Hip Hip Chimay
From San Francisco to a small town in Belgium, a pilgrimage to the monastic home of my favorite beer
By David G. Allan
Editor’s note: This story was originally published in October 2002 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject
CHIMAY, Belgium — It was love at first taste. I remember my first Chimay beer with a clarity and romance you normally reserve for your first crush. It was at the arty SoMa bar, 111 Minna. I was standing below a prehistoric-sized dragonfly hanging from the ceiling, looking at a large chalice-shaped glass of the brunette beer. It was the dot com boom and my tab was being picked up by the internet behemoth I cogged for at the time. A co-worker urged me to order Chimay just because it was pricey.
My first pour was from the blue-labeled bottle or Blue Cap as connoisseurs call it. (Chimay comes in three colors: red, white and blue.) Smooth, dark, delicious, generous with the yeast flavor, it hooked me in one sip. And no wonder, its potency, which I had yet to glean, makes it a narcotic of the beer world (the alcohol content of the blue label is 9 percent; your average macro-brew is usually around 5 percent). Another co-worker congratulated me on my good taste and told me the beer was made by Belgian Trappist monks. I liked that. And it was served in its own special wide-mouth chalice. Like at communion. A few more hours of worship at 111 Minna blurred into a wonderful, grinning night of bonhomie. “I’m drinking the stars,” exclaimed the famous Don Perignon at the taste of champagne. I knew how he felt.
In the subsequent years I’ve turned many a bar-peer onto Chimay. Though not difficult to find in a town like San Francisco, I’ve had to ferret out the beautiful Belgium brew at special bars with international beer menus in other places I’ve lived, like Washington DC (the Brickskeller is the best place) or Glasgow, Scotland (at the subterraneous Republic Bier Halle). And when I do get my hands around a Chimay glass I tell whomever is sitting near me a romantic tale of hooded friars boiling up the world’s best beer in a cloistered and remote abbey far away in a country I’ve never seen.
So, as my girlfriend Kate and I sat on the ferry from Dover, England to Calais, France, we looked at a map of Belgium to see if we’d be anywhere near the town of Chimay. And there, it was, just over the French-Belgium border. We drove off the ferry and straight there, without a plan, but bolstered by faith, like all good pilgrims who travel vast distances to important religious sites.
I also doubted. Would the vision I had of happy, semi-sober robed monks scuttling about large wooden brewing vats inside a beautiful and secluded abbey, square with reality? I wanted to see a Santa’s workshop of hops and barley, a community of Friar Tucks who had wisely cut out the middle man. What if I end up pulling back the curtain and discovering the monks have turned the operation over to high-tech machinery, a corporate mega-company, and local townsfolk who go home at 5 o’clock everyday? I took the risk.
The drive wasn’t difficult. To save time we took the expensive French autoroute between Calais and Arras ($7) and then hopped over into Belgium from the French town of Hirson. We were too late that day to see Scourmont Abbey, where Chimay is brewed, so we looked for a place to stay. The town of Chimay itself had nothing to offer in our price range (under $30) so we went to the next town over, Baileaux, where, according to the label, Chimay beer is bottled.
Thanks to Kate’s memory of high school French, we got ourselves a big room in a charming little hotel attached to a bar which advertised Chimay. We unpacked and drove back into the town of Chimay for what I hoped would be the eponymous experience of a lifetime, Chimay in Chimay. Beer signs were hung all over the adorable curved streets, an entire town advertising itself and its claim to fame, the alcoholic equivalent of Hershey, Pennsylvania and, for us, it felt like the singular purposefulness of a drive through Sonoma and Napa valleys. We bought a paper cone of Belgium fries and walked into the only bar we saw open, located on the main square.
I tried, in French, to ask for one Red Cap and one White Cap but the bartender politely smiled at the nonsense I was sputtering and put all three bottles on the bar and had me point. There they were, the Three Tenors of beer, here in their own ‘hood. I paused for a silent prayerful sigh and pointed at the two I wanted. Out came the glass chalices, up went our hands in a toast, and down went the brown nectar.
Everything was great except for the enthusiastic young Belgian sitting next to us. He immediately pestered Kate with fast and slurred French proclamations of love. Learning that she and I were not married, he raised his hands to the air and cried, “Le dieu existe!” It would have been charming, if he had not been so persistent. Kate politely kept him at bay and we wisely declined his offer to buy the next powerful round. If too much of the stuff could twist him into such a state, what could it do to us on the drive home?
