How Strong Was Chimay Beer 139 Years Ago?

Party Like It’s 1877

This 1877 Belgian Journal of Medicine issue, see pg. 65, reported on analytics of beers from Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and the U.K. They were sourced from different towns in Belgium except the foreign beers, from taverns “les plus en vogue” in Brussels. Only one beer, a lambic, is specified as bottled, it appears the rest were draft.

The “bière de l’abbaye de Forges” is from Chimay monastery, of modern Chimay beer fame. The full abbey 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 alcohol in drinks. Modern Chimay Red, Première as it is also known, is 7% – to all intents the same.

The 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 represented the beers selected.

Still, one can see how low in alcohol many 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 discussed in my last post. He gave an original gravity range of 1025-1040, so 2.5%-4.5% abv more or less.

I do not say the 1877 beer tasted “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.

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, similarly for Chimay Red today.

 

Polyptyque_d'Irminon

 

The monks at Scourmont have stayed consistent in this respect from the outset, then. Many things alter over time, but if anything should stay the same in a beer of repute, it is fermentation method, and strength. And they have.*

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

Spelt often entered into Belgian saison of the 19th century, (Traité complet de la fabrication des bières et de la distillation des grains, G. Lacambre), and may have in Chimay’s beer, too. Knowing the 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 is critical if the bière de l’abbaye de Forges was mostly from barley malt, which I believe it was.

The beers of the U.K. then were also top-fermented and of a similar or near-enough strength: good mild and old ale, pale ale, stout, Scotch ale. In this period they were all-malt, except for any which used some sugar, allowed in British brewing since 1847.

Belgian ales today frequently use malt and some sugar. Perhaps Chimay in 1877 was the same, as sugar today is used in the brewing.

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

Note re image: image above, an extract of a Polyptyque of Irminon Abbey, was sourced here (Wikipedia). Used for educational and research purposes. All ownership therein belongs solely to lawful owner, as applicable.  All feedback welcomed.

*[Note added May 28, 2022]. I deleted a few words today that suggested the colour of Chimay in 1877 was similar to today’s Chimay Red, as there is no direct evidence. See my Comment, which dates from 2016, which argues for an inferential case.

2 thoughts on “How Strong Was Chimay Beer 139 Years Ago?”

  1. Chimay beer was not the only reputed Trappist beer of 19th century Belgium. So was Westmalle’s beer, commented on in a way that leaves no doubt. See my earlier posts, starting here.

  2. 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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