A phoenix from the flames, Grimbergen

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.

Basilica of Saint Servatius, Grimbergen, Belgium
Grimbergen Castle, Prinsenbos, Grimbergen, Belgium
Basilica of Saint Servatius, Grimbergen, Belgium
First World War memorial, Grimbergen, Belgium
Grimbergen Abbey, Grimbergen, Belgium
Watermill, Grimbergen, Belgium

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.

Lintbos, Grimbergen, Belgium
Grimbergen, Belgium
Lintbos, Grimbergen, Belgium
Prinsenbos, Grimbergen, Belgium
Abbey Brewery Brasserie, Grimbergen, Belgium
Abbey Brewery Brasserie, Grimbergen, Belgium

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.

6 thoughts on “A phoenix from the flames, Grimbergen

  1. What an interesting post! I love the old buildings and the story of “new” beer. And I agree that the church seems a bit much for a small community. What we found in Amsterdam was that churches just weren’t being used as they once were. Are you finding that in Belgium also? thanks for the tour. It’s another town I’d love to see, but probably won’t.

    1. Indeed, the church in Grimbergen probably struggles to be filled regularly – many churches have only a fraction of the congregations they once had. Quite a few have been deconsecrated and converted to other purposes. In largely secularised societies where the tradition of church going has dropped off enormously, even those who identify as religious, but with a small ‘r’, only occasionally go to church.

      That said, I was once cycling in a rural part of the Netherlands on a Sunday and arrived in a town almost deserted. I was walking around assuming people were still at home, when suddenly the doors of the main church opened and hundreds of people poured out. A place called Elberg (https://notesfromcamelidcountry.net/2017/08/27/hanseatic-glories-in-ancient-elburg/), in what is known as the De Bijbelgordel, the Dutch Bible Belt.

      1. I agree with you that church attendance has dropped — here as well as in the Netherlands, it seems. But your link to the Elberg story is fascinating. I’m not sure what the future holds. But in our travels, some of the prettiest structures are the churches. If congregations are missing, I have no idea how the people left can keep the lights on! What a dilemma!

        1. Indeed, I don’t know how those many thousands of buildings will be maintained, or at least preserved, especially in smaller, rural places. In the UK, several rural churches can share a vicar to cut costs, and they rotate services so a single church may only be used once every few weeks.

        2. I’m hearing this all over Europe.

  2. I thought I’d commented, but it appears not. 18º of summed up beer? 😉
    All well Paul?

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