The Intricacies of Belgium’s Chimay

Produced by the monks at the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Scourmont.

The first thing that springs to mind for many when you hear ‘Belgium’ is beer. It’s amazing how a country so small is known worldwide for its beer and variety of styles. ‘Trappist’ beers are one of the best-known types within Belgium. Made at Abbeys, the word ‘Trappist’ originates not with the style, but with the order in which the monks within these Abbeys belong.

A Trappist is a member of a branch of the Cistercian order of Christian monks, which originated at La Trappe in France in 1664. During the French Revolution, Trappist monks had to leave France and many went to Belgium.

Trappists live according to the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia, a rule that offers guidelines for organising the daily life of the Abbey, even still today. The monks dedicate their life to serving God and split their time between work, prayer and study.

As Trappist tradition dictates, the monks must live from their own work, and this is where the brewing comes in to play. For beer (and cheese), the label of ‘Trappist’ means they are brewed (or made) inside a Trappist monastery under the supervision of the monks, and a large amount of the profits are redistributed to those in need.

One of the handful of Trappist Breweries in the world (most are in Belgium and the rest are in Holland) is called Chimay, which you may already know for its Trappist beers.

Chimay History

Chimay is based at the Abbey of Notre Dame de Scourmont in Belgium, just a little to the North of the French border in the forest of Mont du Secours. As well as brewing, monks and monasteries are known for making and washing cheese. At Chimay, they make both beer and cheese, creating a beautiful link between the two.

In 1850 the Prince of Chimay asked for a group of monks from Saint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren to establish themselves on the high Scourmont Plateau next to the town of Chimay in order to make something of the land there.

They worked hard to transform the unworked soil into fertile agricultural land and, in 1862, they brewed their first beer, which was then known as ‘La Premiere’ and is now called ‘Chimay Rouge’.

Cheese Connoisseur Chimay cheese has a stringent quality checklist to ensure it is made to exact specifications.

In 1857 a dairy plant was created, with butter being made and consumed by members of the order. In 1876, their very own Brother Benedict headed to France to learn how to make semi-soft cheeses, and the monks started their cheesemaking. World War II halted operations, however, miraculously everything was untouched, and they restarted brewing again shortly after. In 1975, they moved the dairy out of the brewery to create a separate operation and to focus better on both.

The Philosophy of Chimay

There are around 11 monks now at Chimay. They no longer take part in the production, but serve more as a Board of Directors. All decisions go through the monks, and they still have their weekly tasting of the products.

Their philosophy, however, continues. Everyone there works a strict 40-hour workweek. They are incredibly dedicated to the idea that you are meant to work for a certain part of the day, then study, pray and relax for the rest. They want everyone to have this same balance in life, and this philosophy is crucial for them. In the same likeness, they are conscious of the environment and focused on sustainability and reducing their carbon footprint. One example of this is that a third of the energy used within the brewery and dairy comes from their own solar panels. All profits from these businesses either go back into the monastery, allowing the monks to do charity work through the monastery itself, or through other charitable outlets. They are the largest employer of the region, and they are still growing their number of employees. At the end of this year and into the next, the monks are starting a new project. Previously, there was a farm between the monastery and what is now a restaurant. The farm is being recreated to provide jobs for people with physical disabilities. The workers will be able to both work and live there.

The Milk and Cheesemaking

Chimay has its own co-operative for milk collection consisting of around 250 farms from which milk is collected to make the cheeses. All these farms are within about an 18-mile radius of the dairy. They are not all certified organic; however, they use the least intensive farming possible.

No pesticides are used on the farms or in the neighboring land, as the monks are dedicated to protecting the environment and their water source—the main ingredient for their brewing and a huge factor in the cheese production.

The winter feed for the cows is also grown within the area. The herd size of the dairy farms vary between 15 and 200 cows and are a mixture (depending on each farm) of Jersey, Blanc-Bleu Belge and Holstein.

At Chimay, cheeses are produced two to five days out of the week, and on any one of those days, they can complete up to seven makes. About 1,200 tons of Chimay cheese is produced annually.

When the milk arrives fresh in the morning, it is immediately checked to ensure that it meets the specs given to every single farm.

Tank samples are taken and analyzed in the laboratory. The checks ensure there are no pathogens nor antibiotics present in the milk, which will only be transformed into Chimay cheeses if all quality checks are passed.

The milk is then pasteurized, skimmed and homogenised to 30 percent fat. The curds are then washed with a mixture of water and whey, which gives its characteristic, springy Tomme-like texture.

Once the cheeses are made, they are turned out and placed onto racks, then plunged into brine baths.

Here, they remain for two to 48 hours, depending on the type and size. Certain cheeses are then washed using the Chimay beer to give it an extra depth of flavor. The others are just brine washed.

The cheeses are finally taken into one of seven different maturing cellars to complete the process, depending on their style.

Chimay Cheeses

Chimay makes a variety of cheeses all year round as well as some seasonal specialities. The cheeses, available through Elizabeth, NJ-based Atalanta Corp. are:

• Chimay Classic – a semi-soft, washed rind cheese aged for 21 days with a grassy profile and buttery finish

• Chimay a la Premiere – aged for four weeks. This is a semi-soft cheese washed with Chimay beer and contains hop extract within the paste. On the nose, there are hints of stone fruit, as well as a fruity paste and a hint of bitterness from the hops themselves.

• Grand Chimay – aged for over 60 days. This uses a different set of cultures, giving it a flavor profile with more complexity, like a raw milk cheese. Grand Chimay is named due to its intense Trappist character from an ale-washed rind, while at the same time retaining a creamy freshness and florality.

• Chimay Vieux – aged six months and a happy accident launched in 1989. As with many cheese recipes, this was unintentional. After 100 years into Chimay’s Trappist cheesemaking history, the monks of Scourmont Abbey in Belgium started developing new recipes.

During the maturing stage, some of these new, ‘experimental’ cheeses were forgotten for many months. When they were found, these mature cheeses proved to be a very delicious mistake. Vieux Chimay is dome shaped, and houses a beautiful creamy orange interior. It has a long, fruity flavor, caramel notes and a smooth finish. This cheese has the smallest production, as it can only be produced in the spring and summer months when the cows are grazing at pasture.

• Poteaupré – aged for 120 days, this cheese was only launched in 2007. It is housed in its own wooden box and is a softer, more creamy cheese with spicy aromatics and a smooth finish.

Atalanta is currently in the process of launching Chimay loaves, which are the made with the same recipe as the Classic and La Premiere, but in a larger format, ideal for foodservice.

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