Report on a visit to Chimay, in May, 2003
The contents of this Web page are largely based on a visit to Chimay, by John White and Roger Protz (1939-), to discuss the ingredients used to produce the Chimay Trappist beers. Roger (www.beer-pages.com) is the author of numerous top class beer books and editor of the CAMRA (www.camra.org.uk) Good Beer Guide. He very regularly contributes to CAMRA's What's Brewing; his report on this visit is to be found in the July, 2003 edition, and also by clicking here (registration with the Belgian Beer Board is required to view it, see below). At the time of the visit, Roger was Chairman of The British Guild of Beer Writers (www.beerwriters.co.uk); he is wearing the Guild tie in the photo below; John is on the Guild's committee. In late 2003, Roger was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Guild; click here to see Roger being presented with the award, in June, 2004, by the Guild Chairman, Andrew Pring, the editor of The Morning Advertiser (www.morningadvertiser.co.uk) (photo by John White, at the Guild's AGM).
Many believe that only the most hallowed of ingredients are used to produce Trappist beers. Therefore, it was a major shock for Speciality Beer fans when ingredients disclosure appeared on the rear labels of bottles of Chimay, as early as in 1997, see below. The following, for example, is declared on a bottle of Chimay Blue (from 1997 to 2004): "Beer on yeast, refermented in the bottle. Brewed at the Scourmont Abbey solely using natural ingredients: water, malted barley, wheat starch, sugar, malt extract, hop extract and yeast".
Note that many other brewers use hop extracts, because they retain their bitterness and aroma far longer than whole hops or pellets. Prior to the visit, Chimay stated in an e-mail that Father Théodore introduced hop extract in 1966, this being used for the new beer, Chimay White. A year later, conventional hops/pellets were totally replaced by hop extract for the Chimay Red and the Chimay Blue. It is thus amazing that this information has been kept from well-known beer writers, judging by books of theirs published right up to 2003, which make no mention of hop extract.
But what about the wheat starch, which surely is just an adjunct, a fermentable sugar precursor? Here it becomes interesting, since, although the labels state that wheat starch is an ingredient of all their beers, Chimay (i.e. Dominique Denis, during the visit, see below) are adamant that this is not the case; Dominique stating that the wheat starch is actually wheat flour (for head retention). It is the gluten in wheat and its flour that has head retention properties; wheat starch has no gluten and thus does nothing for head retention.
Chimay is in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium. Has there been a translation error when going from French to English? What do the 1997 to 2004 labels say, in French and in Belgium's other main language, Dutch? The ingredients are declared in French to be: eau, orge malté, amidon de froment, sucre, extrait de malt, extrait de houblon et levure. In Dutch, one reads: water, mout, tarwezetmeel, suiker, moutextrakt, hopextrakt en gist. Amidon de froment translates, as does tarwezetmeel, to wheat starch in English. In everyday French, wheat flour is farine de froment, so why are the appropriate vessels labelled amidon (starch) in the brewery, if they contain wheat flour? The answer given on the visit was that it was because it was the terminology used by the original formulator of the recipes for the beers: the monks. Chimay were adamant that there have been no significant formulation changes from those developed and adapted by the renowned Father Théodore from the 1940s up to the 1960s, i.e. hop extract and wheat flour have been ingredients for far longer than the explosion of interest shown in Specialty Beer from the late 1980s, following the publication of Michael Jackson's pioneering books and his 1990 Beer Hunter TV series. This, of course, is the Beer Hunting Michael Jackson (1942-), the world's most famous beer writer, www.beerhunter.com.
Malt extract, a material generally only used by beginners to home brewing, was introduced in 1994, according to Chimay, but only at a level of 0.1%. It is used in Chimay Red and Blue, but not the Triple (White), to compensate for variations in colour between each brew. It is probably the SINAMAR® brand, the Reinheitsgebot-compliant colouring malt, supplied by Weyermann Malz (Malt) (www.weyermannmalt.com (English pages), www.weyermann.de (German pages, with links to pages in many other languages), White Beer Travels Web page), who are based in the wonderful Baroque city of Bamberg, in Germany. Note that once a feed hopper is installed which will allow the segregation of Caramalt, the malt responsible for the colour of Chimay Red and Blue, malt extract will no longer be used in the brews and will thus not appear on the labels. On the visit, I asked Chimay why they do not correct the wheat starch error on the labels. They stated that they were afraid that people would assume that they had changed the recipe again, so they were reluctant to do this.
