part of their faith. "We believe in working the land," says Dom Thomas, "and when we work, we aim to do it well." Along with that agrarian ethic, monks in the Middle Ages had the time and inclination to test recipes in search of high-quality products. So in southern Europe, monks grew grapes and made the best wine. In the north, they harvested grain and brewed beer.
Europe's oldest brewery, dating from the 800s, was established in the abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland. Monks brought brewing to such famous beer towns as Pilsen, Munich, and Burton. After the French Revolution closed most monasteries in France, many Trappist monks moved to Belgium and the Netherlands. One group established Chimay and opened a brewery in 1862.
These days, few monks actually man the brew kettles and fermentation vats. Because they must rise at 4 a.m. and attend church services half a dozen times a day, they just don't have the time--or the manpower. Dom Thomas says only 19 monks still live in the immense Chimay monastery, and their average age is over 70. Dom Thomas himself is 68 and never studied brewing. "I guess you could say I'm a public-relations specialist," he says. So 56 lay workers at the Chimay brewery produce the 30 million bottles of beer a year, brewed in six gleaming copper vats.
A true Trappist beer must be produced inside a monastery, and monks must own the brewery and make up the majority on the board of directors. At Chimay, the bottling plant is in town, but the brewing vats are inside the Abbaye de Notre-Dame. And four monks sit on the six-member board, with a veto over major investment decisions.
The Trappists are divided over how to respond to increasing demand for their beer. The Westvleteren monastery in West Flanders brews only when it needs funds. Rochefort's Abbaye Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy recently refused to expand its production. "We just sell enough to support ourselves," says Father Jacques Emmanuel. "We don't want to become corrupted by money." There's also a quality argument. "If we produced too much, we would not be able to produce the best," he says.
But other Trappists have set up modern, profit-minded companies. Chimay, with sales of almost $20 million last year (and profits of $500,000), is one of the two largest Trappist breweries. In the isolated rural region around Chimay, it is the largest single employer. Chimay beers are sold in supermarkets and specialty shops around the globe and are among the most popular Belgian beer exports to the U.S. "We don't want to grow too fast, but we need to pay back our investments," says marketing manager Philippe De Jaeger. That means 2% to 3% growth per year. Profits go to support the monastery and its two funds-starved foundations in Africa, which care for the poor. "This brewery lets us achieve good works," he says.
Faced with a strong secular challenge, the monks are determined to defend their unique image. "We're pitiless on imitators," says Eric Bodson, a lawyer at LeBoeuf, Lamb, Greene & MacRae in Brussels who represents the monks. Lawyers have sent letters as far away as Fort Collins, Colo., where the New Belgium Brewing Co. used the term "Trappist-style" on its label.
The legal offensive is paying off. The Colorado brewer discontinued the offensive Trappist claim without even going to court, and a Belgian court ruled that Corsendonck must remove the Monk's Ale label by 2000. "I think we've pretty much succeeded in making most people in Belgium understand the difference between abbey beers and Trappist beers," Bodson says.
Perhaps the biggest danger to authentic Trappist beer comes from the monks themselves. Beer writer Jackson fears they might "dumb down" their beers to meet perceived public tastes. His nightmare: "Trappist Light."
For now, there's little worry. Dom Thomas opens a bottle of Chimay Grande Reserve and pours it into the monastery's distinctive bell-shaped beer glass. As he hands it to me, he looks enthusiastic, happy, and worried--all at the same time. Would I approve? I sip. "Wonderful," I say. Dom Thomas smiles with satisfaction. "We will never make an ordinary beer," he vows. Thank God.