Written by: Clare McCarthy

Once a refuge and cheese-making factory, Brouwerij St. Bernardus has a unique and extensive history that has been influential in shaping its current identity.

Located near the border with France in Watou, Belgium, St. Bernardus Brewery sits among the dark green of rolling hop fields between two Trappist monasteries: the St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, Belgium and Mont des Cats Abbey in France.

Both monasteries have played a strong role in shaping the brewery into what it is today.

“Our brewery was founded in 1946 with just one purpose: to brew and commercialize the beers of the Trappist monks of Westvleteren,” says Marco Passarella, sales and marketing manager for St. Bernardus.

Up until then, though, the brewery had operated as a cheese factory.

In 1904, the Trappist monks fled Mont des Cats Abbey in France and started a refuge seven miles away in Watou called “Refuge de Notre Dame de St. Bernard.” There, they began to make cheese—mainly to pay the bills. According to Passarella, they called the cheese factory “St. Bernard.”

In the early 1930s, France took on a more tolerant attitude towards religious communities, so the monks returned to Mont des Cats. The vacated factory was sold to two brothers who continued to grow the cheese business under the name “Sint Bernardus.”

“After the second world war, the brothers were contacted by the Trappist monastery of Westvleteren, who asked if they wanted to brew and commercialize their beers,” Passarella says. Passarella says the Westvleteren monks wanted to focus more on their original Benedictine motto: “Ora et Labora,” which essentially means “work and pray.”

In 1946, the monks provided St. Bernardus Brewery with a Polish brewmaster named Mathieu Szafranski, who brought his considerable know-how, technical equipment, recipes, and the famed St. Sixtus yeast to the brewery.

“So for many years we brewed for them—under license—their beer,” Passarella says. It was called Trappist Westvleteren, and a little later on, St. Sixtus, after the abbey in Westvleteren.  Originally, the license was only for a 30-year period, but it was extended early in 1962 for another 30 years.

“In 1992, our license came to an end, but we still brew the same beers with the same recipe and most importantly, with the same yeast strain that we used then,” Passarella says, referring to the famed St. Sixtus yeast brought over by Szafranski in the 1940s. But they now do it under a different brand name: St. Bernardus.

Once a refuge and cheese-making factory, Brouwerij St. Bernardus has a unique and extensive history that has been influential in shaping its current identity.

Located near the border with France in Watou, Belgium, St. Bernardus Brewery sits among the dark green of rolling hop fields between two Trappist monasteries: the St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren, Belgium and Mont des Cats Abbey in France.

Both monasteries have played a strong role in shaping the brewery into what it is today.

“Our brewery was founded in 1946 with just one purpose: to brew and commercialize the beers of the Trappist monks of Westvleteren,” says Marco Passarella, sales and marketing manager for St. Bernardus.

Up until then, though, the brewery had operated as a cheese factory.

In 1904, the Trappist monks fled Mont des Cats Abbey in France and started a refuge seven miles away in Watou called “Refuge de Notre Dame de St. Bernard.” There, they began to make cheese—mainly to pay the bills. According to Passarella, they called the cheese factory “St. Bernard.”

In the early 1930s, France took on a more tolerant attitude towards religious communities, so the monks returned to Mont des Cats. The vacated factory was sold to two brothers who continued to grow the cheese business under the name “Sint Bernardus.”

“After the second world war, the brothers were contacted by the Trappist monastery of Westvleteren, who asked if they wanted to brew and commercialize their beers,” Passarella says. Passarella says the Westvleteren monks wanted to focus more on their original Benedictine motto: “Ora et Labora,” which essentially means “work and pray.”

In 1946, the monks provided St. Bernardus Brewery with a Polish brewmaster named Mathieu Szafranski, who brought his considerable know-how, technical equipment, recipes, and the famed St. Sixtus yeast to the brewery.

“So for many years we brewed for them—under license—their beer,” Passarella says. It was called Trappist Westvleteren, and a little later on, St. Sixtus, after the abbey in Westvleteren.  Originally, the license was only for a 30-year period, but it was extended early in 1962 for another 30 years.

The majority of the hops used in St. Bernardus beers come from the brewery’s own hop field, which is right beside the brewery. Passarella says the brewery also pumps its own water from its own well underneath the brewery. “This is very specific water—it’s water that we pump from 450 feet under the brewery,” Passarella says. “It’s pre-industrial water from the days of Joan of Arc.”

Passarella says the one ingredient that distinguishes St. Bernardus beer the most is time. “We give our beer a lot of time to mature—to lager—in our tanks,” Passarella says.

