After a gap of over 220 years a group of Belgian monks has finally returned to their order’s roots after rediscovering their ancient beer recipe. The monks once produced a famous medieval beer in the Norbertine monastery, but the monastery was set on fire in 1798 by French revolutionaries and the precious recipe books were thought to be lost forever.
Then it came to light that the recipes had been preserved as the fathers had bravely knocked a hole in the library wall and rescued the books before the fire took hold. The problem was that no one could read them as the recipes were written in old forms of Latin and Dutch.
Father Karel Stautemas told the Guardian that to recover the ancient recipes “we brought in volunteers. We’ve spent hours leafing through the books and have discovered ingredient lists for beers brewed in previous centuries, the hops used, the types of barrels and bottles, and even a list of the actual beers produced centuries ago.”
This dedication to the craft of brewing has paid off handsomely with the monks now operating a microbrewery on the site of the original brewery in partnership with Carling. The monks are using techniques inspired by their predecessors and avoid adding any artificial additives to their brews. They also use oak barrels and try to emphasise and showcase the local terroir in their limited edition beers. The intention is to produce around 3 million 330 ml glasses of the 10.8% ABV beer for the French and Belgian markets.
The heart-warming success story of the Norbertine monks is proof that heritage can drive beer sales. Consumers seeking something a little different are drawn to beers with a story behind them, and quirky historical details like the tale of the Norbertine monks add value to their purchase, making them more likely to share and recommend the product to others.
Another key takeaway is that innovation is necessary to thrive, and this was the case even in medieval times. Father Karel Stautemas explained that, “What we really learned was that the monks then kept on innovating. They changed their recipe every 10 years.”
Things might have moved on since the Norbertine monastery was destroyed by fire and the monks’ ancient beer recipes feared lost, but the time-honoured duality of heritage and innovation continues to inspire this new generation of Belgian brewer monks and their brewer cousins around the world.