Trappist beer lovers, be aware: There may be a water problem brewing for the famed trappist abbey Rochefort.
In the latest edition of Belgium's De Standaard newspaper, Editor Dries Van De Smet describes the situation that is unfolding in the small Belgian town of the same name.
Lhoist, a mining company that "devote[s] all [its] talents and efforts to ensuring continued expansion," is reaching the dig limit of its Rochefort-area limestone mine. In operation since 1956, the mine is slowly coming up to a 60-meter dig limit set forth in the original mining permit. Below that level is the water table. If the company cannot dig deeper, it says it will have to cease operations there in ten years. But if it can stay and gather up more of that precious limestone, the company could stay in business in the area until 2045 and save 103 jobs in the process.
Abbey monks at the nearby Abbey of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy, makers of Rochefort 6, 8, and 10, fear that this expansion will dry up their water and affect the quality of the water supplied, and they worry about the effect that will have on their beer.
Water can be an often-overlooked quality of beer. Hops and malt generally receive the lion's share of acclaim, with yeast coming in a close second. But water can have drastic effects on the flavor profile of a beer. Pilsners benefit from a softness to its water, as traditional sources of water in the Czech regions where the style originated had soft water. Traditional British beers from the Midlands had dissolved gypsum that allowed a higher amounts of hops (and therefore its preservative properties) to be used -- which made Burton a major exporter of beer in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Most modern breweries will "zero-out" their water, using techniques like reverse osmosis to neutralize any flavors and chemicals, and then add in minerals as needed, building up the water profile from scratch. This is what local brewers like Funky Buddha do.
But the trappists are traditionalists. As a religious order, their first and foremost concern is to their duties to God, and they prefer to produce basic goods such as cheese, bread, and beer to generate enough income to support their monasteries. The Rochefort Brewery, in particular, uses large copper brew pots and follows old recipes that have spanned many centuries.
As for the water problem, the Lhoist company has offered to build new wells for the brewery should the water be affected. Will this change the flavors of some of the most sought-after beer in the world? Any change of this magnitude would indeed make itself known, but to what extent, only time will tell; and time is what we fortunately have. As this problem won't come to a head for another few years, it's no time to start hoarding... but maybe time to book that trip to Belgium you've always wanted!
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