Meet the maker: the Belgian beer-brewing monk

Father Karel Stautemas and Marc-Antoine Sochon are putting a modern spin on traditional beers.

By Liz Dodd
Published 4 Sept 2019, 16:30 BST
Father Karel Stautemas and Marc-Antoine Sochon.

Father Karel Stautemas and Marc-Antoine Sochon.

Photograph by Belgium Monastic Brewery Photography

In the library at Grimbergen Abbey, a Norbertine monastery towering over the Belgian town of the same name, a monk in a white habit and a 26-year-old brewer are scouring 12th-century Latin and Old Dutch manuscripts for recipes.

The unlikely pair are the team behind Grimbergen’s range of medieval beers. Father Karel Stautemas is the abbey’s subprior, while craft beer aficionado Marc-Antoine Sochon, who began brewing in his parents’ garage aged just 16, is head brewer.

Made according to medieval recipes unearthed in the archives, these beers are classed as abbey-style — they’re produced using the same processes made famous by Trappist monks, but aren’t actually brewed within the walls of a monastery.

“Monks had the ability to write everything down, which, in the Middle Ages, peasants wouldn’t have been able to do,” Father Karel explains. “So we still have the exact blueprints made by the brewmaster.”

Although Grimbergen beers are currently brewed externally, the monks are in the process of building their own microbrewery; by 2020, they hope to be brewing inside the abbey walls for the first time since 1797.

“Making beer with monks is a dream come true,” says Marc-Antoine. “When you become interested in beer, you always learn about abbey-style beers.”

As well as traditional brews, Grimbergen’s range includes a dark-coloured ale made from double-fermented malts and hops, a fruity rouge with a hint of spice, and a strong winter beer with hints of caramel and liquorice.

The beer archives have survived three devastating fires over the centuries; today, the monks blend hops grown amid the ashes with ingredients imported from the US. Last year, for instance, they released an abbey-style pale ale made with American citra hops, which have a strong citrussy profile.

“The good thing about being monks is that we have the time to innovate,” says Father Karel. “When I’m gone, there’ll be another monk to take over from me. The tradition carries on.”

Three Belgian beers to try

Grimbergen Café, Brussels
Head here to find the full range of Grimbergen beers alongside other abbey-style brews. 

Lowlander Grand Cafe, London
This venue close to Covent Garden stocks a wide selection of abbey-style beers. 

Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, Leicestershire
Britain’s only Trappist beer is made by these monks; buy it from the abbey shop. 

Published in Issue 6 of National Geographic Traveller Food

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