Westmalle

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Vue de l'abbaye de Westmalle en 1802
It is in the plains of the Antwerp campine that the monastery of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart is located

 

It is to the French Revolution that we owe the existence of the Abbey of Westmalle today. In April 1791, with the Revolution having suppressed all monasteries in France, a group of monks of the French abbey of Notre-Dame de la Grande Trappe took refuge in Val-Sainte, Switzerland, under the direction of Dom Augustin de Lestrange. It had been agreed, with the Senate of Friborg, that its community would not exceed 24 members. However, the postulants, attracted by the reputation of the sanctity of the exiled monks, flocked from all areas. It was necessary to consider creating new monasteries.

Dom Augustin then decided to spread to America, where Catholicism was making progress. On August 28, 1793, he put three religious on the road. While they were stopping in Ghent, during a quest tour for their monastery of Val-Sainte, before their departure for America, these three religious came into contact with the bishop of Antwerp, Monsignor Nélis. The bishop told them that he would be very happy to have Trappists in his diocese and asked them to settle there.

The religious, whose mission was to go to America, not to found a monastery in Belgium, consulted their abbot, who authorized them to respond to the prelate's wishes. A wealthy merchant, Mr. De Wolf, then opened a subscription which made it possible to buy land suitable for the establishment of an abbey. This land, 16 kilometers from Antwerp, near Westmalle, was known as "Nooit Rust" ("Never Rest") because it was so difficult it was to cultivate. The development of a new monastery could now begin ...

Vue de l'abbaye de Wesmtalle vers 1830
The abbey (II)

June 6, 1794 marks the "official" date of the founding of the monastery of Westmalle. The new foundation was to include, at this time, about twelve members.

 

The Trappists were hardly installed there when they had to flee in front of the French armies invading Belgium. They took refuge in monasteries in Westphalia.

Westmalle was abandoned for seven years.

In 1802, taking advantage of a time when Napoleon the First was benevolent toward the religious, Dom Augustin sent some monks from Darfeld to restored the monastery in the same location. This was allowed by the French government.

In July 1811, the Emperor suppressed the Trappists in all his states; those of Westmalle therefore had to disperse again. However, the immovable property of the monastery was preserved and three religious continued, in secular clothes, to look after the interests of the foundation.

These three religious were able to stay thanks to the intervention of local notables and nobles. The date of August 21, 1814, marks the definitive return of the religious to ND du Sacré Cour; the era of prosperity would now begin. Westmalle was the first monastery in Belgium to be restored after the revolution.

Under the Dutch occupation from 1815 to 1830, Catholics were abused in Belgium. In 1818, a government decree prohibited contemplative orders, tolerated teaching orders and only accepted hospital orders. In addition, the number of religious in a community was limited to twenty. Westmalle had the privilege of keeping forty religious and of having its monastery legitimized.

In 1836, the monastery, which was still only a priory, was raised by Pope Gregory XVI to the rank of Abbey. The first holder was Dom Martin, who became vicar general of the Trappists in Belgium. It was under his abbatial that Saint Sixtus came under the authority of Westmalle in 1836. At that time, the abbey underwent several important extensions: a pharmacy, a printing house, a library, a weaving workshop, and ... a brewery were added.

The years went by in relative prosperity, and it was in 1934 that a huge new brewery was built with the most modern facilities to develop the production of beer which, for a hundred years, had been made only for monks.

La brasserie de Westmalle vers 1920
The brewery of the monastery ...

Construction of the Abbey's first brewery began on August 1, 1836, and was completed the same year. The first brewers were indeed the monks, and we owe a lot to Father Bonaventura Hermans, a doctor of pharmacy with knowledge of plants, as well as to Father Albericus Kemp, who had previously worked in a brewery.

The latter was therefore familiar with the handling of utensils and equipment and this helped a lot.

