Signifiers

Once a Trappist — St. Bernardus Brewery in Watou, Belgium

In the early 1990s, the Trappists of Sint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren mashed in on a commercial batch of beer inside their monastery for the first time since just after World War II. The monks in Belgium were getting organized. Early discussions about the establishment of an “International Trappist Association” were taking place. The “Authentic Trappist Product” logo would come into existence five years later.

“It was an amicable divorce in the end,” says Brouwerij St. Bernardus marketing and sales manager Marco Passarella. “We have ‘children,’ and so do they. We have to talk to each other.”

Located in Watou, just 12 kilometers (about 7 miles) from Westvleteren, St. Bernardus brewed the “Trappist Westvleteren” beers under a license from the monks at Sint Sixtus Abbey from 1946-1992. There’s a billboard from that era in the St. Bernardus tasting room that reads: “Brouwerij Sint Bernardus: alleenvervaardiger van de bieren van de abdij van West-Vleteren,” or “Sint Bernardus brewery, the sole producer of the beers of the Abbey of Sint Sixtus in Westvleteren.”

That arrangement came to an end when the license expired in 1992. A new brewing facility was established in Westvleteren. Crucially, St. Bernardus retained all the recipes they had brewed for Sint Sixtus during the 46-year relationship, including that of the Westvleteren 12, a 10.2% ABV Strong Ale which RateBeer awarded “Best Beer in the World” in 2006, 2007, 2010, 2012, and 2013.

“St. Bernardus Abt 12 is still brewed with the same recipe that the monks gave us in 1946,” Passarella says. “But they’re not the same beer. We use water from different sources. And Westvleteren changed their yeast. They now use yeast from Westmalle while we use propagated strains of the original Westvleteren yeast.”

St. Bernardus sits on Trappistenweg (translation: “Trappist Way”), amid the peaceful Flemish countryside just two kilometers from the French border. “Our brewery has a connection with two Trappist monasteries,” Passarella says. “The first one gave us our name, and the second one gave us our beer.”

Just across the border into France lies Mont des Cats Abbey. At its center is a small church on a hill called l’église de Sint Bernardus. In 1904, the monks set up “Le refuge du Notre Dame de Saint Bernard” just across the border in the village of Watou. To pay the bills, they started making cheese. It was eventually sold in 1934 to a private businessman, Evarist Deconinck, who continued to grow the cheese business under the name “Sint Bernardus.”

“At the time, Deconinck played card games in cafés in Watou with the mayor and other well known politicians,” Passarella says. “Another regular player was the Abbot of the Westvleteren Abbey.”

After World War II, the Abbey needed money for repairs and started considering the idea of selling beer. “The monks wanted to focus on their ‘Ora et Labora’ again,” says Passarella, referring to the Benedictine order’s motto (“Pray and Labor”). “They wanted to pray more and be less involved with the worldly.”

To let the monks do their thing, the Trappists approached Deconinck to brew and market beers on behalf of the Abbey. Sint Sixtus equipped Deconinck and St. Bernardus with technical know-how in the form of their Polish lay brewmaster Mathieu Zafranski, in addition to recipe support and engineering capabilities—and of course, that all-important yeast.

The initial license between the Abbey and Deconinck stipulated 30 years, from 1946 to 1976, but that was extended in 1962 for a further 30 years—until the beginning of 1992—when Deconinck’s daughter got married.

“Evarist Deconinck’s daughter married Guy Claus and they were married by the Abbot of Westvleteren,” Passarella says. “He agreed then to extend the license. Guy Claus was from Genk. I went to the same school as him. His father was a mine engineer and my father and grandfather were working in the same mines.”

In the 1980s, there was an attempt by Claus, the new owner of St. Bernardus, to extend the license once more, but the Trappists across Belgium were establishing an exclusive club, the International Trappist Association. That club would put in motion an ambitious building and engineering project to build a brewery inside Westvleteren Abbey.

“Guy Claus and his family, the previous owners of St. Bernardus, knew they were going to lose the Trappist name, so they stopped investing in the brewery,” Passarella says. “It was run down. The brewery was put up for sale, but nobody wanted it. The specialty beer market in Belgium was changing because of large brewing companies. It was a real crisis.”

The brewery continued brewing its beers under the new name—St. Bernardus—after the license ended in 1992, but it wasn’t going well. “The beer was good,” Passarella says. “But nobody in the whole of Belgium knew about the St. Bernardus brand. Everybody knew Sint Sixtus and Trappist Westvleteren and that the monks had started brewing for themselves again. What would be the point of having St. Bernardus around?”

In 1998, a straight-talking businessman from Kuurne was looking for another business to invest in. He’d made some money on the sale of an electrical company, and learned from his local banker that St. Bernardus might be for sale.

“I came here and took two cases of each of the beers home,” Hans Depypere says. “I let some friends try it. Nobody had been involved in sales or marketing there. My friends had never heard of St. Bernardus beer. But they all thought it was really good.”

Depypere bought the brewery the same year for an undisclosed fee. “When he got here, he had to make a lot of investments in technical brewing equipment,” Passarella remembers. “Besides the recipes and the know-how, there is nothing left over from those days almost 20 years ago when he bought the brewery. Nothing. You can’t put your finger on any machine that is still running from those days.”

Current relationships between the monks and St. Bernardus are strong and based on respect. After the license ended in 1992, several “terms of use” were agreed on by both parties. “We talk to Westvleteren when we need to,” Passarella says. “Brother Joris is the head of the brewery, and he’s our go-to guy if there is anything we need to discuss. They sometimes send people to us. We also send people to their café. The sun shines for everybody.”

