How Strong Was Chimay Beer 139 Years Ago?

Let’s Party Like It Was 1877

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This 1877 Belgian Journal of Medicine issue, see pg. 65, 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 Chimay monastery, yes, the same Chimay beer we know and admire today. The 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, is stated to be “7.2%”, almost surely alcohol by volume, the typical way the French measured it in drinks. Modern Chimay Red, or Première as it is also known, is 7% – to all intents the same.

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

The other beers 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 the norm perhaps. The account states the figures are not averages of a large sample but simply represent the beers selected.

Still, one can see how low in alcohol the typical Belgian and Luxembourg beers were compared even to today’s lager norm of 5% abv.

These low figures are consistent with what brewer and writer George Johnson reported in 1895 as I stated 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 the 1877 beer is in taste “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 strong among Belgian beers of its day. It may not have been what the fathers drank day-to-day, but it was the strength sold in the market, the same as Chimay Red today.

Polyptyque_d'IrminonThe monks at Scourmont have stayed consistent in this respect 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 can influence taste), fermentation method, and strength. And they have.

As to what grains were used in Chimay in 1877, I cannot say. In abbey brewing in a much earlier period, c.1000, inventories (Polyptyques) of abbey estates suggested a range was used: malts 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 as well. 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: https://belgianbeerjournal.com/brewviews/chimay30yeartribute/ 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.

    Gary

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