Of the fourteen Trappist breweries in the world, the one which produces the most beer is Chimay. Chimay is brewed within the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont in Forges, Belgium, which is a 10-minute drive south of the namesake village of Chimay in the Hainaut province of Belgium. Also roughly half of the production of Chimay is exported, making it the Trappist beer most readily available outside of Belgium. I remember picking up a bottle while I was living in Houston, Texas at my neighborhood liquor store over ten years ago. So when I moved to Belgium, I displayed a bit of beer-snobbery and often disregarded Chimay as being too common to be interesting. However, it was never about the taste, and from time to time, I have savored a bottle.
It would be understandable to perceive that Chimay has gone commercial. One could imagine Brother Chimay arriving at a Trappist Monastery convention in his Ferrari next to a bus full of Rochefort monks. But Trappist beer is supposed to be brewed just to pay for the expenses of the abbey or to go to charities. Trappist breweries Rochefort, Orval, Achel, and Westvleteren combined don’t produce the same quantity of beer as Chimay. So what is the motivation? Beer sommelier and author Ben Vinken states in his book Trappist Beers from A to Z that the reason is to
…create jobs in La botte du Hainaut, one of Belgium’s poorest economic regions.Trappist Beers from A to Z by Ben Vinken (2014 edition) p.38
According to Ben, the beer and cheese production at Chimay adds more than 100 jobs to the local economy.
La botte or the boot is a wooded rural region in the southern part of the Hainaut province. The entire of the Hainaut province has the second worst economy in Belgium, next to Belgian Luxembourg (understandably since it is also the least populated province in Belgium). Hainaut is perhaps most known for its infamously poor coal mining region La Borinage which is in the central part of Hainaut around the city of Mons. I will save my historical perspective of La Borinage for a future blog post involving Mons since it has little to do with the region around Chimay.
Finding my historical perspective for Chimay is not easy. It really is in a hidden nook of the border region with France. Baedeker’s 1905 edition of Belgium and Holland briefly mentions the abbey.
Among the hills of Scormont is a model-farm belonging to the monastery of La Trappe (no ladies admitted).Baedeker’s Belgium and Holland (1905)
No mention of the beer. In 1905, the abbey had been brewing a version of Chimay beer already for about 43 years. I always find it interesting that beer was rarely seen as something culturally significant enough to mention in travel essays or guides. Of course beer-making originates out of the need to produce a nutrient-rich beverage that doesn’t poison you like the local water supply. So I imagine back then, it wasn’t seen as something interesting enough to write about. In my personal archive of travel books, I am missing books covering the time period of 1920-1960. During that time, there seems to be a transition where beer starts to become a cultural characteristic of Belgium worth mentioning. In Fodor’s Belgium and Luxembourg 1960, Beer is recognized as Belgium’s “national drink.” And this is the first time in any of my old books that I see mention of Trappist beer.
In a country with so many abbeys and monasteries, it is surprising that there are so few monastic brews coming into the market. One of them, Orval (made by the Trappists) is quite well distributed. Another Trappist beer, less well known but far stronger (especially the “double”), comes from their abbey at Westmalle near Antwerp.Fodor’s Modern Guides: Belgium and Luxembourg (1960)
Sixty years later, Westmalle is far more distributed than Orval and is second only to Chimay in Belgium. Fodor’s takes a brief pit stop in the village of Chimay and highlights the château and a statue of a minor historical figure, but it mentions nothing of the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Scourmont or Chimay beer. It’s a shame there was no itsabrewtifulworld in 1960. Today the village of Chimay exists like a three-dimensional beer label. Any write-up in a current travel guide will invariably link the city to the beer. The name recognition of Chimay alone must add even more to the economy than just those 100 or so direct jobs. Nobody is coming to this remote knob of Belgium looking for some statue.
And that included me, who pulled into the parking lot of Espace Chimay, the main cafe near the abbey where one can try the Chimay, eat at the restaurant, or buy gobs of Chimay beer, cheese, and Chimay-labeled goodies at the giftshop. This was my starting and ending point for a December Beer & Hike. Unfortunately, I am speaking of December 2020, which means you can’t do any of the above except the hiking part at the moment.
|Starting Point||Espace Chimay|
|My Total/Moving Time||4h00m / 3h44m|
|Eating Place||COVID times: Bring your own food|
Post-COVID: Espace Chimay.
It’s Not Just a Beer, It’s a Journey
The hike consists of 2 or more interconnecting forests such as the Bois de Scourmont and the Source de l’Oise, the latter being the forest which is the source of the Oise River, a river running from this forest all the way to the Seine River northwest of Paris. This is not a hike which is meandering and giving different scenic points of view. The paths are mostly long straight stretches thru forest with only some farmland around the abbey to offer anything but trees. But what forests these are! In many places, the forest is rich in moss and lacking undergrowth which gives it a mystical emerald glow. There are a few ups and downs, but the main difficulty is circumventing the many pools of water and mud which make several locations an obstacle course. Warm, waterproof hiking shoes are a must, at least in the winter.
A Visit to Chimay
After the hike, I stopped in the village of Chimay to have a quick look around. It is very small but does have a cozy Grand Place square and an impressive château. The château is the private residence of the Prince of Chimay, a title that began in 1455 with Charles I de Croÿ, who was the godfather and for a time, the tutor to Charles V. Charles Quint, Gouden Carolus, the Holy Roman Emperor who laid siege to Rome when his army was not getting adequately paid because of the building expenses of St. Peter’s Basilica. That Charles V.
Voila. My historical perspective.
If there was any Beer & Hike that I have done that changed my perception of the beer itself, it was this one. Now that I have gained an understanding of the motivations of the monks who decided on making the production levels of Chimay where they are today and now that I have managed to reach this hidden outpost in the boot of the Hainaut province and seen for myself the rural nature of life here, I can confidently say that my beer snobbery has been kicked to the cobblestone. On the way, I picked up one of Chimay’s well-regarded bottles of Grande Reserve, a special variety of beer aged in barrels. It will remain a trophy in my beer collection until a time in the future when I want to sip its rich character to the memories of this hike. Perhaps after indulging in the 10.5% alcohol content, I would start to embellish the story a bit. What accounted for my miraculous change in perception of Chimay beer, you ask? Well, funny you ask… While I was wandering the hallowed courtyard of the abbey, I entered a chapel and found a man who was tutoring a young boy. I tried to quietly leave without being noticed. The man cleared his throat sending a gutteral noise tumbling around the vaulted ceiling like a boulder. I heard him mutter the name Charles and saw the boy raise his eyes up from his book and look right at me. I awaited the scolding for interrupting their lesson but instead the man acted as though he was expecting me. With the steely stare of eyes almost lifeless yet profoundly wise, the man explained to me the conflict that was raging within my soul as if he himself was able to look beyond my flesh and bones into the ether of my thoughts. Then he rested a cold hand on my shoulder and told me to wander the woods and not come out until I understood the real reason why you can find Chimay at a local Houston liquor store. I could have sworn I saw the face of this man looking out one of the windows later on at the Château.
For the moment, that’s not how it actually happened, but give it a few years. The bottle has a drink-by date of 2024. Anything other than 2020 is fine by me. Let’s get this year over with. Here’s to a new found respect for Chimay, perhaps one of the year’s most sustainable life lessons.