Back at out hotel we tried again. The hotel matron/bartender, Jernnine Bourlard, greeted us warmly and we seated ourselves with the cheery locals at the bar. We ordered two Blue Caps and a small amount was poured into the glasses. We waited for the head to settle, took a sip and poured the rest of the beer in the glass. A man in his sixties sitting next to me, Serge, shook his head. Speaking in English as good as Kate’s French, he told me I shouldn’t pour Chimay in the glass as I did (the only way it’s ever been served to me). Jernnine’s husband Marcelle, agreed. The way to properly drink Chimay, Serge explained, is to pour a little bit at a time in order to maximize the size of the head. The bigger the head when you drink it, the better it tastes, Serge explained with a grin. “Really?” I asked. “Est la vérité (It’s the truth),” he said with a laugh. And all this time the cultural wisdom I’d been taught was that a big head on a beer was a faux pas. Imagine my embarrassment when we told them we were there because Chimay was my favorite beer; I didn’t even know how to drink it properly.
Over the next two Blues the education continued. We learned that locals prefer the Red Cap, my favorite, and tourists like the Blue, probably because it has the highest alcohol content. Red and Blue are only served in bottles because they should be served at 52 degrees Fahrenheit, while the White can be served “a la pression,” on draft, at 45 degrees. But there are only three establishments in the world, all local, that do so. They told us the Abbey was closed to the public, especially women. We might be able to see a film on Chimay at the bottling plant. To soften the blow of this news Marcelle gave us a free Chimay ashtray, a coasterholder, and coasters (which I later tried to mail as postcards to friends back in San Francisco). “You’ll sleep well tonight,” Jernnine said as we left, noting our consumption of a whopping two Blue Caps.
We woke the next morning sharing a life-affirming hangover. But today was Chimay Day. Let’s see what we can see, we thought optimistically, and followed Jernnine’s directions, written on the back of a Chimay coaster, to the bottling plant. There were no monks there. We talked to a woman in a sharp business suit who told us there is only a movie to watch but they stopped showing it a few weeks ago and wouldn’t start again until the summer. She gave us a folder of promotional material and told us where we could buy the beer and Chimay-brand cheese, both near the bottling plant. We bought a petite wheel of fromage made “á la biere” (with the beer) in the small white dairy next door and stopped at Disco-beer, a warehouse where you can purchase Chimay at wholesale prices. We were happy enough.
Next was Scourmont Abbey, located not in Chimay itself but in the small town of Bourlers. On the way we passed the Chimay-friendly Auberge de Porteaupré, a hotel and restaurant that sells Chimay souvenirs, including the chalice glasses, apparel, a watch, radio, and a Chimay computer mouse, and serves rabbit, veal, duck and pork dishes, all cooked with the beer. On the wall was a picture of Mt. Rushmore, altered so the presidents are drinking Chimay.
At the Abbey, an orderly collection of grey stone buildings where the monks live, work and pray, we were prepared to be stopped and turned away. Kate recalled the warning of monk misogyny. But we walked right into the grounds. No one paid any attention to us. And then we saw monks. I mean real, walking, French-talking, hooded, brown robe-wearing monks. They just went about their business. And we went about ours. We toured the walled grounds, visited the frere-filled graveyard and, although we couldn’t go inside the brewery, we walked just outside it and sucked in the yeasty smell. We even snuck into the church and pressed our ears to the door and heard the monks chanting the noon prayers. I wasn’t able to draw open the Oz curtain, but I saw enough to know Chimay is the genuine Trappist article.
Other things I learned about my favorite beer in the whole world, while eating scrumptious Chimay cheese and driving back over the border into France:
- Trappist (or the Cistercian order of the Strict Observance) monks, live communally and commit themselves to live a simple life, renounce all personal possessions, and take a vow of celibacy, all under what is known as the Rule of Saint Benedict, hence “Benedictine,” of which Trappists are a strict order.
- Chimay, like all authentic Belgian beers, is vegan, using no isinglass, finings, gelatins or any other animal product.
- The town of Chimay, population 10,000, prohibits salting the road after snow storms in order to keep the local water supply from being contaminated by the salt runoff and affecting the flavor of the beer.
- The monks pray seven hours a day and the first service is at 4:30 a.m. every morning.
- Because other beers have tried to pass as monastic-brewed, Chimay and eight other Trappist abbeys created their own association and logo to mark which beers are truly made by Trappist monks or nuns and the majority of the profits from all nine abbeys go to help the needy.
- The Red Cap (alcohol content: 7 percent) was the first to be brewed at the Abbey, starting in 1862. The White Cap (alcohol content: 8 percent), also known as The Triple, was created last, by Reverend Father Theodore, in 1966. The Blue Cap was first brewed in 1948 as a Christmas beer. Blue is now the biggest seller.
- After the beer is bottled, it is kept in cold storage for three weeks for a refermentation process that gives the Chimay “sparkle” and the beloved head.
- Chimay makes 105,000 hectolitres (2,310,000 gallons) of beer a year.
- Chimay cheese has been made by the monks since 1876.