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A saintly glass with the brothers of barley

It was a journey I had wanted to make for a long time, but the opportunity had never presented itself.

From Brussels, it is an easy enough drive, even by the scenic route: south-east through the barley-and-malt town of Gembloux, down to the rocky gorge of the river Meuse at Namur and Dinant. Then east as the Meuse Valley rolls upwards into the Ardennes.

As the roads wind into the hills, every bend has a sign offering farm produce: oeufs frais, fromage de chevre. lapin, foie gras . . . Like most towns in the Ardennes, little Rochefort seems full of charcuteries, bakers and chocolatiers.

A few more miles up a country road, with woods on one side and a vista of rolling hills on the other - typical of the Ardennes - is Rochefort's Trappist monastery, Notre Dame de Saint Remy. To beer-lovers, it is known simply as Rochefort.

The monastery is itself hidden among trees, down a hillside. I was there by late morning. There are five Trappist breweries in Belgium and one in the Netherlands, and over the years I had visited each of the others at least once, but never Rochefort.

The grey-bearded monk who answered the door seemed unaware of my appointment, motioned me to sit down, and drifted off. A few moments later, he returned with Father Antoine, the brewer, who was dressed for work in a black sweat-shin and dark blue drill trousers.

As we began our tour, Father Antoine told me that Saint Remy dated from at least 1230, when it was a convent. In 1464, it became a monastery, and in 1595 it began to be brew.

At that time, barley and hops were grown in the grounds. The oldest pan of today's abbey dates from the 1600s.

After the Napoleonic period of secularisation, the abbey was restored in 1887, and the brewery in 1899. Many of the buildings date from that period.

A plaque of St. Arnold, the Belgians' patron saint of brewing, overlooks the 1960s mash-tun and kettle. These are of traditional design, set into beige tiling. The brew-length is 100 hectolitres, and they run three a week.

"We work just enough. We don't want a stressful life," Father Antoine told me. The beers can be hard to find, and Rochefort's profile is low even for that of a monastery.

I had often heard that the abbot was strict, and that is perhaps why I have been slow in asking if I might visit. In recent years, Rochefort seems to have become more accessible, so now appeared to be the time.

There are 25 monks at the abbey, and four have jobs in the brewery, along with five secular workers. The monks rise each morning at 3:15, and have the mash under way before heading for High Mass at 7a.m.

When I visited, the boil was in progress. The brewhouse was lit by sun through stained glass windows, and potted plants added a further decorative touch.

The beers are brewed from two Pilsener malts and one Munich type, with dark cane sugar added in the kettle. The hops are German Hallertau and Styrian Goldings, added twice. Two strains of yeast are use in primary fermentation an bottle-conditioning. White crystal sugar is used as a priming in the bottle.

"Two of the pale malts, two of the sugars, two hop varieties two yeast strains . . . two of the and two of that . . . we like t keep it simple," laughed Father Antoine.

Like many Belgian brewers not only in monasteries, Father Antoine had a crucifix watching over his kettles and another it his office. I could hardly avoid noticing that the shelves round his office also accommodated about 400 beer glasses, steins and bottles.

Fields of barley are growing beer.

Each of the Rochefort beers I identified by its gravity in the old system of Belgian degrees which is now falling out of use. Thus the beers are called simply six, eight and 10.

This is handy, observed Father Antoine, because they are ready to drink at six, eight and 10 weeks. The brewery conditions them in the bottle so that they should reach the customer in optimum condition, but some devotees like to lay down the strongest one for a month or two.

Six, eight and 10 Belgian degrees represent a little over 1060, 1080 and 1100, but the already-high alcohol content is further boosted by the addition of the sugar. Many strong, top-fermenting beers in Belgium are made in this way, including all of the Trappist examples.

Rochefort 6 (alcohol by volume 7.5 per cent) has a reddish, "autumn leaves" colour; a soft body; and an earthy, herbal palate (a suggestion of Darjeeling tea?), developing to a deep fruitiness.

Rochefort 8 (9.2 per cent) has a tawnier colour, a more assertive palate, with an even richer fruitiness (a hint of figs?) and a dash more dryness to balance the finish.

Rochefort 10 (11.3 per cent) has a deep red-brown colour; a dense head; a more viscous body; and a profoundly fruity, fig-like palate, with notes of bitter chocolate in the finish.

My tasting notes made the beers sound like foods, and Father Antoine reminded me that they once were. The Trappist still do not eat meat, but once also ruled out fish and cheese. "Without the nutrients in our beer, we would have died." Today, the dietary laws are less strict (some Trappist abbeys even make cheese, though Rochefort does not. Nor does it have its own brewery tap like some).

I was disappointed to hear that today's brothers at Rochefort do not in general drink the beer except on high days and holidays, though Father Antoine said there was one older member of the community who liked a glass at l0 a.m. in the morning.

"We do not all agree on all matters. We each have our own character, but we try to achieve a balance, to have a sense of family," he said.

Published Online: SEPT 2, 1998
Published in Print: MAR 1, 1991
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel - Beer Styles

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