Serfs up for great beer

protz nov 14

protz nov 14 - Credit: Archant

When angry serfs besieged St Albans Abbey in 1381 during the Peasants Revolt, the abbot saw them off by giving them copious amounts of the ale brewed by his monks. But brewing at the abbey cased abruptly in the 16th Century when Henry VIII suppressed the great religious houses.

Monastic brewing continues in a few establishments in mainland Europe, most famously in Belgium, where six Trappist houses produce beers of the highest quality. A number of other abbeys in Belgium that lost their breweries at the time of the French Revolution or during the two world wars of the 20th Century have licensed commercial brewers to make beer for them.

I was a judge in this month’s Brussels Beer Challenge, an annual event that gives awards to beers from all round the world. In spite of the title, the event this year was in Liège, the cultural and historic heart of Wallonia, the French-speaking region of the country. In between sampling beers – it’s dark and lonely work but someone has to do it – we were transported to two breweries in the area.

The Abbey of Val-Dieu – the Valley of God – was founded in 1216 close to the modern borders of both Germany and the Netherlands. It’s had a turbulent history, destroyed four times, the last during the French Revolution. Undaunted, the Cistercian monks patiently rebuilt the monastery and its stunning Renaissance and Gothic buildings can still be visited.

Due to falling numbers, the last monks left in 2001. But in 2007, a new brewery was installed in a stable block in the abbey grounds. It’s run by lay people and I was fascinated to find that the brewer is a woman, Virginie Harzé. I wonder what the monks think about that.

Virginie has smart, modern, stainless-steel brewing kit to make the beers, but she uses the monks’ ancient recipes and makes traditional abbey styles: Blonde, Brune and Triple. Blonde speaks for itself, brune means brown or dark ale while Triple is the name given to the strongest beer in an abbey. They are brewed with local soft water, barley malt from France and hops from Germany and the Czech Republic.

The beers are sold mainly in the local area but bottled versions are exported as far as the U.S. in one direction and Russia in the other. The best place to sample them is in the abbey’s restaurant, where they’re served with the local soft cheese, Herve. Accommodation is also available, useful when you’ve been drinking beers of between 7 and 9 per cent:

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There’s another old tradition in Belgium of brewing on farms. For centuries, farmers would take the malts and hops from their fields and make beer for their families and workers. In a number of cases, brewing became so successful that farming stopped.

The beer judges’ second visit was to a farm where a new brewery, Bellevaux, was opened in 2007. The name – beautiful view – is apt, for the farm is just outside the town of Malmedy in the rolling, wooded Ardennes. It’s run by Carla and Wil Schuwer, who made the short journey from the Netherlands. Wil ran a chain of pharmacies there but he sold them in order to realise his ambition to be a brewer.

The custom-built brewing kit comes from Japan and enables Carla, Wil and their son Tom to make delicious ales that combine both Belgian and British traditions. One beer, TPA, stands for Tom’s Pale Ale while Black is Wil’s interpretation of one of his favourite beers, Theakston’s Old Peculier, brewed in Yorkshire. He admits the end result – full of roasted and toasted malt character, with chocolate and raisin notes and earthy hops – is more like Porter than Old Peculier.

The other beers are a wheat beer brewed for the summer season, the best-selling Blonde and a strong 9 per cent Tripel. They can be sampled in a restaurant converted from an old stable block, where you can enjoy local produce, including cheese, and warming soups.

Not surprisingly, Carla and Wil welcome around 6,000 visitors to the brewery and restaurant:

Getting to Belgium these days is easy and comfortable but if you can’t leave home then I would advise a trip to the new Beer Shop at 71 London Road, St Albans.