Abbaye des Rocs’s distinctively spicy ales have played an important, albeit recent, role in Belgian beer history. John Rega finds his way there.
Pulling into the driveway of Brasserie de l’Abbaye des Rocs, in the hamlet of Montignies-sur-Roc, Hainaut province, seems more like turning down a picturesque country lane. A handsome farmhouse with wrought-iron wellhead sits on one side. A cluster of twee cottages lines the other, in differing shades of brick and higgledy-piggledy rooflines.
But these rustic buildings are in fact a modern brewhouse, with tanks and equipment arrayed through the interconnecting interiors.
Don’t be tempted to dismiss this place — or its name, which is taken from a long-ago monastery nearby — as ersatz history.
With its distinctive, spicy ales, Abbaye des Rocs lays claim to a landmark, albeit recent, role in Belgian brewing.
The family enterprise established Belgium’s first modern microbrewery, helping open the way for so many startups since.
Jean-Pierre Eloir, a surveyor and home-brewer, started the venture in 1979 with the encouragement of his father-in-law, who worked in a brewery. The law at the time only allowed for licensing industrial-scale facilities. He had to obtain what was then an experimental waiver to brew at the weekends with just a 500-litre setup.
That helped crack open the market, along with the likes of De Dolle Brouwers and nearby Brasserie de Blaugies, which both commenced the following year.
Jean-Pierre started with the Abbaye des Rocs ale, a, garnet-brown number worked up from an old recipe book of his father-in-law’s, and Montagnarde, an amber. They’re still mainstays of the brewery, known for their complex malt character and spicing, plus a 9 percent alcohol wallop.
He followed with Blanche des Honnelles, a wheat bear with some oats for tartness, and orange peel.
After taking over from her father, Nathalie Eloir designed the extra strong Grand Cru dark ale and a Triple Impériale, for the American market, although a few bottles get around locally.
More recently, she’s tweaked the house Blonde. She’s dialled back the strength and brought in a fresh and herbaceous new hop variety, developed in Belgium and not yet named.
Like a lot of country drives, visiting Abbaye des Rocs can involve a few false turns. Coming for an interview, I turn up at the brewhouse. From the residence across the driveway, Jean-Pierre cordially redirects me to Nathalie’s office down the road.
There, she shows off the tasting rooms and shops, set in a mill dating to the 11th century. An outdoor space full of mismatched furniture overlooks the river that once powered the millworks.
Describing the revamped Blonde, she calls it “more hoppy [but] not an IPA.”
Her aim is to balance flavours, not to simply dial up the hops or some other element for its own sake.
We’re a Belgian brewery,” she says, “so we want to make Belgian beer.”
Nathalie is overseeing Abbaye des Rocs’s biggest expansion yet, with new brewing equipment being installed or on its way. She calls it a necessary move to fulfil clients’ demand.
Her father’s original kit will move over to the tasting area, not just as an homage, but as a working, pilot brewery.
“If I have a crazy idea, I can make it on the 50 litre” setup, she says. “We definitely still want to develop new beers.”
But first, the expansion. Going on 38 years, Abbaye des Rocs will ramp up to production levels that could’ve qualified for a license under the old law at the time of its founding.
“But we’re going to stay like this,” she insists. “We’re going to remain a microbrewery.”