How Strong Was Chimay Beer 139 Years Ago?

Let’s Party Like It Was 1877


This 1877 Belgian Journal of Medicine issue, see pg. 66, reported on the analytics of beers from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and the U.K. They were sourced from different towns in Belgium except the foreign beers, which were from taverns “les plus en vogue” in Brussels. Only one beer, a lambic, is specified as bottled, so it appears the rest were draft.

The “bière de l’abbaye de Forges” is from the Chimay monastery, yes, the same Chimay we know and admire today. Its full name is Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmont. It was built in 1850 on the Scourmont plateau at Forges, a hamlet now in the municipality of Chimay.

Chimay beer, in 1877, was 7.2%, which I read as alcohol by volume. Modern Chimay Red or Première as it is also known – the first – is 7% – to all intents, the same.

horloge-biere-chimayThe closest beers in alcohol were a Scotch ale, at 7.1% – basically the same – and an English Burton ale, at 5.9%, a point under.

The other beers listed from Belgium, and Luxembourg, were much weaker, about half of the strength of Chimay. The British beers appear pretty much what one would expect, some a tad under perhaps but the account states the figures are not averages, but simply represent the samples selected.

Still, one can see how low in alcohol the typical Belgian and Luxembourg beers were compared to today’s lager norm which, there and many other places, is 5% abv.

The low figures are consistent fully with what George Johnson reported in 1895 as I said in my last post. He gave an original gravity range of 1025-1040, or 2.5%-4.5% abv more or less.

I do not say 1877’s beer is “the same” as Chimay Red of today. The yeast in the current beer was isolated by Father Théodore in the late 1940s, for one thing. But the strength is the same, and the colour.

Certainly Chimay Trappist ale stood out as very strong among Belgian beers of its day. It may not have been what the fathers drank day-to-day, but it was the strength as sold in the market, the same as the Chimay Red you can buy from the LCBO.

Polyptyque_d'IrminonThe monks have stayed consistent in this respect to what they made from the outset, for colour as well. Many things alter over time, but if anything should stay the same in a beer of repute, it is colour (which influences taste), fermentation method, and strength. And they have.

As to what grains were used in Chimay beer of 1877, I cannot say. In abbey brewing in a much earlier period, c.1000, inventories (Polyptyques) of abbey estates suggested a range of grains were used: malt of barley and spelt, sometimes oats, and wheat.

Spelt often entered into Belgian saison of the 19th century, so it may have in Chimay’s beer, too. Knowing what grains Chimay raised or malted in this period might help to answer this question. Early records of the Melleray Abbey, which I discussed in my last post, might assist in this question. Important as the grains are, I don’t think the cereals composition was critical if the bière de l’abbaye de Forges was made mostly from barley malt, and I believe it was.

The best beers of the U.K. then were also top-fermented and of a similar strength: good mild and old ale, Burton, stout, Scotch ale. Not all were brown, but many were. Of course, in this period they were all-malt, except for any which used some sugar, allowed in British brewing since about 1845. One may reflect that fine Belgian ales today frequently use malt + sugar. Perhaps Chimay in 1877 was the same, as today sugar is part of the mash.

Taken with what I discussed in my previous post, the strength of Chimay in 1877 is consistent with an English connection, at least.

Note on images: the images above, of a castle in Chimay, Belgium, an advertising item for Chimay beer, and an extract of a Polyptyque of Irminon Abbey, were sourced here (a premier Belgian beer tourism site), here (a site offering branded Chimay items), and here (Wikipedia). All images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

1 thought on “How Strong Was Chimay Beer 139 Years Ago?

  1. Note: In an earlier draft of the above, I suggested that Chimay introduced its c.7% brown beer after making first a sweeter, lighter beer. Not so, the account I was referring to in fact was a reference to the estimable Westmalle and the origins of its beers. That account is this one: Thus, was Chimay sampled by the researchers in 1877 a dark beer? I think it had to be. If Westmalle’s second, more permanent beer was, I would think Chimay’s was, too. Also, there is evidence, discussed in my current posts, that other reputed Trappist beers were brown, e.g., that of Dieulouard in Lorraine, France. Given Chimay is 7% abv today and a light-coloured version, the Blanche or Chimay White, was introduced relatively recently (well after WW II), I’d think Chimay of 7.2% abv in 1877 was a brown beer. It is inferential, yes.


Comments are closed.