BierTalk English 31 – Talk with Father Karel, Subprior and Brewer at Grimbergen Abbey Brewery, from Grimbergen, Belgium

Grimbergen Abbey has not had its own beer since the brewery was destroyed during the French Revolution. After more than 200 years, the 15 monks of Grimbergen Abbey and the brewery groups Alken-Maes (Heineken) and Carlsberg have now decided to resume operations at the abbey north of Brussels, Belgium. A microbrewery with a capacity of 10,000 hectoliters per year started production in 2021. Father Karel combines his daily monastic life with the management of the abbey brewery and supports the master brewer Marc-Antoine Sochon. To this end, he completed an apprenticeship at the Jacobsen Brewery in Copenhagen and received theoretical instruction at the Scandinavian School of Brewing. Today, the brewery has three beers: Grimbergen Astrum Pale Ale (6%), Grimbergen Magnum Opus Brut (8%) and Grimbergen Ignis Quadruple (10%), but father Karel and the brewmaster are already working on new beers, especially some barrel-aged ones, as he tells us in the podcast…

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Vater Karel erzählt, dass die Abtei Grimbergen die älteste noch existierende Norbertinerabtei weltweit ist und eine lange Brautradition hatte, die während der Französischen Revolution unterbrochen wurde. 1958 begann die kommerzielle Produktion des Grimbergen-Biers durch andere Brauereien, und seit 2016 ist Carlsberg daran beteiligt. Vater Karel, der zuvor in der Seelsorge tätig war, spielt eine zentrale Rolle im aktuellen Projekt einer Mikrobrauerei innerhalb der Abteimauern, die 2021 eröffnet wurde. Diese Mikrobrauerei produziert einzigartige Grimbergen-Biersorten, die sich von den traditionellen Sorten unterscheiden.

Vater Karel spricht auch über seine persönliche Geschichte mit Bier und Wein, seine Entscheidung, dem Klosterleben beizutreten, und die täglichen Aktivitäten in der Abtei Grimbergen. Er beschreibt die Abtei als lebendige Gemeinschaft mit einer aktiven Mönchsgemeinde, die sich in pastoraler Arbeit und Projekten wie der Unterstützung der Ukraine engagiert. Zusätzlich zur Brauerei gibt es in Grimbergen eine Ausstellung, die den Besuchern die Geschichte des Bierbrauens und die Bedeutung des Hopfens näherbringt. Das Wappen der Abtei, ein Phönix, symbolisiert die Widerstandsfähigkeit und den Glauben der Gemeinschaft. Vater Karel träumt davon, ein Bier mit der originalen Hefe von 1795 zu brauen und experimentiert mit der Verwendung von Weinfässern für die Bierproduktion. In der Abtei werden verschiedene spezielle Biere gebraut und verkostet, darunter ein winterliches Glühbier und ein Champagner-Bier. Abschließend lädt Vater Karel die Zuhörer ein, die Abtei zu besuchen und die einzigartigen Biere zu probieren.



Markus Raupach: Hello, and welcome to another episode of our podcast BierTalk. Today we travel again in the wonderful beer country of Belgium and we visit a very special brewery in a monastery. And we visit of course, also the man who had the idea of the whole thing. It’s Father Karel from Grimbergen. So hello, Father Karel, and maybe you introduce yourself a little bit to our listeners.

Father Karel: Hello, everybody. I’m Father Karel. I’m 59 and I’m Norbertine father of the Abbey of Grimbergen. And Grimbergen is the oldest still exist Abbey all over the world of Norbertine fathers. And we have always a tradition of brewing until the French Revolution. And then we are still wait until 1958 of the commercial Grimbergen you can find everywhere brew by other breweries. And now it’s in the hands of Carlsberg. And in 2016, Carlsberg, Alken-Maes and the Abbey decide to put a microbrewery here in the walls of the Abbey of Grimbergen. And so I’m involved with this project and that’s a short way. Before I have also done a pastoral work more than 25 years. And so.

