To Brussels with Affligem: What Can We Learn from Belgian Beer?
For one reason or another, British drinking habits just don’t seem to align with those on the continent. You’ve all had someone from France or Netherlands roll their eyes at you downing a pint of bitter – whether they’re an acquaintance or not. Rather than trying to fit in two pints before closing time, many in mainland Europe prefer smaller, more flavourful and usually stronger brews which come with the perfect amount of head. (Three fingers, if you’re asking.) So to build bridges, we headed to Brussels with Belgium’s oldest ‘abbey beer’ brewer, Affligem, to see what we could learn about beer from the Belgians.
Abbey Beers in Belgium
Ignoring the obscenely early start at St Pancras International, our trip in Belgium began at the place where ‘abbey beer’ itself began, Affligem Abbey (pronounced ‘aff-le-hem’). If you’re not familiar with the abbey beer concept, it’s exactly as it sounds; Beers that originated or are still currently brewed at non-Trappist monasteries – usually Benedictine, as was Affligem. It was simply a way for monasteries to earn a living to upkeep their places of worship. Though, of course, they did enjoy a tipple too.
There’s no set rules to abbey beers and the styles do range from monastery to monastery, but they are usually brown ales (dubbels), strong pale ales (tripels), or blondes. And though we’re assured 6.8% ABV is fairly easy going, for us philistines in the UK, we’d say they’re generally pretty strong too. This is Belgium after all.
So before we talk beer, first it’s time for a history lesson. Founded somewhere around 1062, Affligem Abbey brewed its first beer in 1074 and thus lays claim to being the oldest of its kind in the country. There’s also plenty of famous figures who have a connection to the Abbey such as GSCE History’s Henry VIII, Tottenham’s Jan Vertonghen and even the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton. But we digress…
The Abbey has been through plenty of changes over the years, mainly thanks to wars and military takeovers, and brewing has been put on hold throughout Affligem’s fascinating history. Nowadays the Abbey is a fully functioning place of worship for resident nine monks and beer is brewed off-site in nearby Opwijk.
After a quick tour from Affligem Abbey expert and all-round lovely man Ben – including looking through the Abbey Library and a book from 1544 which records some of the earliest forms of hop harvesting and beer making – we then sat down for prayers with the fathers. After thirty minutes of chanting in Dutch, we headed to the great hall where we had lunch with the monks in complete silence. It was a surreal experience but not an uncomfortable one. Beer and salmon was served with a backdrop of recorded chanting filling the room. Monks do eat chocolate mousse for dessert in case you were wondering…
Finally, we then sat down with one of the monks for a quick chat. At 93 years old, Father Paul has been living at Affligem Abbey for an unimaginable 75 years. With only 10 days ‘holiday’ a year, the Abbey is all-encompassing with prayers filling most of the day. We won’t confess to know nearly enough about Benedictine traditions but it was a genuine privilege to spend some time with the Fathers of Affligem who must find the idea of five British bloggers in search of strong beer more than confusing.
Now it was time to taste some beers at the Affligem brewery. Though beers were originally brewed on site at the Abbey, they have since been licensed to the Op-Ale brewery in Opwijk under the Affligem Abbey name. It’s since been taken over by Heineken, so unfortunately there are no monks in black robes sterilising copper kettles here but all beers and branding ideas are signed off the Abbey to ensure the name isn’t used in vain. Affligem is now available all over the world with the biggest markets being in Belgium, France and Netherlands.
We were taken around the site by Brewery Manager, Wouter Hollevoet, and while we’re not going to go into the mechanics of brewing – chances are you know the score by now – what we will say is that Affligem’s story is something the brewery is clearly very proud of. As they should be. There’s undoubtedly a place for crafts in the beer market, but a product with a genuine story should always be cherished. Affligem comes with 1,000 years-worth of brewing expertise and profits are used by the monks to maintain their under-threat way of life. As for the beers? They’re superb.
Affligem Beer Range
Affligem’s core range consists of a crisp 6.8% Blonde, a rich 6.8% Double and a malty 9% Triple, which are all characterised by the Affligem yeast added during the fermentation process. To get to know them ever better, we were whisked away to a tasting dinner at Pré de Chez Nous in the centre of Brussels, hosted by famous Belgian beer sommelier, Sofie Vanrafelghem.
Sofie paired two different dishes with each of Affligem’s beers to illustrate their soft fruitiness and balanced bitterness, and to also demonstrate that wine isn’t the only drink menu we should be looking for at a restaurant. Of course, we all know just how well meat can go with beers, but the biggest surprise for us was just how well balanced a pairing of beer and seafood can be. Our smooth and almost tropical Affligem Blonde was the perfect accompaniment for salmon & cabbage, while our slightly bitter and citrusy Affligem Triple was the ideal partner for some sweet prawns with tomato.
What Can Brits Learn from Belgian Beers?
We may have only had less than 24 hours in the country but we certainly feel like we came back from Belgian better Joes. Not only can we say we enjoyed a beer with some Benedictine monks – something we will be dining out on for years – we also witnessed dedication and commitment to a cause we can only dream of. But we did also learn a thing or two about beer too.
It’s easy to get swept up in the Affligem story, but our weekend was much more than just quality beer. It was about drinking culture as a whole. While we highly doubt it’s the end of sessions at the local, we do think we’ll be far more adventurous about our choices in future – at the pub and at the restaurant. For that, we thank you Affligem.