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(Abbaye de Notre Dame de St. Remy)

-by Jim Busch:




Through an amazing stroke of luck and Phil Seitz's wealth of connections in Belgium circles, we were able to arrange a tour of this monastery. It turns out that one of Phil's friends is the son of the man who assesses brewing taxes for the Rochfort region, and as a special favor to his father--who is retiring--the monks allowed our friend to bring several guests for a very rare look inside the monastery.

Rochefort is located a modest drive south from Namur. The sign next to the door of the abbey reads "No Visitors." We knocked and were greeted by a classic brother of the order, dressed in the traditional robes, sandals and cane, and hunched over with the burden of his years. We were led to a spartan reception/waiting area where the silence of the monastery began to hang on us. A short while later, head brewer Brother Antoine greeted us and we followed him to the brewery.

The brewery occupies a corner of the monastery, in a tall room roughly 20 meters long. Two sparkling traditional copper "onion dome" kettles were situated on the lower area, while another traditional copper lauter tun was situated on the far end of the room on a platform 2 meters above the main floor. The area was illuminated by tall stained glass windows, some of which sported hanging ivy plants. A large cross was on one wall. The traditional copper grant was embedded into the tiled platform wall, and the brewer still manually operates the grant handles to equalize the runoff rate from the lauter tun. Inside the vessels were a slew of mechanical devices; the normal rakes and sparge arms in the lauter tun, but lots of probes and gadgets in the kettle. The second kettle was originally used to produce a table beer--a very normal practice at breweries that make high gravity beers, but a practice that is becoming less common. It is no longer used except to heat water (talk about wasted equipment!). When lautering, all the original mash water is allowed to drain from the mash, then additional water is added. The table beer, when it was made, came from later runnings off the mash.

Three beers are produced at the monastery, and are named for their strength in Belgian degrees: 6 (7.5% ABV); 8 (9.2% ABV); and 10 (11.3% ABV). We were also told that all three beers originate from identical mash bills (that is, the exact same mix and amount of malt), the difference being in the quantity of candi sugar added to the kettle. The mash bill consists of CaraVienna and Pils malts, with maize being added as an adjunct. Ground coriander is added to the kettle in addition to pulverized whole hops, Styrian Goldings for kettle hops, Hersbruker Hallertau for finish. This is the first brewery I have ever been to that goes to the trouble of using whole noble hops and then pulverizes them prior to addition to the kettle. This is done to ease the centrifuging of the cast out wort. The original gravities of the three beers are: 17P, 20P and 25P.

The cast out wort is passed through the SS centrifuge, then a plate heat exchanger, and then is dosed with a two-strain yeast from a small cylindro-conical yeast tank. The fermentation is done in what appears to be a tiled open fermenter that was modified by the addition of a closed SS top. The top looked to be quite involved, with piping and controls everywhere. The two fermenters occupied a relatively small room.

After primary fermentation, the beer is filtered using a Diatomatous Earth filter (DE or Kieselgur filter) and then racked into maturation tanks. A brief conditioning period is followed by the addition of priming sugar and three days later bottling is done. The bottles are steam cleaned and sterilized before being filled in a very large Krones bottling line. Every piece of equipment in this brewery was of high quality, well engineered and of greater capacity than what appeared to be required. These monks certainly built it right.

Rochefort beers are some of the harder-to-find Trappist beers even in Belgium, and the monastery purposefully perpetuates this. The brewing schedule is always the same. They only brew 3 days a week. The brewing schedule varies little; 2 weeks of Rochefort 8 (6 days), and 1 week of Rochefort 10 (3 days). A week of Rochfort 6 (3 days) is thrown in from time to time. It is no wonder that the '8' is the most prevalent beer of the three. It was the '8' that Brother Antoine opened for us in his study. As Michael Jackson has noted, the study is a special place, adorned by literally hundreds of beer steins from brewmasters that have visited, many from great breweries in Germany. Brother Antoine himself is a bit special in that he seemed genuinely amicable to us and did not typify the Trappist stereotype monk. He dressed quite plain and normal, not in the robes of his other monks. There was even a plastic Jesus with flickering light on a shelf.

The beer was fantastic. The really remarkable thing about all of the Rochefort beers is the art of creating a significant amount of alcohol but keeping the flavor perceptions several percent lower than the actual alcohol. This is not an easy feat.

Brother Antoine is one of 24 monks that live in the spacious monastery. Economically, sales of the beer support the monastery and its projects. Even at three days a week of brewing, the monastery is making boatloads of money. Brother Antoine proudly told us of the newly renovated Chapel and we stopped there after our Rochefort 8's were consumed. The high cathedral ceiling and walls are made from the stone blocks of old farmhouses in the Loire Valley, and the high narrow windows are filled not with glass but with thin slabs of alabaster. The pews were being hand made and carved by local craftsmen as we were there, and the column capitals had also been elaborately carved. The floor of the entrance area is adorned with a very large circular marble inlay. The marble was cut into arcs and inlaid and polished. All of this was being paid for by the brewery.

Since it was the end of a work day, the workers were relaxing with a case of Rochefort 8! It was quite a sight.

According to Brother Antoine, the other Trappist breweries have broader financial responsibilities. In addition to supporting itself, Chimay also pays the expenses for four other monasteries or convents, and Brother Antoine believes Chimay began brewing years ago to provide jobs and economic development to the people in its region. This puts their high production into context.

Feel like puckering up?