Note that in his Biertypengids (Beer Types Guide), Derek Walsh (Culinaire Boekerij, ISBN 90 215 3612 9) quotes, on page 97, for Chimay White: 66% malt; 22% wheat starch; and 12% candy sugar. Derek calculated these figures from an article by Casimir Elsen in the May, 1999 Edition of OBP's Den Bierproever, which describes a visit that Casimir made to Chimay, where he was shown round by the late Father Thomas. Casimir was the editor of Den Bierproever and was, until mid-2005, the editor of its equally excellent replacement, De Zytholoog, the magazine from Zythos (www.zythos.be and White Beer Travels Web page), who took over the role of OBP, in February, 2003.
Chimay stated that the total amount of sugar in the main brew and for bottle fermentation was of the order of 5%. They declared it to be dextrose, as per the legend on the control panel above, and not candy sugar. Note that both Westmalle and Orval use candy sugar in their own Trappist brews. Click here for a detailed White Beer Travels Web page on the Orval Trappist Monastery and its Beers. Note that the Rochefort Trappist Brewery, which is also in French-speaking Wallonia, definitely use wheat starch in one or more of their beers, this not being hidden, since it is on display in a cabinet at the entrance to the brewery, i.e. click here to see the White Beer Travels Web page featuring a visit to Rochefort, which has a photo of this starch, which has its classic translucence. This really does lead me to the view that Chimay use wheat starch in the beers, and not wheat flour, see above. It seems that Chimay are embarrassed by their use of wheat starch, whereas Rochefort see it as a virtue, as do secular brewers such as Het Anker, in Mechelen (Malines), see the description of their brewing process on their website, www.hetanker.be. This lists one of the ingredients as wheat starch or maize, this being one of the raw materials that they are happy to display in the brew house. The maize is used in the mash for Het Anker's Gouden Carolus Tripel. This is a truly exceptional beer, so Het Anker see no need to hide the use of this "adjunct" for this great beer. A White Beer Travels Web page featuring Het Anker can be reached by clicking here.
After the Chimay brewery visit, we attended a dégustation (tasting), these taking place daily at 11.30am. We had some recently brewed beers, as well as a 1995 Grande Réserve (Chimay Blue in a 75cl bottle) and a 1997 one. The former had no ingredients disclosure, but the 1997 one did. The beers were good, but, for me, did not have the greatness that they had in the 1980s, when they truly were world-class, joy-to-drink beers, see equivalent comments from the world's number one beer writer, Michael Jackson, below, and renowned Good Beer Guide Belgium editor, Dr Tim Webb, below. The 1995 had no ingredients disclosure, but the 1997, with its much changed label, did. During Jef van den Steen's visit to Chimay, to gather information for his Trappist book, see above, Jef mentions that the brewer had invited him to attend the tasting. The following comes directly from the book. "Why not?" said Father Omer. In the tasting room, Jef states that it was quite apparent that Father Omer was not a regular attendee. Jef quotes him as saying: "The first impression must be good, since it is this which you most remember", Father Omer stated and then he continued with (the book does not state which beer he is referring to): "This one I find very nice". "Really", said Jef, in amazement, to which Father Omer replied in a low voice: "Even if I did not like it, I would still say that it was good!" Jef then reported that to everyone's great surprise, Father Omer suddenly got up and left the room, this being to attend a church service (Sext).
After the tasting, lunch was taken at the nearby Auberge de Poteaupré. Here it is possible to sample the beer that the monks drink within the Monastery: Chimay Dorée (Golden) (4.8% ABV, 10o Plato). This is brewed three to four times per year. According to Chimay, Chimay Golden is brewed using the same ingredients as Chimay Red (apart from no malt extract), but spiced, to "avoid a water taste", with Coriander and Curaçao peel. The spices are not declared on the Chimay Dorée rear label, see above, although they are evident when the beer is sampled. Note that it does not have a front label. On our visit to Chimay, it was stated that spices were not used in the main beers, although Father Omer, the current monk in charge of brewing, who we did not see on our visit, told Jef van den Steen on his visit, see above, that Chimay Red and Blue are spiced with Curaçao! Chimay Cheeses are on the menu in the Auberge de Poteaupré, and are also available to take out, as are other Chimay products and souvenirs. Note that the unpasteurised Cheese (Chimay au Lait Cru) that was available at the time of the May, 2003 visit has been replaced by Chimay Grand Cru. Chimay à la Bière is a Cheese made with one of the brewery's beers.
