Tradition Unreconstructed

The story of how Sint Bernardus emerged from France, cheese and Westvleteren.

Belgian brewers make a big deal out of history and tradition. But it wasn’t always that way.

“I’m reconstructing our history, because I came here ten years ago and they hadn’t kept anything.” says Marco Passarella, sales and marketing manager for Sint Bernardus brewery in Watou in Poperinge. “Everything had been given away or thrown out.” We’re sitting in the visitors’ room, the walls covered with enamel advertising signs. “Everything you see here I had to buy on eBay. And still today, there’s a lot of stuff we don’t own, all of our old signs for example. We’ve seen them on the web. Somebody has them, but we don’t.”

Sint Bernardus

Sint Bernardus has plenty of history. Not history built in years – they’ve only been around since 1904, and only brewing since 1946. But history built of story.

In 1904 the Trappist monks of Mont des Cats in northern France came to Belgium looking for refuge from anti-clerical sentiment, and found it in Watou, where they established their Refuge of Our Lady of St. Bernard, where they made cheese.

“In 1934 the monks went back to France and sold the cheese factory to an individual named Evarist De Koninck. He took over making the cheeses, still called Saint Bernard. Then he became friends with the abbot of the Trappist monastery of Westvleteren, and when the monks were looking for someone to help them market their beers, he was asked to help.”

Marco Passarella

“The brewery had to be founded. The Polish-born brew master from Westvleteren, Mathieu Szafranski, became a partner in the new brewery, and he brought along the know-how and the technical equipment, the recipes, and maybe most important, he also brought the St Sixtus yeast.”

So the brewery has roots in two Trappist monasteries: one which brews what many consider the best beer in the world; and the other which also has a beer to its name, but which can’t sell it as a Trappist because it’s not brewed in Mont des Cats, but at Chimay.

For 46 years they brewed beer here for the monks of Westvleteren, then in 1992 the licence came to an end, the monks took over, and the rest is history.

But here’s the twist: Sint Bernardus took back its old name, and kept on brewing the same beer as ever, with the same recipe and the same yeast. And there are those who would argue that the Sint Bernardus ales made here are as good as – if not better than – the ones brewed down the road at Westvleteren.

The sun shines for everybody. They are happy with what they’re doing and we’re happy with what we’re doing.

Not that Passarella is remotely interested in a contest with Westvleteren. “The sun shines for everybody. They are happy with what they’re doing and we’re happy with what we’re doing. Also don’t forget that the monks are at peak capacity. They don’t want to brew more and they sell whatever they want to sell. If they were to brew twice as much as they do they would still sell everything. But they don’t want to.”

By the same token, Belgian Beer & Food is not going to come down on either side of the fence on this. Both the Westvleteren 12 and its counterpart, the Sint Bernardus Abt 12, are beers of the very highest quality – rich, deep and complex, the very models of that paramount virtue of the Belgian beer: balance.

On the other hand, Sint Bernardus markets its beers widely, in the major supermarket chains and in bars and beer shops. No need to go through the rigmarole of calling up the brewery for your limited supply and having to drive to the depths of West Flanders to pick it up.

“Don’t underestimate the power of not being able to get something. It’s something that’s embedded in human nature to want something you can’t have. If a beer is not available it becomes something bigger than itself, and I think that’s something that has happened to the Trappist beers of Westvleteren. The monks didn’t ask for all that hype, and it doesn’t serve them any purpose.”

I always say the most beautiful thing about Belgian beers is that there are so many different ones, and different tastes, that everyone can find his own favourite

The rest of the range deserves a mention, in particular the doughy tripel, heavy with cereals and yeast, and the Sint Bernardus Wit, a wheat beer which takes the style to a whole new level of depth of flavour – the white beer other white beers would like to be when they grow up.

“I always say the most beautiful thing about Belgian beers is that there are so many different ones, and different tastes, that everyone can find his own favourite,” Passarella concludes. “There’s a beer for everybody, and you know the best part? When you find your favourite beer it’s not like a real marriage – you can still go out and look for something better.”

By Alan Hope

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