During the Christmas season, you may have seen St. Bernardus Christmas Ale being offered on your local beer list. While you may have realized that it is a traditional Belgian brew, you may not have known that it shares the same family tree as one of Belgium’s, if not the world’s, most renowned and soughtafter beers. The story behind how St. Bernardus became the brewery that it is today begins, as with many Belgian breweries, with Trappist monks.
St. Bernardus is located outside Watou, a village in Western Belgium. It was originally established as “Refuge Notre Dame de St. Bernard” by Trappist monks in the late 1800s. The monks came from Monastery des Cats near Godewaersvelde, France—only six miles from Watou—to escape an anti-clerical policy popular in France at the time. The monks who founded the refuge at St. Bernard, which included a farm, produced Abbey cheese. In the early 1930s, the attitude toward monks in France improved, so the Abbey community decided to cease operations at St. Bernard and ordered the monks to return to France.
Evarist Deconinck purchased the cheese-making operation from the monks and expanded the facility, selling his flagship cheese under the name “St. Bernard Watou.” After almost 30 years of cheese production, the cheese factory was sold in 1959 and production is currently under the control of Belgomilk, located in Moorslede, Belgium.
Here’s where the story gets even more interesting. A few miles from Watou is Westvleteren, Belgium, home of the world famous Trappist monastery, St. Sixtus. The St. Sixtus monastery was founded in 1831 and not long after it was established in 1838, brewing commenced. St. Sixtus is most wellknown for its “Westvleteren XII,” a Belgian Quad some consider the best beer in the world.
After World War II, the monks of St. Sixtus sought someone to commercialize their beer for them, as their monastery was in need of financial support for repairs and improvements as a result of the German occupation. In 1946, the monks agreed to issue a license to Evarist Deconinck, and Brewery St. Bernardus was founded. The first three beers brewed by St. Bernardus, Pater 6, Prior 8 and Abt 12, were very similar to the beers brewed by St. Sixtus. There is a good reason for this: the brewmaster from Westvleteren, Mathieu Szafranski, came to St. Bernardus and brought with him St. Sixtus’ recipes, some equipment, and
most importantly—the St. Sixtus yeast strain. Under the St. Sixtus license, St. Bernardus was able to sell its beers as “Trappist.”
St. Sixtus renewed its license with St. Bernardus in 1962 for a term of 30 years. During this time, the monks in Westvleteren only brewed beer for themselves and for three local pubs, allowing St. Bernardus to continue to handle the commercial operation for them. At the expiration of the license in 1992, the monks of St. Sixtus declined to renew the license because the Trappist Abbeys had decided that “Trappist” beer could only be brewed inside the walls of a Trappist monastery, under the direction and control of monks. In the absence of the license, St. Bernardus could no longer place the name “St. Sixtus” or the term “Trappist” on its labels. However, the St. Bernardus brewery endured; it continues to brew the same beers, with the St. Sixtus yeast, under the “St. Bernardus” brand name. In fact, because the recipe and the yeast were from St. Sixtus, there are some who consider St. Bernardus Abt 12 extremely similar to Westvleteren XXII.
St. Bernardus has expanded its operation significantly since 1992. It increased its fermentation and lagering capacity (8,600 HL total), built new offices with a tasting room, a new warehouse, and created a very successful brewery tour program—hosting 9,000 visitors in 2013. In addition, St. Bernardus operates a bed and breakfast on site, which has been totally remodeled, and in 2010, the brewery established a 2.5 acre hop field right next door, which produces hops used in the beers. According to Marco Passarella, St. Bernardus Sales and Marketing Manager, “In short, the brewery has been transformed completely. The only things untouched are the authentic brew hall and filtration process. This way, we can ensure that the quality of our beer remains at the same high level.”
Although it has modernized in some areas, the traditional feel—and of course, the yeast —remains the same. As explained by Marco, “Whenever we modernize, it’s always been with the tradition of our brewery in mind. The recipes, our yeast, and the production methods are unchanged. ‘Where innovation meets tradition.’”
St. Bernardus is a member of the “Belgian Family Brewers,” (BFB) a nonprofit association of Belgian breweries. Breweries that belong to the BFB can be identified by the BFB logo on their labels. To be a member of the BFB, a brewery must have been in operation in Belgium for at least 50 consecutive years. As explained by the BFB, “The association’s objective is to promote historic, independent family breweries which bring genuine added value to the identity and authenticity of Belgian brewing methods. This is a worthy cause, since beer brewing is a skilled craft which has been passed down from generation to generation in Belgian families over the centuries.” Marco and the team at St. Bernardus feel that the BFB is important for traditional Belgian brewers, “We strongly believe that BFB’s mission is in the interest of all Belgian Family Brewers. Together we stand strong, and together we can point out to the customer what we stand for—traditionally brewed Belgian beer.”
While the St. Bernardus brewery is relatively new compared to other Belgian breweries, its yeast, recipes and methods go back to 1838, making its brews truly traditional. Based on the taste of its offerings, and its connection to St. Sixtus, St. Bernardus should be considered one of Belgium’s preeminent breweries. So the next time you find yourself with a St. Bernardus brew in your hand, take a moment to appreciate the history that led to the treat in your glass. And if you find yourself lucky enough to be in Belgium, St. Bernardus should be near the top of your list of breweries to visit.