The West Coast of the United States is a place almost totally unencumbered by history. That’s not so much the case with continental Europe, where memories reach back centuries and things are done a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been done. The craft-beer revolution has swept through American drinking culture like a prairie brushfire that restores health to the ecosystem, but for Belgian beers produced by monks who take a vow of silence, change comes a bit slower.
That has advantages, says Luc “Bobo” Van Mechelen, a gregarious, bearish guy in his mid-60s who’s the American brand ambassador for Chimay, the 155-year old Trappist ale produced at two monasteries in Belgium. The purity of the water is one. The Cistercian Trappist brewers have maintained high-quality wells because they farm organically, which means no pesticides or other contaminants have leached into the groundwater. And while the original strains of yeast were lost when the Germans occupied the monastery during World War II, diligently researched propagation has nearly matched the old style.
Because the Catholic university in nearby Leuven happened to have a brewing school, a monk took a “crash course” in the 1980s, at which point the abbey replaced its copper stills with stainless-steel equipment, enabling the beer to be more consistent. But for the most part, things are as they were in the 19th century.
“The reason it’s called Chimay,” Van Mechelen says, “is because there’s a very small town with a very big castle” owned by the prince of Chimay. He donated what was essentially “wasteland” to the monastery, so the monks named their beer for him when they began producing it in 1862.
After a three-to-five-day fermentation period, workers load tanker trucks with beer, add yeast and more sugar, and send it all to the bottling facility. The work can’t be done on-site, as the monastery must remain a place of quiet contemplation. Even within the Trappist order, the monks at Scourmont Abbey have a reputation for intellectualism, and religious scholars frequently study theological texts in their vast library — plus the residents, with their austere lived dedicated to prayer, are up at four a.m. Secondary fermentation takes place at around 70 or 73 degrees, which is warm considering the average cellar temperature in northern Europe hovers in the 50s.
There is a difference between a Trappist beer and an “abbey beer,” Van Mechelen says. He points out that, in the early 1990s, there were only seven Trappist breweries — six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands — but there are now 11, including one outside of Boston. To qualify as a Trappist beer, it must be brewed inside the walls of a monastery, there must not be any commercial investors involved, and the monks must give the majority of their net proceeds away to charity.
Because commercial brewers pay closer attention to the bottom line, Trappist beers are understood within Belgium to be a higher quality, and Van Mechelen compares its output to that of “Anchor Brewery in the days of Fritz Maytag.” Being cool, wet, and relatively flat, there is virtually no viticulture in Belgium, and at least some of the country’s attachment to beer comes from the fact nearly every farmer brewed his own at one point. There’s also the fact that Napoleon confiscated the Catholic Church’s real estate after a dispute with the pope, forcing the faithful out of France.
“And they couldn’t go too far north,” Van Mechelen says, “because the Dutch are Lutheran.”
Stateside, Chimay imports 300,000 cases every year — about one-eighth of total production — and Van Mechelen says the coasts and his home base of Austin, Texas, represent the lion’s share of U.S. consumption. Johnny Foley’s Irish Pub near Union Square is Chimay’s No. 1 client in San Francisco, although Van Mechelen cites Toronado, the Pilsner Inn, and the Palace Hotel as longstanding customers as well.
“We have incredible name recognition,” he says, “so people think we’re a lot bigger than we are.”
The craft-brewing revolution has given Chimay some healthy competition, something Van Mechelen takes in stride. As a beer professional since landing in Texas in 1979, he’s seen the general public’s baseline knowledge go from pitiful to respectable. At one point, he heard a waiter in New York tell a patron that Chimay was brewed by “trapped monkeys” instead of Trappist monks, and on a radio show, he heard a commentator refer to “wild geese” instead of “wild yeast.”
Chimay’s niche as a small producer of no small renown seems secure. And even if American tastes suddenly changed, there’s always the beer’s native land.
“I’ve never seen a brewer go broke in Belgium,” Van Mechelen says.