Markus Raupach: Let’s start maybe a little bit in these early days. So do you remember when you had your first contact to beer? And was it before or after you decided to enter the order?

Father Karel: Yes, it was when I still was father in the Abbey. I was in vault at the moment with the three big Paris and the Abbot asked me in 2010, he needed somebody for the accountancy problems, finance problems, and the workers in the Abbey. And he asked me, Karel, can you do that? Okay. Very soon, you know what you must pay for everything to renovate the roofs and so on and so on. But I don’t know at that moment what is income of the Abbey. And then we look forward of the contracts we had with Grimbergen beer. And at that moment, we were already still by Carlsberg, called we have by a Belgium brewery they have by the name Grimbergen, the name Grimbergen, and also the coat of arms of the phoenix. So I travelled to Copenhagen to negotiate an old contract and that was a start of my beer expertise and so on. Very good thing. And we find there, a partner with Carlsberg who have also seen that the Abbey had, that human beings are more important than only to get money. So we were very glad with that. And in 2016, the CEO of Carlsberg came to Grimbergen and he asked me, Father, tell me your dream. And I told him my dream is to brew again inside the walls in the basement of the Abbey, 500 litre or so. And another guy on the board of Carlsberg, he told me, Father, we are multinational. We don’t care about 500 litres beer. And everybody laughing with me. The fathers, my colleagues, they laugh at me. They say, you see Father Karel’s stupid idea? No, no, said the CEO. It’s not a stupid idea. It is a nice idea and I have the money for that. And so we start with renovate festivity hall to a microbrewery, and the opening was in 2021. And so we are still now two years, full two years working on it, the different Grimbergen beers. And what we make it’s not the normal Grimbergen beers you find everywhere, the blonde or the double. Very good beers, but that is made by the big breweries. We make new varieties for the future here in the microbrewery.

Markus Raupach: So fascinating story, and maybe just a little bit back in your personal history. So can you remember your first beer, when you drank your first beer?

Father Karel: My first beer I was I think 50 years old, and that was I think Gouden Carolus. Yes, my name is Carolus, gold Carolus. It is a dark beer, very famous here in Belgium. Very tasting beer. I knew I have my periods that I have drinking beer. When I was a parish priest, I was also very involved and my passion was also (Burgundy?) wine. And that means that we, do we now also samples with barrel aged in the brewery of Burgundian barrels and so on. So yeah, and of course, since 2010, 2012 it’s daily that I must have drinking beer, different other types of beers of other markets, other breweries. It’s very exciting to do that, yes.

Markus Raupach: When you were a young boy, when did you decide to go into the Christian order? Was it a process? Or was it something you already always knew?

Father Karel: It was not a process, it was like, boom. I was anti-Catholic. It was not so of the same line of the Catholic Church at that moment. But I meet a priest and I said to myself, he’s always happy, and I don’t understand it. You don’t have a wife, the salary it’s nothing, it means nothing. You must know in Belgium it’s different than in Germany. In Germany it’s, es gibt kein Steuer. We don’t have that in Belgium. We have a salary of the state, but it’s very, very, very low. You can simple life with that, that’s only that. So, and I was wondering that he was also happy. And he bring me to the gospel of Jesus and there are other various in life than only get money. Yes. And that was, for me, a very important meeting to know that and to have more and more the knowledge to find my way in that. And then I look forward to an abbey because I think I’m not make. I’m not a person to live alone in a house. And so that’s the reason that I came here in Grimbergen. Doing a pastoral, living together inside the Abbey, but going outside on pastoral work, hospitals, schools, and so on and so on.

Markus Raupach: Yes, and maybe the people don’t really have an idea of what and where the Grimbergen Abbey is. So maybe you describe a little bit where you are and how it looks like and how many monks are there and how life is everyday.

