Menu

Visiting Chimay – Inside a Belgian Trappist Brewery

By andrew - October 2, 2012 (Updated: December 1, 2014)

Ever wonder where Chimay comes from?

Ever wonder where Chimay comes from?

When I think about beer brewed by monks, I imagine dark, old buildings full of ancient brewing equipment, with a musty smell of old beer in the air. We recently travelled to Chimay to visit their brewery and to put my theory to the test. Boy, was I wrong!

Chimay Brewery, one of seven Trappist breweries in Belgium, recently held a series of open days in celebration of their 150th anniversary. Trappist breweries are typically closed to visits, so when I heard about this event, I signed us up immediately. Each tour was limited to about 15 people and reservations disappeared quickly, despite the event being organized during working hours. Belgians are committed to their beer, I guess.

Located in the Notre-Dame de Scourmont Abbey, Chimay Brewery is just outside the town of Chimay, two hours south of Brussels by car. Unfortunately it is not an easy place to get to without access to a vehicle. “Monks are somewhat isolationist,” was Alison’s, rather understated comment, as we were driving down a narrow road between farmer’s fields towards the abbey.

When we arrived, we checked in at the welcome tent and then took a quick stroll through the abbey’s gardens. Notre-Dame de Scourmont Abbey was established in 1850 by 17 monks from Westvleteren. Westvleteren, in the northwest of Belgium, is home to the Abbey of Saint Sixtus whose monks brew one of the most difficult to buy, and arguably the best beer in the world. Suffice it to say, these 17 monks brought some beer making know-how from their original home.

The central gardens and church of Notre-Dame de Scourmont Abbey are open to the public every day, including during the numerous daily services. One of the key features of the gardens is the various species of trees, including a huge sequoia, which dominates the grounds.

Notre-Dame de Scourmont

The understated Notre-Dame de Scourmont Church
Notre-Dame de Scourmont

The beautiful grounds of Notre-Dame de Scourmont abbey

Although our tour was not hosted by the monks themselves, it was led by a member of Chimay’s marketing team. The first stop on the tour included a short explanation of the main ingredients used in Chimay’s beer: water, hops, and two types of barley malt. While the water is local, the other ingredients are sourced from elsewhere in Belgium.

Next, I expected we would be stepping into a dark, old brewery. I was not expecting to walk into a high tech laboratory featuring various tools for analysing the chemical and biological make up of the beer. The lab also features the equipment used to grow the strain of yeast now used in each batch of Chimay beer.

The tour continued through a very modern facility, complete with many stainless steel vats, pipes, kettles, and filters, tiled floors, metal walkways, and a computerized monitoring system. Everything in the production process has been recently upgraded and was quite the opposite of what I imagined.

Inside the Chimay Brewery

Not a cobweb in sight – inside the Chimay Brewery
Inside the Chimay Brewery

Everything is shiny and modern
Inside the Chimay Brewery

Modern technology meets tradition at Chimay

Of course, I should have known better. Chimay’s beers are enjoyed around the world, meaning they have to produce vast quantities, while also ensuring consistency and high quality. According to our guide, 50% of the production is exported, mainly to the US and China. Therefore volume and quality control are very important, necessitating an investment in equipment and facilities. However, even with the technology, it was interesting to hear they still have people who taste test each batch, ensuring it tastes right.

Some beer experts complain Chimay has lost its way; that by expanding they are sacrificing the character of the beer for more money. I’m not an expert and don’t feel qualified to comment on the purity of the beer itself. However I do see the benefits this enterprise is bringing to their community and the world: employment, support for community projects, youth development, and more. This can’t be a bad thing.

I like Chimay. I feel it serves as a ‘gateway’ to Belgian beer. Its quality and availability exposes the world to a beer with a character and taste that isn’t owned by one of the big brewers like AB InBev. It’s often the first beer I recommend to people new to Belgium or to Belgian beer.

Chimay - The gateway to Belgian Trappist Beer

Chimay – The gateway to Belgian Trappist Beer

At the end of our tour, the biggest lesson I learned was not that they produce 50 million litres of beer a year. I learned that despite a reputation for being closed off from the world, these monks are doing a lot to give back to their community. In a time where business leaders talk about being good corporate citizens, maybe they should be looking at the monastic breweries for ideas.

Chimay - exported around the world

Chimay – exported around the world

Unfortunately the tours of the facility are very rare. However, you can visit the Auberge de Chimay nearby. There you can sample the different types of beer, enjoy a meal, and browse the Chimay shop. You can also visit the Espace Chimay which takes you through the history of the abbey and the beer. It is an interesting visit, but a bit expensive at €6.50 per person. Remember though, any profit they make goes back into the community.

The Espace Chimay

Checking out the Espace Chimay

Have you visited a Trappist brewery? Share your impressions in the comments below.

Find out more about Belgium’s favourite beverage on our Guide to Belgian Beer and Breweries in Belgium page.

Read more from Cheeseweb.eu
Andrew
Andrew is our resident tech-geek and is normally found lurking behind the scenes on CheeseWeb.eu doing things with code that Alison finds mysterious. He comes out of hiding occasionally to write about history and technology. He is also part of the duo that produces Tech Brew, a podcast about beer and technology in Belgium. He loves castles, driving on narrow, twisty mountain roads and relaxing with a glass of peaty Scotch. Follow Andrew on Google+
Andrew
@wpjobboard Contact form submission broken - getting a 403 error on submit. - 4 days ago
Andrew

7 comments

  1. Comment by Rachel

    Rachel October 2, 2012 at 11:53

    Orval was also not as I expected – your photos could have been from there! They even had posters from local students, presented at conferences, about different yeasts and ageing etc… I want to go to a Beer Conference!

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 2, 2012 at 12:08

      I think Andrew would love to go to a beer conference too! He’d make a great Belgian beer ambassador 🙂

    • Comment by Andrew

      Andrew

      Andrew October 3, 2012 at 08:54

      Andrew does want to go to a beer conference! Perhaps one that is paired with a cheese conference? And maybe alongside a iberico ham conference? 🙂

  2. Comment by Steve

    Steve October 3, 2012 at 04:28

    Andrew, I’d like you to do a tour of the De Koninck brewery in Antwerp.

    • Comment by Andrew

      Andrew

      Andrew October 3, 2012 at 08:53

      Hi Steve, Thanks for commenting! I’d love to visit the De Koninck brewery. Looks like tours are currently unavailable – do you happen to have any inside connections? 🙂

  3. Comment by Jason

    Jason October 6, 2012 at 12:55

    Thanks Alison! We found the Chimay brewery a few years ago, almost by chance. Pulling into the car park, I first learned the French for Brewery. Ah, happy days. They didn’t let us in, but I did buy a massive crate of blue and red bottles at a nearby supermarket at a bargain price compared with the UK. I feel I’ve virtually toured the place now with your piccies! Cheers, Jay

    • Comment by Alison

      Alison

      Alison October 8, 2012 at 09:39

      We’ve found just about everything good in Belgium by chance Jason 🙂 Belgians like to keep their secrets, but if there’s a way to get inside a Belgian brewery, Andrew will find it 🙂

Comments are closed.

Go top