Any beer drinker who comes to Belgium should take time to visit the most remote corner of West Flanders. In the middle of ‘Le Plat Pays’ you will find the poetic village of Watou, district of the city of Poperinge. Watou is a quiet little town on the border between Belgium and France. It is often said that time passes by slower here than in the rest of the country. The village is known for its poetry and art festival, bringing together poets and visual artists from all over the world.
The region is however also home to the majority of Belgian hops as the climate and fertile soil provide excellent conditions for growing the green gold. Belgian Hop is very popular among the brewers, but the demand cannot be satisfied by the farmers from Poperinge. Several local breweries therefore decided to grow their own hops. Brewery St. Bernardus is one of them. The remarkable history of St. Bernardus is connected to two Trappist monasteries, one giving them their name, the other offering them their beer.
The name St. Bernardus was linked to the location by the Trappist monks of Mont des Cats, situated in the Northern part of France. Anti-clericalism became extremely violent in France during the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. Revolutionaries believed the Catholic Church played a crucial role in the systems of oppression which led to the French Revolution. The French Catsberg Abbey Community decided to relocate across the border and moved to Watou only a couple of kilometres away but located in Belgium. A local farm was transformed into the ‘Refuge Notre Dame de St.Bernard’ and the monks soon started with the production of abbey cheeses.
In the early 1930s the attitude versus the Catholics improved and the community decided to bring all activities back to France. Evarist Deconinck took over the cheese factory in 1934 and expanded the production. The most important cheese was known under the name St. Bernard Watou and is still for sale today, the production being in the hands of Belgomilk in Moorslede.
The history of the beer dates back to 1831, when the famous abbey of Saint-Sixtus in Westvleteren was founded. When building the monastery, it is said that each worker had to be provided with two beers every day, making it more economical for the community to brew their own beer rather than buying it from someone else. In 1838 the monks started selling the beer with great success, but after the Second World War the Abbot decided that the brewing activities distracted the monks too much from their religious tasks
He found an external partner to take over located only 13 km from the abbey. The St-Bernardus brewery in Watou received the license to brew and commercialize the Westvleteren Trappist beers. They brewed the beer from 1945 until 1992, when new regulations were voted to protect the brand ‘Trappist beer’. One of the well-known restrictions is that a real Trappist beer needs to be brewed inside the walls of a Trappist abbey.
St.-Bernardus Abt 12 and Westvleteren 12
In 1992 the beer of Westvleteren returned back to the abbey and is brewed there ever since. Today, St. Bernardus Abt 12 is still made according to the recipe the monks gave to the brewery in 1946. But clearly they are not the same beer. First of all, the water comes from different sources. Westvleteren also changed their yeast, now using yeast from Westmalle while St.-Bernardus still uses propagated strains of the original Westvleteren yeast. And even so, when two chefs are asked to use the same recipe, they will suprise you with two very different meals. Same goes for the art of brewing beer!