Father Karel: Okay, Grimbergen is on the periphery of Brussels, in the north of Brussels. By car you can drive in ten minutes to the airport, international airport of Brussels. You are in ten minutes in the centre of Brussels. So, but it is in the Flemish part, it’s not in the French part. It’s the Flemish part of Belgium. Grimbergen, what I say already, is the oldest Norbertine Abbey founded by St. Norbert himself. And also in Germany, St. Norbert’s very famous, certainly in Bavaria, because we have a lot of Norbertine Abbey’s there in Windberg, Roggenberg, in the south of Bavaria different abbeys, also Norbertine Abbey’s. So Grimbergen we are now with nine fathers in the Abbey and two fathers in South Africa. So it is a varied community, but a very active form. All the fathers doing a lot of work, seven parishes or more, all in the north of Brussels. I think we are at this moment we do a lot of 25, 30 parishes. Somebody who is also volunteer working, doing working in the hospital, University Hospital in Brussels. I am also involved. I’m involved with the microbrewery but also with what I have done volunteer with Ukraine. Different convoys bring ambulances to their renovate. Already three schools have built shelter, like a bunker for 300 children in Ukraine. So that’s my pastoral dimension. And on the other hand, I do the microbrewery. I’m more the marketing guy and the face of the microbrewery, and of the mark of Grimbergen, yes.

Markus Raupach: Yes, and it’s not only a brewery, you also have this wonderful exhibition. What was the idea to do that to have like a whole experience? And what can people expect if they come and see that?

Father Karel: Yes for me, it was important that a brewery, you can put a brewery anywhere. But an abbey brewery that’s yes, that’s a little bit different, because you are still in an abbey. So there is a time of silence. That means that we don’t work in the weekends. That means that we don’t work at night. That we have a very good humanity, relationship with the workers, two guys, young guys who work in the microbrewery and are members of Carlsberg group. But we have a very good relationship with them. For instance, to know what, how is their family situation? Yes, it’s important to know that and also people who come to us. So for me, there is, we want a brewery, a small brewery, but also an experience, experience of hops. A lot of people don’t know anymore what is hops. So we have put a small hop field inside the garden, and also an herb garden. Because in the time of the Middle Ages, there was still herbs to making beer to give bitterness on the beer more sustainable 40 days and also a sighting and other moment to have beer that sustainable 40 days. And we’re still waiting when hops comes from Germany. It’s from the Vikings. Vikings. Then Germany, and Germany by the ports of Bremen and Hamburg came to here in Belgium. The first Abbey was African. And then it’s ten kilometre from Grimbergen. And so we know on all drawings, we see all the hop fields in the Middle Ages that we had. So for me, it was important to have a hop variaty of the Middle Ages, the Groene Belle. It’s an aromatic hop that we can use on the end of fermentation, boiling the wort. And then we have also an experience hall with different Belgium beer styles and tastings. And the people they can come in group by guide, or they can do it by themselves. And so guiding tour, and then they can go look inside the microbrewery and also they can put with a key, I like this one. I like more hoppy beer. I like more sweet beer. And on the end of the tour, the computer calculates which Grimbergen you shall like it. And you can order them in the bar. The Phoenixhof is a big brasserie with food pairing. There you can taste all the Grimbergen beers, and of course, the varieties of the microbrewery we make now.

Markus Raupach: Yes, it’s a fascinating experience. I did it myself when I visited you. And maybe also for clarification for our listeners, The Phoenix is like the logo animal of the Abbey. Where does that come from?

Father Karel: Well, the phoenix is a mythological bird and the fathers have put the phoenix as coat of arms of the Abbey as symbol after the first destruction we think in 1142 already. Then you must know that the Abbey after that is three times destroyed and they put it in flames. They were occupied by Spain, we were occupied by the Ottonen and Hungarians, we were occupied by the French, we were occupied by the Germans. But because with the French they have destroyed a lot of things in the French Revolution here. So three times is, they have, the Abbey was totally destroyed. And even then the fathers came back and rebuilt everything, the Abbey and the brewery, each time again and again and again. And that’s make for us that the phoenix is the DNA of Grimbergen, of the fathers of Grimbergen. We believe in ourselves, we believe in our mission. Its resilience, very important, and we are proud also for that. So, and that’s for us, it’s more than a mythological bird. It’s for us, it’s mean, yes. Hands and foot and, yes, everything. 

