As It Happens

Beer-brewing Belgian monks in legal battle to protect well water from mining

Trappist monks in the Belgian town of Rochefort are fighting to protect the spring water they use to brew beer. The lime-quarrying company Lhoist wants to drill in the area, which the monks argue would destroy the local water table — and change the quality of their unique Trappist beer.

'It's a battle between capitalism and a human way of doing business,' says brewing expert

Old Trappist beer bottles stored in a cellar at the Rochefort Abbey Brewery, southeast of Brussels. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)
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For centuries, the Trappist monks of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy Abbey in Rochefort, Belgium have been brewing a unique brown beer. The recipe is precise — and it calls for pure spring water from the local water table, which the monks insist is essential to the quality of their beer. 

But now, lime-quarrying mining company Lloist wants to drill in the area.

Jef Van den Steen is a Belgian brewer, and the author of the book Belgian Trappist and Abbey Beers. He spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about the battle that has been brewing between the monks and the mining company. Here is part of their conversation.

What is so special about this beer from this monastery?

Well first of all, all Trappist beers in Belgium are special. But most special for the beers of Rochefort is that they only do dark brown beers. And that's a very old tradition. In the time when the country — Belgium — was a poor country, beer was part of the food. And therefore, the beers — the popular beers — in that time were [those] with a lot of calories in it.

And nowadays, people are afraid of calories because they eat too much. But fortunately, the monks are still eating very, very little. So for them, the calories in the beer are very good to have enough calories a day. So they still brew a dark, rich [in] calorie beer. 

And that's one of the only beers of that type, I guess, in the world.

The Rochefort Abbey Brewery, southeast of Brussels, where Trappist beer is produced. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

And how important is the spring water to that beer?

Well. First of all, you have to know that when the first monks arrived in the year 1230 — that's a very long time ago — they were looking for a place, a very lonely place. So they went to find a place in the mountains. But in the mountains it's difficult to have water.

For water, you need to be in the valley — not in the mountains. And the reason they located the abbey where it is nowadays is because of that well. The name of the well is La Tridaine. And since 1230 until now, the water in the abbey — all the water they need in the abbey, is coming from that spring. 

So for them that spring is a very important part of their history.

So what would happen then — and it seems like it's going to happen — if this quarry is able to drill into that water? What effect would that have on the beer?

Well, it's a difficult answer. It will affect the beer and it will not affect the beer. And some explanation for that: first of all, you have to know that with the technology of today, you can imitate all types of water from the world. The way they do it is to take off the water — all the minerals — and the name of that system is inverse osmosis.

And when all the minerals are out of the water, then you can add the minerals you want, in the quantity you want. You can imitate all waters [all] over the world. So that way, we should say it's not important. They can make the same water as the water [in] the well. But ...

Think about the most famous waters of the world. They're coming from France and from Italy. I mention some names: Vittel; Vichy; Evian; in Italy, San Pellegrino. Very well-known mineral waters, bottled and bought and sold all over the world. Now think about the problem when one day they should say, "We don't use the water of the well. We use city water."

Do you think, when the people we know that, that the water will sell as it sell[s] today?

A trappist monk oversees the bottling of Trappistes Rochefort beer at the Notre Dame de Saint Remy Rochefort abbey in Rochefort. (Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images)

But will it taste the same?

Yes, of course. It would be 100 per cent identical, but it's not natural anymore. It's made by machinery, it's made by chemistry. It's not natural anymore.

And that's the same problem with Rochefort. The moment they will treat the city water to have the same water as La Tridaine, everybody will know. You know the social media: one day, two days, and all the world will know this is not water of the well.

And I can assure you, maybe the taste will be identically as now. But it won't be the same anymore.

But the mining company says what they're proposing is that they would drill into deeper aquifers, and then they would install pumps and be able to give the monks and the abbey water — very similar water — but from a deeper place. So if they're able to do that, what difference would that make?

Yes, but  it won't be the same anymore. When you go deeper, you have another type of water. It won't be the same anymore. That's for sure.

This is an international company. They have quarries all over Europe. So that one quarry in Rochefort won't help them. They can  take the chalk (lime) they need from all the other quarries they have. They want to prove, "We are the boss here."

Jef Van den Steen is a Belgian brewer, and the author of the book "Belgian Trappist and Abbey Beers". (Submitted by Jef Van den Steen)

For the monks, it's another question, because the Abbey of Rochefort is a small abbey. Only 50, 60 monks are there. And they only brew 42,000 hectolitres of beer. And that's not much, knowing that, for example, Chimay [Abbey] does five times more — more than 200,000. And knowing that the money they make with the 42,000 hectolitres is not only for them. They only take enough money to live and all the money [that's] left, they give it away every year, for charity.

You see, it's a battle between capitalism and a normal way — a human way — of working and doing business. That's the real point.

Does it seem to you sometimes as though the Trappist monks trying to save their traditions — their way of life, the way they do things — is just getting harder and harder to achieve?

Yes. Yes, it is harder and harder because the world, and the way of doing business in this world, is harder and harder. But I think they succeed. And I think that they are trying to tell the world that growing is not the only reason when you do business. Growing is not necessary. By not growing but by giving quality, you can still be important.

Interview produced by Menaka Raman-Wilms. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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