For a decade the monks of Notre-Dame de Saint-Remy, in Rochefort, south Belgium – one of only 14 abbeys in the world producing Trappist beer – have been fighting with a quarry owner over the purity of the local spring water.
The monks have doggedly claimed that plans by Lhoist, an international company run by one of Belgium’s richest families, to deepen its chalk quarry and redirect the Tridaine spring risked altering the unique taste of their celebrated drink.
Now, thanks to a deed dating back to 1833, it appears that makers and drinkers alike need no longer worry. A court of appeal in Liège has confirmed that while the quarry owner also owns the spring, it does not have the right to “remove or divert all or part of the water which supply the abbey”.
A spokesperson for Lhoist, Jean Marbehant, said the company would study the ruling before deciding whether to make a final appeal to the court of cassation, which only hears cases on procedural grounds. The company has also drawn up a plan B, to excavate in a different direction in order to prolong the life of the quarry to 2040.
The saga began a decade ago when Lhoist announced its plan to deepen the Boverie quarry in Rochefort to extend its life from 2022 to 2046. The site employs about 150 local people.
Such an operation would involve pumping underground water beneath the quarry. The monks, whose abbey bears the motto Curvata resurgo (Bent over, I stand up), said this would impact on the quality of the groundwater that is a crucial ingredient of their beer.
The quarry owner had conducted repeated tests to show that this was not true. But the monks of Rochefort were unconvinced and a David and Goliath battle ensued.
Lhoist is the world’s largest lime, mineral and dolomite producer, with 100 branches in more than 25 countries and 6,400 employees, generating a turnover of more than €1bn.
In contrast, life in the Trappist abbey – which boasts a brewing halls described as the most beautiful in Belgium, akin to a “beer cathedral” – is characterised by prayer, reading and manual labour. The earliest mention of a brewery at the monastery was in 1595, but the current site dates to 1899. The water for the beer is drawn from a well inside the monastery walls.
The renowned quality of the monks’ beer has, however, earned the abbey a significant income. The NV Brasserie des Trappistes de Rochefort has an annual turnover of around €14m. Last year it announced plans for its first new beer in 65 years.
Only beers made by an abbey under the supervision of monks who live in near silence under the rule of Saint Benedict are allowed to be described as Trappist. The Trappist monks face a demographic a threat, however. The Belgian brewery Achel lost its Authentic Trappist Product label this year after the last remaining pair of beer-brewing monks at St Benedict’s Abbey retired without being replaced.