Also, all St. Bernardus beers are bottle conditioned, meaning carbon dioxide is formed after bottling, not added to the beer before. “There’s two ways to saturate your beer: first of all, you can add carbon dioxide to your beer before you fill it,” Passarella says. “But another way is to add a little bit of sugar and a little bit of yeast to your beer and then bottle it. The yeast will eat the sugar and form a little bit of alcohol, but most importantly, it will form carbon dioxide.

The carbon dioxide can’t escape from the bottle, so it will saturate the beer. When you open it, you get a really thick layer of foam, and this just gives a lot of flavors to our beer as well.”

According to Passarella, the brewery’s most popular beer—and the one that sells the most in the United States—is the St. Bernardus Abt 12. It is brewed in the classic quadrupel style and adheres to the original 1946 recipe, with a 10% ABV. “I think people like it because it has a high ABV but it’s very, very drinkable—it’s one of the favorites with many people,” Passarella says. One little-known secret about the beer: for every 1,000 bottles of Abt 12 made, there is one bottle produced with a unique label in which the monk on the front winks at you. Passarella encourages customers to keep an eye out for it.

In Belgium, particularly in the area of the brewery, the beer that sells the most is the St. Bernardus Triple, Passarella says. “Actually, no one in this area calls it St. Bernardus Triple,” Passarella says. “Everybody calls it Bernadette.” This refers to the daughter of the founder of the brewery, Passarella says. Not only was Bernadette the owner of the brewery at one point in time, she used to run the guesthouse next to it. She loved to drink St. Bernardus Triple. “She liked it so much that people started naming the beer after her instead of calling it the Triple,” Passarella says.

Despite the strong ties it holds to its history, the brewery is ever-evolving and adapting to stay relevant in the current market.

“I think our brewery is well aware of the fact that different markets ask for different approaches,” Passarella says. “In the U.S. market, we’ve seen a huge growth [in the selling and distribution] of cans, so our brewery will do its best to come up with some nice cans for the public to find, in addition to the St. Bernardus Wit and the St. Bernardus Tokyo.” St. Bernardus was one of the first breweries in its segment of Belgium to use cans for its beer, and Passarella says people should be on the lookout for more of St. Bernardus beers in cans in the years to come.

For a Belgian brewer, Passarella notes, St. Bernardus is relatively innovative. The brewery revamped and created a new version of their St. Bernardus Tokyo (originally brewed eight years ago for the opening of their pub in Tokyo) for the 2020 Olympics, which was set to take place there last summer. Despite the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the beer sold well, and they hope to sell more once the event takes place.

“We also did an Abt 12 oak-aged beer about five years ago and we’ve experimented with a barrel-aged sour,” Passarella says. “Recently we did an Abt 12 nitro, so kegs of that nitro are coming to America as well.”

Passarella says if you look at Brouwerij St. Bernardus 20 years ago and you look at it today, it’s almost unrecognizable in how much it has changed. “We’ve grown a lot, our output is bigger, our sales have multiplied by six or seven,” Passarella says. Passarella helped design and open a tasting room on the rooftop of the brewery’s new building, with an impressive 360 degree panoramic view of the hop fields surrounding the brewery. What was once the old cheese factory now serves as a remodeled bed and breakfast—or guesthouse, as they call it. In 2018, St. Bernardus also opened a meeting and events location, which holds up to 500 people under normal circumstances.

Of course, the brewery has had to adapt to the Covid-19 pandemic—restaurants and bars still remain closed in Belgium and large events of any kind are not permitted. While keg sales are down, Passarella says his retail sales are up, with an increasing number of people drinking more at home. “People find a way to drink their favorite beer,” Passarella says. “All in all, in many countries, our sales are not that bad.”

Passarella says he wants to show people the direction the brewery is going by trying to make it somewhat of a pilgrimage point. “Back in the day, people went on a pilgrimage to churches and to cathedrals,” Passarella says. “Right now, I think a lot of beer enthusiasts, they come to us for a visit of the brewery, a drink at the rooftop bar, to stay in our bed and breakfast…you can rent an e-bike and visit the area, go to Westvleteren, go to the top of the hill at Mont des Cats. We’re trying to have people see us through different sunglasses…who look at us and say, ‘Hey—this is a young and innovative brewery.”

For a brewery whose identity is so strongly shaped by its history, Brouwerij St. Bernardus continues to expand and adapt to meet this goal. But the best way to see the evolution for yourself: Make the “pilgrimage” to Watou, sip a beer on St. Bernardus’ rooftop, and see how history meets innovation in the beer world.