The above two photos were taken by John White, in July, 2005. The one on the left is of a roundabout to the East of the centre of the town of Chimay (where the N939 (Rue du Chalon) and N99 (Chaussée de Couvin) National roads meet, GPS: 50.046888o N, 4.322087o E) (note the "Welcome to Chimay" sign on the building on the right). Note that the town of Chimay is 9 kilometres (5½ miles) North of the monastery and its brewery, in the hamlet of Forges; the Chimay bottling plant and offices are in Baileux, which is a similar distance from the town of Chimay. In the middle of the roundabout, is a Brew House Copper, which, as can be seen, is, indeed, made of copper. On its chimney, a part of which can be seen, in the photo on the right, there is a plaque, which, in French and Dutch, has the wording: "It was in this 175 hectolitre vessel that the Reverend Father Théodore carefully brewed the famous Chimay Trappist beer from 1954 to 1988, in the Abbaye de Scourmont. Manufactured by Les Ateliers de Monsville, Quaregnon (Belgium)". Click on this photo to see a higher resolution, larger photo of the plaque. There is a plaque with the same wording on Chimay's former Mash Tun, which was located within the Chimay visitor centre alongside the bottling plant. Note that the bottling plant and the Cheese making facilities can no longer be visited and the visitor centre has closed, so presumably the old Mash Tun will be relocated.
If the wheat starch was introduced far earlier than 1987, one could conclude that any change in taste and complexity and spiciness that has occurred in Chimay beers, as reported, for example, by Michael Jackson, in his 2000 Pocket Book (Mitchell Beazley, ISBN 1-84000-252-2), are not due to changes in ingredients. In his Pocket Book, Michael puts it down to the replacement of Chimay's open fermenters by very tall cylindro-conical fermenters, in 1992. Chimay were asked for their views on this during the visit. They did not agree that the change in fermentation method had had any effect on the beers. They argued that the same yeast strain that was developed by the famous brewing scientist Jean De Clerck was still in use. Jean De Clerck worked closely with Father Théodore. He, along with his wife, are the only non-monks buried within the cloisters of the Monastery. Of course, if the large amount of wheat starch used in Chimay beers was only introduced in 1987, then this could explain the change in taste that I have noted in the beers from this time, which has possibly been compounded by the change in fermentation method.
The above photos, both of which were taken by John White, in May, 2003, feature Chimay's cylindro-conical fermenters. In the one on the left, the tops of four fermenters can be seen; in the one on the right, the bottom of a couple of them are featured. In both photos's are Chimay's Jean-Michel Degraux, see above, and Roger Protz.
The following is Michael Jackson's exact wording on the Chimay beers in his Pocket book: "A distinctly aromatic, fruity, winey (sometimes port-like) house character, deriving from the yeast and the high fermentation temperatures, is to a varying extent evident in the Chimay beers, though they have grievously diminished in complexity and spiciness in recent years. When the equipment was renewed, the new fermentation vessels did not behave quite as the old ones, and attempts to re-train the yeast to its earlier dexterity have not quite succeeded." The photograph of one of the "fermentation vats" on the Chimay website and the prose talking of "top fermentation" and "the yeast rises to the surface of the fermented beer" gives one the impression of relatively small vessels, but it shows just the top of one of the very tall cylindro-conical fermenters; the photo, above left, shows the tops of four such vessels. They have a particularly large aspect ratio (height over diameter) when compared to the more squat ones subsequently installed in the Rochefort and Orval Trappist breweries. The Chimay ones were built this way, because of space limitations; they could not go elsewhere or the Chimay Beers could not be classed as Authentic Trappist Beers, bearing the Authentic Trappist Product logo. The lower the aspect ratio, the more easier it is to duplicate the conditions of conventional fermenters. The Chimay ones would be at home in Cape Canaveral. The fermenters were supplied by the renowned Meura company (www.meura.be), who are based in Péruwelz (they were based in Tournai from 1845 to 2003). Click here for a White Beer Travels Web page featuring some very old equipment of Meura's. Their modern, stainless-steel brew houses can be seen in most of the Trappist breweries, and, for example, in De Koninck, in Antwerp.
