ROCHEFORT, Belgium — The Abbey of Our Lady of Saint Remy was dappled in morning sunlight when we pulled into a small parking lot on the secluded, tree-canopied grounds. A slightly malty aroma tinged the air as we walked up to a stately two-story brick building with a graceful portal over double wooden doors. A figurine of a Cistercian monk peered from a small alcove in the wall. We rang the bell and waited to be admitted into the inner sanctum of Belgium’s most famous Trappist abbey and brewery.
The day before our visit, Doug and I had driven from western Germany into eastern Belgium and then headed south to Rochefort, a historic French-speaking town surrounded by the chartreuse meadows and malachite woodlands of Namur province. Our plan was to seek out the home of the renowned Rochefort Trappist beer and learn more about its secret ingredients and brewing process. Cistercian monks at the Saint Remy Abbey have been making and selling Trappist beer for more than 400 years. As amateur brewmeisters, we had cooked up several batches of beer at home. Our efforts had produced flat-tasting, murky brews, so we looked forward to meeting the monks and getting a few helpful hints.
First, however, we wanted to taste Rochefort Trappist beer on its home turf. Within minutes of checking into Le Limbourg hotel, we headed down Rue de Behogne to La Gourmandise restaurant, where we slipped into seats at a sidewalk table and perused the extensive beer list. The Saint Remy Abbey produces three “numbers” of Rochefort Trappist beer — 6, 8, and 10 — each with a progressively higher alcohol-by-volume content of 7.5, 9.2, and 11.3 percent, respectively. The top-fermented, bottle-conditioned brown ales are highly regarded by connoisseurs.
I ordered a 6 and Doug started with an 8. The waiter poured the deep mahogany-hued beers from classic bottles into heavy Belgian glass beer chalices bearing the Trappistes Rochefort insignia and allowed a one-inch head of foam to form on top. My first sip was strong, but sweet and smooth. We nibbled on salami, locally made cheese, prosciutto, and olives, as we watched Porches and farm trucks roar past on Rochefort’s main thoroughfare. In June, the town closes its streets to host the Rochefort Historic Cars Festival, a rally attracting enthusiasts and collectors of vintage sports cars and motorcycles from all over Europe.
Our first glasses of beer went down quickly. To sample the entire Rochefort trilogy, we split a 10 beer, which had a much richer, dark-fruit (fig and raisin), toasted-malt flavor. After draining the last drops, we returned to Le Limbourg to inquire about arranging a tour of the abbey, but learned that it was closed on weekends. Unexpectedly, a man seated in the hotel’s tavern approached, saying he worked at the abbey and would make a phone call on our behalf. Moments later, he reported the abbot was out of town, but that Father Joseph, the next in command, would welcome us at 10:30 the following morning.
hat was how we found ourselves at the abbey entryway on a Saturday morning being greeted by a doorman who ushered us into a small, wood-beamed conference room overlooking a grassy inner courtyard and brick brew house. Father Joseph, a thin, balding monk in a simple brown robe, greeted us a few minutes later. He spoke only French, but we understood his first question: Would we like a beer? We accepted and sipped Rochefort Trappist 8 while he told us a little about the abbey, with the doorman interpreting.
In 1230 Gilles de Walcourt, the Lord of Rochefort, founded the monastery, then called Secours de Notre-Dame, for Cistercian nuns from Citeaux, France. The region’s harsh climate and challenging agricultural conditions proved too much for the nuns, so they were replaced in 1464 by Cistercian monks from Felipre near Givet, France. Over the next three centuries, invading Austrian and French armies attacked, pillaged, and partially destroyed the monastery several times. After each onslaught, the monks rebuilt the structure, and in 1925 it was elevated to the status of abbey. The name Trappist, a reference to monks belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, arose from historical links with the Abbey of La Trappe in France.
The abbey’s beer brewing began in 1595, and money from ale sales has sustained the monastery and its charitable work over the years. Today 13 Trappist monks live on the premises and three supervise the brewery’s operation weekdays. “The monks do not drink the beer,” Father Joseph said.
One of the secrets behind the beer’s distinctive flavor and aroma is its pure, nonmineralized water from the Tridaine spring, adjacent to the abbey. The monks also cultivate and preserve their own strain of yeast, which allows the beer to ferment. A secondary fermentation occurs after the beer has been bottled, giving Rochefort products an alcoholic edge over ales produced by other Trappist abbeys, such as Chimay, Orval, Westmalle, and Westvleteren. Limited production and high demand allow Saint Remy to command premium pricing for its brew, making it one of the richest abbeys in Belgium.
When Father Joseph returned to his duties, we asked the doorman if we could take photos of the courtyard before leaving. A young man suddenly stepped out of the deserted cloisters, attracted by our conversation. Radu, a meditation student, held up a large ring of jangling iron door keys and offered to take us on a tour of the complex. For the next half-hour, we found ourselves immersed in a sanctuary of silence. We peered at the shiny copper kettles inside the brew house, stepped into the monks’ private chapel, strolled through well-tended gardens, and admired the stone spiral staircase and ornate columns in the abbey’s church.
After parting ways with Radu, we headed back to the town center with a new appreciation for Rochefort Trappist beer and the monks who have guarded its secret for four centuries.
Claudia Capos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.