Markus Raupach: You told us that it’s the oldest brewing tradition more or less in Europe. Could you say a little bit about the early history? So when did the monastery and the brewing start? And maybe also, what influence had it on the location of the brewery today?

Father Karel: We still know that there was a brewery before 1566, before the religious war between the Catholics and the Protestants. Because when the fathers came back after the destruction of the religious war, this day in a daily book of a father, the abbot, Abbot de Velasco, he rebuilt the brewery. And it makes sense because we know that each Abbey had in the Middle Ages, a brewery. Why? Because in different places, water wasn’t drinkable, first and second, beer, cheese and bread was a kind of payment the workers. You must know that in the Middle Ages, more than 1300 people work for the Abbey. The Abbey has 2500 acres great. It was amazing, with ten farms with eight water mills. Also fouir windmills. They have territory, woods, and so further and so further. They have a big lake also for fishing, because they eat fish three times in a week. So it was an economical point, it was an education point, it was the liturgical point, a spiritual point an abbey. It was very important. They were the first you can say the first big companies in Europe, abbies. You can say you like it or you like it not, but that is our history, even in Germany, I think. That’s our  history. So we know, and we have just before the French Revolution, so the French came here in 1794 and then it was very tough for the fathers to have lived inside the Abbey because they must pay a lot of taxes. And there was no anymore allowed to be priests. The free out of the Abbey by the sword of French soldiers. And we have still ingredient list at that time from the last brew that we have of how many hops, how many wheat, how many malt, everything. And that’s now the occasion we have to find out a brew have similar – but it’s not easy – to have a brew similar to make a brew similar, like a brew before the French Revolution. That’s my dream to still make it. So we know now where was the old brewery? We have found in underground the place and we have taken measurements and send it to Copenhagen. And they have, we have sent ground of the old basement of the brewery and they have analysed it. After three months, they sent me back phone and they said, Father Karel, we have found the original yeast of the brewery of the brews before the French Revolution. Wow, that’s amazing.

Markus Raupach: And with this yeast you’d make your beer nowadays.

Father Karel: Not yet. Not yet. We are still working on it. Now we use the normal Grimberger yeast still, but I think in one year or two years we will certainly come with a beer, a Grimbergen beer with making by the original yeast of 1795.

Markus Raupach: So that’s really a fascinating story and it also shows that you are still going forward and developing new ideas, new beers, new ways to produce beer and also the idea to bring the past back a little bit. Maybe at the moment which beers are available in the brewery when people visit you? Which beers can they have and what is their idea of each beer?

Father Karel: So at this moment, we have four/five beers. We have a winter beer, only in wintertime. It’s a Glühwein, but then in beer. With caneel [cinnamon]. It’s very exciting. It’s a dark beer. Then we have Astrum. And Astrum bring us to the history of the top of the microbrewery. We have the first observatory for stars. It’s called Mira. It’s protected by the king of Belgium and it was also a father who was the founder of that. And so we have added, and it’s an IPA on the end of the lagering. We added galaxy hop on it and it’s six degrees. It’s a very refreshing beer. It’s the daily beer that we’re drinking on the end of the day in the brewery. Then we have Ignis and Ignis means fire, and it’s been to the rich history of Grimbergen, what I told you different times destroyed. They have put everything in flames. So for me it was important to have the burning wood in my glass, to smell the burning wood in my glass. So what we have done is roasted malt added to the beer and that gives you an, yes, you you can smell the burning wood on it and also a little bit banana taste on the end. It’s a quadruple, it’s ten degrees. And then we have Magnum Opus, it means masterpiece. And this was a beer we have made it for the opening of the microbrewery. We are brewers, beer brewers, we are not winemakers. So when we were winemakers for an opening we sell used champagne, but we are beer makers. So what we have done on the end of the third fermentation with Grimbergen yeast, we have added champagne yeast. We don’t can use the name because it’s a protected name, champagne. So we call it with a sprinkling yeast, but people know it’s come from champagne for Epernay, and that give a very refreshment and a dry on the end. But for me, it was not enough. I want also to have the taste of wine in my beer. And then we have found and hop variety in New Zealand, Nelson Sauvin. And that mixed numbers of molecules of white wine and it’s a hop field near wine field from Sauvignon Blanc. And so you become in that beer a refreshment, minerality and on the end of the yeast, of champagne yeast, a dry taste on the end. But this is what we have now. And we have also a brut rose, and that you can only taste in the Brasserie Phoenix of near the Abbey. And then we have added on the end of the lagering 8% quick on it. So it’s very exciting. It’s not sweet. It’s not sweet because quicks are no sweets. So yeah, I can only say come and taste it.