In the fifth (2005) edition of his Good Beer Guide Belgium (www.booksaboutbeer.com, White Beer Travels Web page), Dr Tim Webb has the following to say about Chimay Beers: "The world's leading beer writer, Michael Jackson, ascribes their relatively recent loss of complexity to the changes in yeast dynamics brought about by that change [to cylindro-conical fermentation]. The Guide does not disagree but questions whether this has also exposed pre-existing shortcuts in the recipes." Tim's description of Chimay Blue in the Good Beer Guide Belgium says it all: "Once a great ale of spicy complexity, now simplified for the common good." Click here for more details of Tim's don't-enter-Belgium-without Guide, including how to get your hands on a copy.
Of course, Chimay, as is typical of all Trappist Monasteries, in that it supports good causes with the money it makes above that needed to sustain itself. However, it is a pity that it does not do this whilst making every effort to brew the best beer that it possibly can; Trappist Beers have this aura of being the best, well they did at one time. Chimay, being a major player in the Trappist brewing field really should set a good example for the rest to follow. Unfortunately, to do this, they will have to turn back the clock and possibly reinstall the type of vessels that are featured above, and certainly the traditional fermenters that went with them. Then we would have world-class beers again, rather than merely good ones.
In 2005, there was an excellent exhibition covering Chimay Beers, called "Chimay s'expose". The venue was the Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall) in the main square, the Grand'Place, in the town of Chimay. A number of videos, in French with English and Dutch sub-titles could be activated, which provided much detail on how the beers are made; part of the narrative mentions Wheat Starch, although Father Thomas mentions Wheat! I visited the exhibition as part of a tour of Brussels and Wallonia, organised by the "Belgian Tourist Office Brussels - Wallonia" (Office de Promotion du Tourisme Wallonie-Bruxelles), who have the cleverly named website, www.belgiumtheplaceto.be. Click here for more details of the tour. It is to be hoped that a permanent home can be found for the exhibition. In the town of Chimay, despite its name, the Queen Mary (www.queen-mary.be.tf) (subtitled "An English Pub in Chimay", click here to see its sign), has a good selection of Belgian Beers, at very reasonable prices. There are two beers on draught and thirty-seven in bottle (July, 2005), all six Belgian Trappist Breweries being represented including the rare Westvleteren ? (€3.40). Other Trappist examples include: Achel ? and Orval, both at €2.90; and Rochefort 8o/10o at €3/3.30. Other bottles include: Rodenbach at €2 (25cl); Super des Fagnes ? at €2.50; and Saint Feuillien ? at €2.90. The Queen Mary is to be found just off the Grand'Place at 22 Grand'Rue (GPS: 50.048691o N, 4.314303o E, tel 060 21 23 81). Another place in Chimay with a good selection of beers (~50) is a splendid bar/restaurant housed in the former Casino, the Brasserie du Casino, at 27 Place des Ormeaux (Place Léopold), tel 060 21 49 80. The principal tourist attraction in the town of Chimay is the Château de Chimay, www.chateaudechimay.com. This has the 22nd Prince of Chimay in residence (Philippe de Riquet, a descendant of the first Prince of Chimay, Charles I de Croy) and can be visited, with your guide often being one of the family; there are also musical and theatrical events held in the Château. In the shop within the Château, there is a shop selling a range of Prince de Chimay (www.princedechimay.com) products, including: Honey (Miel); a Bière Blonde au Miel (Blond Honey Beer), Prince de Chimay (7.2%); and a Bière Brune au Miel (Brown Honey Beer), Princesse (8%). The website provides a list of other outlets for these beers. www.ville-de-chimay.be and www.chimaypromotion.be are official websites covering the town of Chimay and the area surrounding it. The Tourist Office (Syndicat d'Initiative) is in the Vieille Tour (Old Tower), the sole remaining remnant of the town's fortifications, off the Eastern end of the Grand'Place, at 4 Rue de Noailles, tel 065 21 18 46.