Chimay Beer in 1969

Chimay: All-malt or Virtually in 1969*

In 1969, Philippe Mercier, an employee of the Rapidase firm in France, authored an article called “Trappist Beer Production in the Monastery”. It was published in Wallerstein Laboratory Communications. This was a technical publication of Wallerstein Laboratories, an American consultancy.

I previously gave some history on Wallerstein, which serviced the fermentation and food technology sectors. See here. They started about 1900 in New York. Some time in the 1950s or 60s they were acquired by another company. The house journal continued at least to 1969, clearly.

The Mercier article, running some seven pages, is of significant historical value. It has not been previously cited in a consumer beer publication, to my knowledge.

The article is a valuable aid to understanding numerous aspects of Trappist brewing before Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer (1977) and onset of the craft era.

The article first gives a Jacksonesque sketch of Trappist brewing history. It then successively addresses brewing plant, brewing process, maturation, marketing (e.g. “there has been no advertising and the beer is not widely known”), and various analytical data. Some is quite sophisticated, for example, gas chromatographic data is included for bottle head space at different years’ aging.

Tables are included reporting technical data for three breweries, identified as Brewery A, Brewery B, and Brewery C. Such things as IBU, or colour in SRM and EBC measures.

The breweries reported on are clearly Chimay, Rochefort, and Westmalle (indeed respectively so from my analysis) as the article:

… thanks the directors of the breweries of R.P. Trappistes de Chimay, Rochefort and Westmalle for their help and for the data necessary for preparation of this paper.

Also, photographs are included with a legend referring to the three breweries: for example, an exterior view of Westmalle is shown, and a goblet of its beer.

Under “brewing process”, Mercier writes:

There are a number of characteristic features in the brewing of Trappist beer. The grist is usually composed of about 95% amber malt representing an equal mixture of two varieties, both two-rowed, and the monasteries use whatever malt is available. In some cases they grow their own barley and malt it, but in most cases the monks rely on commercial maltsters.

Typical malt analyses are shown in Table 1. A high nitrogen content is preferred as this is associated with high diastatic power. To obtain the characteristic dark hue desired, two varieties of amber malt are used, one considerably darker than the other, together with up to 5% caramel or roast malt. In some cases, a very small amount of glucose syrup may replace some of the caramel malt, usually not more than 1 or 2%. …. When glucose syrup is used it is customarily added at the wort boiling stage.

It is thus evident that the three breweries were essentially all-malt in 1969: the grist was two forms of “amber malt”, up to 5% black malt or caramel malt, and up to 2% glucose. The glucose was probably used to adjust original gravity to the required level, as needed. (The article makes no mention of addition of dextrose or other sugar for priming the bottles, although we would guess this was done then for some or all of the three).

About 20 years ago, a lively discussion commenced in some beer circles concerning the purpose and origins of the “wheat flour” or “wheat starch” used in Chimay’s mashing.

Chimay, starting about 1997, stated on its labels that “starch”, and sugar, were used in addition to barley malt. Today, Chimay labels refer to “barley” and perhaps also “wheat” but to my knowledge starch is not mentioned except, one presumes, where the laws of a country may require it. The website of Chimay today refers to “ground barley” and other “ingredients”, not starch as such from what I can see. A previous version of the website did refer to starch.

So from the late 1990s some beer writers started asking questions about the starch. Many had assumed the beers were all-malt except for use by some breweries of sugar, a longstanding practice by many Belgian breweries. A good summary of the issue, and the brewery’s reactions, is contained in a 2005 article by Roger Protz, which you can read here.

Wheat flour and wheat starch are both malt adjuncts. One contains gluten, one does not. Either way, with up to 5% glucose used in the boil stage, it seems that from the 1990s at least but possibly earlier – post-1969 – Chimay used, and still does,15-20% non-malt for the Red and Blue labels.

Protz’ article refers to another article that suggests there was some kind of process change at Chimay in 1969: perhaps later that year the wheat flour/wheat starch was first used.