Markus Raupach: Yes, and I only can confirm that because I was there and I tasted it, and all the beers were really fantastic. Really very special. And of course being from Bamberg I love the little smoky character of the smoked malt in the Ignis. So it was really a great experience. And also afterwards you also showed us your experiments with wooden barrels. So they’re also very interesting beers. How did this idea come at the moment and what is maybe in the future available about that?

Father Karel: My big passion is also wine. And so I went since 2001 to Boulogne and I know a lot of winemakers and farms, wine farms there. Have very good relationships. It’s more friends for me than I must buy wines there. And so I asked them, is it possible to have barrels for Mirassou when they have put Chardonnay? Do you have also Pinot Noir barrels from a very impressive village in France. And also a friend for me who is, it’s one of the biggest wine, famous wines, Le Pin from Jacques Thienpont in Bordeaux Pomerol and that’s Merlot. We have put there, the Magnum Opus, and on the right one, we have put the Ignis, yes? And so what we have seen now, we have seen that on the barrels of Merlot from Bordeaux, that there is a second fermentation. So that rest of the yeast and also for the grapes of the wine are still in fermentation. And that gives another taste on the beer. And when you don’t know it, then you have I think a glass, a dark glass and you taste that, that can be difficult to find out it’s now a beer or it’s vine. And you have tasted, so you can tell them. So and that we want also to do that. It’s no innovation but yes, it’s very nice. It’s for me, very nice to do that.

Markus Raupach: Yes, it’s very nice and also I must say it’s crazy or impressive to see that you still can do something special, something different to all the others and it’s a unique taste, unique idea which you have in the Abbey. And so that’s really interesting that you have beers that are a little bit like a Flanders red or a little bit like a Greek or a little bit like a champagne beer but still in a different way. So that’s really fantastic. So I know you have limited time. Maybe a last question. In your monastic life with your other fathers, when during the day do you drink beer and which ones? Or are there special days where you drink special beers?

Father Karel: So normally at 11 o’clock we have a tasting in the brewery because your mouth is clear and fine. And then on the end of the day at 5 pm, we have a meeting every day I come there, even I have busy in the Abbey. I come there greeting my colleagues there and we have certainly a tasting of the beers. We always taste Astrum because it’s low in alcohol. The rest, Magnum Opus is eight, quadruple is ten degrees, Brut Rose is also eight. So you must be a little bit careful because we are still working after that in the Abbey. We have meetings still in the evening. So yes. And then on Sunday in the Abbey, all the fathers we then have a very good glass of Grimbergen on Sunday evening.

Markus Raupach: And for Christmas?

Father Karel: And for Christmas itself, we either have the Hiemis Calix. It’s the golden Calix. It’s a winter beer, yes.

Markus Raupach: Okay, so fascinating. I wish you all the best. Thanks a lot for your time and as I said, I really encourage all our listeners to come to the Abbey to visit you and visit this fascinating project and honour and taste your beers. Thanks a lot.

Father Karel: Always welcome. Thank you. Bye-bye.


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