The first brew was tasted on December 10, 1836 in the monks' refectory. The accounts register indicates that it was a cooper from Westmalle, Adriaan Weens who delivered the 12 barrels of wood that were used for the first brews, for the sum of 130.91 Belgian francs. However, he received only one hundred francs, because the monks could not pay more ...

From the start, excise duties were acquired. These amounted in 1856 to 22 francs per brew of white beer and 43 francs for dark beer. Yeast sales were organized, which brought in up to 11 francs per brew. The commercialization of beer really began around 1861: the monks of Westmalle were well aware that Chimay had started commercializing in 1859, and this had been the subject of much thought at Westmalle. There was then a monk in Westmalle, Brother Ignatius Van Ham, a Prussian, who had experience as a brewer and had arrived with a number of his tools.

Around 1860, the sale of Westmalle beer was irregular. The accounts books mention the sale of dark beer for sixty Belgian francs on January 1, 1861. In 1865 Father Van Ham decided to expand the facilities in order to finance the new foundations in the Congo. In 1897, the capacity of the brewery was therefore increased, with the installation of a new 40 hectoliters brewing tank. In 1901, some administrative hassles forced the fathers to regularize and formalize the redevelopment of the brewery. Everything was settled by July 25 of the same year.

La brasserie de Westmalle en construction en 1934
The brewery (2/3)
 
The great war put a brake on the activities of the abbey, which resumed in 1921. The abbey's own needs, along with the economic uncertainty of the time, led Father Tarcisius to make the decision to increase the yield of the brewery. He saw this as the only way to face the challenges that the future posed to the community of Westmalle.
In 1926 and 1929, a man named Hendrik Verlinden came to the aid of the Trappists of Westmalle, who were having difficulty with their Dubbel Bruin and Extra Gersten beers.

Eventually, after disagreements with the abbey, Mr. Verlinden would found his own brewery and launch the famous Witkap Pater beers.

Extensions were made, but it was necessary to build an entirely brewery. This decision was taken on September 2, 1933, when the community, meeting in Chapter, approved the construction of the project. On January 5 of the following year, the construction of the brewery began.

This was when the marketing of Westmalle beer began on a large scale. A stable source of income had now been found by the abbey and would also allow it to carry out its social works. The construction took about a year, during which the old brewery continued to operate. In 1934, the new brewery, up to date, began to produce Trappist beer.

At the same time, in June 1932, Edmont Oms, the prior of the abbey of Westmalle registered the word "Trappistenbier" for the beers of Westmalle. This name registration was carried out again in 1933 by the ASBL Abbaye de Westmalle. On November 19, 1935, Westmalle presented the model of a beer bottle with the letters A and W sanded the neck. A few weeks later, on December 28, they presented the bottle which is still used today.

The following beers were produced: The "Extra," the "Dubbel Bruin" and the "Blond." The "Tripel" was launched in the 1950s to replace the "blond" and would experience the great success that we know. Westmalle Tripel has been referred to as "The Mother of All Tripels."

Etiquette de dépositaire Westmalle
The brewery (3/3)
 
Manufacturing has grown over the years. With a consumption of 400 tonnes of malt in 1934, it now uses at least 3,500 tonnes used to produce nearly 130,000 hectoliters of beer. The brewery has constantly modernized equipment, the manufacturing steps are controlled by computer, and the bottling room offers performance of the highest level.

The brewery employs around forty people, all of them lay people. “When I started working in Westmalle in 1982, there were still monks in the brewery,” reports Jan Adriaenssens, production manager. They phased out as the processes became more complex with automation.”

This withdrawal of the monks undoubtedly also reflects the evolution of the membership of the community: there are only about twenty today. They are represented on the board of directors by two of their members, as well as at the cheese factory, where four of them do all the work. As in Chimay or Orval, two structures have been set up: a cooperative company with limited liability manages the brewery, while the profits are paid to the owner non-profit organization, owned by the community. A simple way to sort things out! (Source: Journal l'Echo, August 06, 2007).