Mercier does not mention any use, even occasional, of grain adjunct. To be sure, he states in the quote above, “The grist is usually composed…” (my emphasis). Perhaps Chimay’s practice varied occasionally, or that of Westmalle or Rochefort, to include cereal adjunct before Mercier’s article was written, but I don’t think so.

Mercier worked for Rapidase, a company in France that manufactured industrial enzyme made from plant and other natural sources. The enzyme was marketed to breweries mashing in part with grain adjunct. The product line still exists, owned today by a different company.

Wallerstein had patented various enzyme products and Rapidase commercialized them in France and Belgium. I conclude Mercier was trying to market Rapidase (think “rapid-diastase”) to breweries for use with adjunct mashes, including the Trappist brewers, and became intrigued with the latter.

European two-row barley, at least on some occasions, did not produce sufficient diastase to convert adjunct starches in brewing mashes to fermentable sugar; enter the Wallerstein enzymes, among other products then available to similar end.

Whether any palate change, or a significant one, occurred for Chimay between 1969 and today I cannot say. The situation is complicated by the fact that in the 1990s Chimay adopted fermenters of a different design (cylindro-conicals) than before. Some have speculated that the yeast adapted differently in the new vessels and the taste evolved for that reason, no other.

Certainly the beers of Chimay and other Trappist breweries remain legends in the beer world. No brewery stays still in terms of process; one should not consider the Trappists any different.

Still, it is significant that Chimay, Rochefort, and Westmalle were all-malt in 1969, or virtually all-malt as 1-2% glucose in the kettle could make no practical difference to the sensory result.

I am currently writing a full-length, fully-referenced article on Philippe Mercier’s article for the journal Brewery History, to appear later this year.

For now, I’ll give Mr. Mercier the last word:

A particularly striking feature of Trappist breweries is the curious mixture of the industrial and the religious. One is in an up-to-date brewery and at the same time in the serene and timeless atmosphere of the monastery. … One Trappist brewery has a conveyor belt for handling wooden cases, the modern apparatus contrasting sharply with a very old building where the original beams still support a slate roof. …. All the equipment reflects the wish to adopt any means of producing a beer with all the qualities indispensable in our modern age but at the same time maintaining its traditional organoleptic properties.


*See also my next post, here.

6 thoughts on “Chimay Beer in 1969

  1. I look forward to seeing what you’re writing for Brewery History. I really must get round to writing something on cylindro-conical vessels myself, as I’ve reading up a lot on them recently. One thing about them is they can be much bigger and taller than traditional ale fermenters. This means the yeast is under more hydrostatic pressure, and fermentation is also sped up as the CO2 creates more circulation and helps keep the yeast in suspension. Both these things affect the production of flavour volatiles.

  2. We had 5% abv Heineken both before and after the change. There must have been some palate difference, but I don’t recall anything pronounced. I don’t know if the attenuations perhaps changed in that case.

    For Chimay, the fermenter change is probably a big part of the reaction of some 15-20 years ago to a perceived palate change.

    But this other aspect (adjunct) many apply too especially as we know now that Chimay was all-malt, essentially, as recently as 1969.


    • Thanks Edd. (It’s not available online, or I would have linked to it; as I’m writing something formal on it, I’m going to hang on to it for now). My reading of the last quote I included, to be elaborated on in due course, is that cost pressures on breweries impelled many to adopt adjunct mashes while striving to retain traditional taste characteristics. Whether beers from the three named breweries, especially Chimay’s, have altered in character is something each will have their own view on. To my mind, an all-malt mash vs. one with 15-20% adjunct or more (according to some) should taste fuller and richer even if attenuations are the same, but again, I cannot say. Consider Heineken: about 20 years ago it changed back to all-malt from adjunct. The taste was not greatly different though…


      • Hi Gary,
        I think the Heineken grist make up probably altered around the same time as the UK got the full strength version @ 5% , as opposed to the 3.8% version ( UK brewed).
        Though another thing on yeast strains is the danger of ‘morphing’ from one type to another , as I know that this happened to one supplier’s supposed “Whitbread , Strain B” (ale) changed to a bottom fermenting type , and believe that the use of conical bottomed F.V’s can be a catalyst in this type of change,

Leave a Comment