Grimbergen, a sleepy town sitting amongst farmland around 10 km outside of Brussels, made global headlines a few years ago when the local abbey announced it was about to begin producing beer. Belgian monks making beer, what’s special about that you might ask? Well, the abbey has a history dating back to 1128 and the last time beer was brewed behind the abbey walls was over 220 years ago.
More headline grabbing was the fact that the beers would be made using ancient recipes newly unearthed in the abbey’s library, and dating back to the medieval period. The old methods and ingredients were written in Latin and Old Dutch, translating them was the start of four years of research to resurrect a brewing tradition six centuries in the making, ending only when the abbey was destroyed in 1798 during the French Revolution.
Anyone with a passing interest in Belgian beer is likely to be scratching their head at this point. After all, it has been perfectly possible to drink a selection of Belgian beers emblazoned with the Grimbergen phoenix ever since the Danish brewer, Carlsberg, bought the global rights in 2008. The difference with the new Grimbergen Abbey beers is they will be brewed on site, and they are really quite special.
The French revolutionaries who burned the abbey down in 1798 probably didn’t realise they were also ending beer production. Nor were they the first to burn the abbey down. Twice before, in 1142 and 1566, had it been reduced to smouldering ruins only to be reborn again. There’s a reason the abbey has a phoenix as its symbol and the motto ardet nec consumitur – burned but not destroyed. It’s a place thrice risen from the ashes.
I arrived in Grimbergen on foot and found myself in the lovely Prinsenbos. This compact woodland is home to the now very decrepit Grimbergen Castle. It sits picturesquely on an island in the middle of a small lake, but stroll around the side and you’ll discover the aging scaffolding holding it up. The castle dates back to the 14th century, but the oldest part today is probably 16th century. It’s a shame it’s in such bad shape.
I walked through the woods arriving in the town centre at the hulking Basilica of Saint Servatius, which towers over the rest of the town. This enormous church seems entirely outsized for the community it serves, but historically it was the abbey church and comes with a richly decorated interior. Next door is the abbey itself, although it’s not open to the public.
I located the brewery brasserie and set off on a walk into the surrounding countryside. Grimbergen has a number of well preserved historic buildings, including a couple of medieval watermills. I passed some of these on my way to the Lintbos, a beautiful mix of woods and vast open grassland that made for a wonderful spot to get away from the world.
Heading north of Grimbergen, I strolled quiet lanes and footpaths amidst rolling farmland, recently ploughed and waiting to be planted. It was very peaceful and seemed a world away from Brussels, itself a small and relaxed city. I eventually made my way back to Grimbergen and headed straight for the brewery brasserie and lunch with a serving of their new beers.
There is little better after a walk on a cold but sunny winter’s day to settle into a Belgian brasserie, and order Flemish stew with an accompanying apocalyptically strong Belgian beer. I ordered the 8.0% Magnum Opus Brut, the perfect reward for the long walk I’d just done, and I justified a second glass of the hefty 10% Ignis Quadruple as reward for the walk back to Brussels. Both were worth the 220 year wait.