Trappist Monks Are Fighting to Save the Water in Their Sacred Beer

If locals drill deeper into their water source, Rochefort's world-class ales may never taste the same.

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For centuries, the monks that make up the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, otherwise known as the Trappists, have been working and studying in monasteries all over the world. And at a handful of these monasteries, including six abbeys in Belgium, the monks have been producing some of the best beer on the planet.

But the pure spring water, a vital ingredient of these malty creations, could soon be under threat, according to The Guardian.

Though they range in styles from blondes to quads, Belgian Trappist beers, as officially recognized by the , are complex and delicious creations. You’ve probably had Chimay Reserve, a dark, malty ale commonly found stateside, or maybe you’ve heard of the mythical Westvleteren 12, an intensely flavorful, 10.2% ABV bomb that many beer lovers consider their Holy Grail.

Then there’s the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy in Rochefort, Belgium. The abbey, usually referred to simply as , makes just three full-bodied, bottle-conditioned dark ales known for their numbers and cap colors: 6 (red), 8 (green), and 10 (blue). Flowing since 1797, Rochefort’s sacred suds are held in the highest regard.

But now an environmental dispute could irreversibly harm the beers and the brand. Water is obviously a big part of beer’s basic equation, and the Rochefort monks have been using the super-pure spring water that flows beneath their brewery in South Belgium to perfect their formula since the beginning. Lately, though, they’ve had to battle a local lime quarry—owned by the Lhoist-Bergman family—for future control of the unsullied H2O.

The Lhoist-Bergmans have long wanted to lower Rochefort’s groundwater level to make their quarry’s quality better, according to . Their plan? To drill 60 meters deeper down. But if they do that, the monks say, the current groundwater table (and source of the monks’ top-notch water) would be irreversibly damaged.

The monks have fought against the move for over a decade and have, until this point, managed to fend off such efforts. But late last year, local officials granted the Lhoist-Bergmans permission to test other water pump sites to appease the monks.

The monks, meanwhile, aren’t having it, especially because they claim that the politician who approved the testing went to the ITA—the organization that enforces the strict rules for Trappist beers—and confirmed that water quality isn’t actually a condition for the official Trappist distinction. The monks say that move showed bias.

Although we do love some good monk drama, the brothers of Rochefort are adamant that the test pumping will spoil their sensitive source and make the local water—much less their beautiful beer—totally bunk.

“The water that Lhoist will pump up is not drinkable,” said Luc Deprez, a Rochefort representative, in an interview with a Belgian newspaper, via The Guardian.

For his part, quarry owner Geoffroy Fiévet lamented to The Guardian that he's losing the PR battle. “It is an incredibly complex matter that is hard to explain,” he said. “And of course people choose the side of the abbey and not the quarry. Nobody knows about lime, but everyone likes a Trappist.”

Let’s hope the two sides find a way to compromise—without any beer getting hurt in the process.

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