St. Bernardus agreed to never again use the words “Trappist,” “Sint Sixtus,” or “Westvleteren” on their bottles and never to use the depiction of a monk. “We created a new figure,” Passarella says. “He doesn’t have a ‘keppel’ on his head. He doesn’t have a closed robe. Let’s just say it’s not a monk, but rather a medieval counselor.”

Save for the headwear and robe, the smiling faces on the bottles pre-1992 and post-1992 are identical. Would Passarella agree that there’s a strong similarity between the figures and that people could easily be led to believe it’s a monk?

“Yes,” he admits. “That’s possible. Remember, we’re trying to stay close to the brand that we had created without offending the monks or getting into trouble legally.”

The labels of the smiling “counsellor” are stacked, a thousand at a time, on a table near the bottling machine as they’re being labeled. “We put one label in every thousand where the face is winking,” Passarella says, pointing to the bundled papers. “When I tell that to people, they always check their bottle and become obsessed with finding a winking face.”

Passarella is not just the marketing guy, though. He’s right-hand man to the owner and he’s the face of the brewery in dealings with everyone from consumers to media to other breweries.

He met the current owner, Depypere, while making the last visit of his previous job. He was selling photocopiers.

“I was dealing in Xerox machines before working here,” Passarella says. “I sold my last machine to Hans and I agreed on a price that favored my old company in a really big way. In one short meeting, I closed a deal for him to rent a machine from me for eight years. After that, he wanted to hire me.”

Depypere is the strong-but-silent type. Aside from St. Bernardus, he owns three restaurants in Watou and three more breweries in Poland. He also recently partnered with Rodenbach Brewery’s Rudi Ghequire on another brewery project in nearby city, Ypres, in which the brewhouse has been built into the casemates which soldiers in World War I used as a shelter. In that one transaction with the photocopying machine, he saw in Passarella the communication skills and boldness needed to drive his brand to the next level.

“If there’s someone who can do that to me in 15 minutes, I have to hire him,” Depypere says. “So I did.”

Passarella has been employed by St. Bernardus for 12 years. His impact has been significant. He drew on his experience running a beer café for three years in the city of Kortrijk, 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) from Watou, and on the powers of persuasion he developed selling Xerox machines. He ensured St. Bernardus were placed firmly at the center of a new association of family brewers in Belgium, the Belgian Family Brewers. And he set about developing a strong network of distributors, importers, retailers, bar owners and bar tenders in Belgium and internationally.

“That’s our fan base,” says Passarella. “Even though we are small, I have a sales force of 5,000 people, probably a lot more.”

When Passarella started at the brewery in 2004, production was at the same level that it had been when Depypere took over in 1998 (8,000 HL/year). Since then, production has grown five-fold. In 2015, St. Bernardus produced 40,000 HL.

The relationship between owner and advisor has strengthened, too.

“Marco and I travel a lot together when we are working with export partners,” Depypere says. “We go to places together around Europe, to America, to Japan. He’s more like a friend than a work colleague.”

St. Bernardus Abt 12 (10% ABV) makes up almost half of the brewery’s sales—60% of the beer’s total production stays in Belgium while the other 40% makes its way around the world.

“Our main export market is definitely the U.S.,” Passarella says. “But we do sell in 53 countries now. We make sure most is sold in Belgium because I think it’s important that if people come from all over the world to visit us, that they find our beer here.”

The beer itself is constructed on a base of rich malt notes, with intense bready, toffee, and caramel flavors enhanced by warming levels of booziness that pair well with fireside contemplation. Hallertau Magnum hops are added for bitterness, Goldings for aroma. The majority of the hops used in St. Bernardus beers come from their own hop field, established in 2009 right beside the brewery. Carefully maintained by local hop farmer Johan Derijke, it’s part supply chain, part education, part marketing ploy.

“People can enjoy a beer on our new roof overlooking the hop farm and so we can have a hop festival next September,” Passarella says. “But it’s not just for show. It’s something very important for us. We are in the heart of the hop region in Belgium here. It’s about where we are from.”

Despite everything else, though, it really all comes down to that propagated strain of the original Westvleteren yeast. “We keep it at two universities,” Passarella says. “Leuven and Louvain-La-Neuve. If there was a problem, we can always go to the universities and fetch it from there.”

That distinctive yeast presents itself as a combination of flavor compounds akin to overripe banana, raisins, dark plums, and hints of pepper. Head brewer Wouter Dely works with two lab assistants who ensure the yeast is healthy and fermentation is managed. The character of the Abt 12 is given time to develop over two months in cold conditioning before a 2-3 week warm room re-fermentation in the bottle. “Quadrupel” is a relatively new style descriptor for beers of a fermentation profile and alcohol level such as the Abt 12. And that means that not everyone agrees on it.

“I call it that now,” Passarella says. “But I didn’t call it a Quad when I arrived here 12 years ago. Then it was just ‘Abt 12.’ It wasn’t in a category. It’s like music. Why do we put everything into categories and boxes? You listen to Stromae and you tell me what kind of music he makes. Let’s just say that it’s a good beer. Maybe that’s the most important thing.”

Words + Photos by
Breandán Kearney

Breandán Kearney

Breandán is a co-founder of Belgian Smaak. He was named Beer Writer of the Year 2015 by the British Guild of Beer Writers. He was also named Best Young Beer Writer 2015 and Best Beer and Food Writer 2015. He is a Certified Cicerone® and an accredited beer sommelier through the UK Institute of Brewing & Distilling as well as a certified ‘algemene bierkenner’ from CVO Panta Rhei in Ghent. He has studied brewing (theory and lab) in Ghent. Breandán is Co-Founder and Brewer at Siphon Brewing, a microbrewery on the grounds of a four-generation-old family restaurant in Damme.

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