The Beginning – It is the year 1846, and Belgium's Trappist monks are on the move. Achel, a small town in Limburg close to the Dutch border, is to be the new home for twenty-seven monks from Westmalle's abbey. The monks have come to this remote spot because of its suitability for quiet contemplation.
They quickly set to, building workhouses, gate buildings and guest accommodation on this formerly barren heathland. But they are not the first to have come here for spiritual retreat. Long before these monks arrived, there were hermits (or ‘kluizenaars’) living on site.
It was those earlier residents who gave the abbey its name of 'Achelse Kluis'. In fact, it was the hermits' former prayer room that the monks converted into their new church. And just as St. Benedict had decreed, the Achel monks kept themselves busy.
For over a century, the monks practiced a variety of trades: cattle-breeding, baking, joinery, printing, copper beating, cart making and forging iron. That list didn't include brewing, at least initially, as the monks didn't have their own brewery. Instead, they ordered their refectory beer from local brewers. That changed quickly enough, though. They opened their first brewery here in 1852, with the aim of supplying all the abbey’s needs in matters hop and malt.
That was the way it stayed for most of Achel's early history. Only very irregularly did the monks brew for others. In addition to the lighter refectory beer, there was an old brown beer, nicknamed ‘het patersvaatje’ ( or 'the abbot’s barrel’).
The First World War halted production here, just like it did for so many of Belgium's breweries. The invading Germans quickly requisitioned all the brewery's coppers for their war effort. And it was to be a long wait before the yeasty aromas of brewing were to return to Achel.
So it's time to make a great leap forward in our story, to 1976. That was the year that Brouwerij De Kluis, in Hoegaarden, were asked to launch the first Achelse Kluis beer. Somewhat confusingly, the ‘Kluis’ name used for this first beer didn't come from Achelse Kluis itself.
Instead, it's a reference to the area of Hoegaarden where Kluis mainman, brewer Pierre Celis, grew up. This first stab at third-party brewing of Achel's beers was re-monickered to St. Benedict a few years later.
St. Benedict was a well-regarded dark, high-fermentation beer (6.5% ABV) that re-fermented in the bottle. The collaboration with Celis came to an end, however, in 1985, after a fire broke out in his brewery. The St Benedict was succeeded by the Kluyserbier (6.4% ABV), which was brewed up to the early 1990s by another brewer, Sterckens in Meer. This was followed, in turn, by ’t Paterke (6.4% ABV), which was produced until 1995 by De Teut in Neerpelt.
But Achel's brewery merry-go-round was now about to end. Three years after ’t Paterke appeared, Achelse Kluis finally opened up their own brewery in the abbey itself.
Achel thus became the newest member to join the Trappist 'inner circle' of brewers. The late Brother Thomas was appointed as brew-master for the gleaming new brewery, and he set about creating a range of beers fit for this much-storied abbey. Nowadays, the hordes of visiting cyclists and walkers can thank him for the pleasure of a freshly-poured Trappist.
His first creations, the Achel Blond 5 (5% ABV) and the Bruin 5 (5% ABV), are both on tap in the abbey’s tavern. Both these Trappists also have powerful bottled big brothers: the Achel Extra Bruin (9.5% ABV) and the Achel Extra Blond (also 9.5% ABV). Finally there is a tripel-and-dubbel pairing to round out the collection. Let's dig a little into more into the craft that goes into each glass.
The two light 'on tap' Achel 5 beers are fully-malted beers that do not re-ferment. The Achel 5 comes in both Blonde and Brune variants, and is only available on tap in the abbey's tavern. The chilled beer is pumped up from a buffer tank in the tavern, making its way through cooled pipes.
Additionally, there are the stronger blond and dark beers that re-ferment in the bottle: the Achel 8 Blond and Bruin, which come in small 33cl bottles, and the Achel Extras, which are supplied in larger 75cl ones.
The main fermentation process for all Achel beers makes use of a yeast from the Van Steenberghe brewery, while re-fermentation is kicked off with a dry yeast. The water used at Achel is quite soft, and is taken from the general water supply, so no 'spring water' claims here.
The brewer uses a typical mix of pale and dark malts, in addition to Saaz and Styrian Golding aroma hops. These are all put together to make for a fairly intense, and mildly bitter, aroma. One thing that Achel stress is giving their beers all the time that they need to mature fully.
The production process – brewing, main fermentation, maturation, bottling, re-fermentation in the bottle – takes a full two months from start to finish. That said, these are brews best downed fresh. The brewer’s opinion is that the bottle-fermented beers are at their peak just two months after bottling.
And if you need more reason to hasten your quaffing of Achel's ales, remember – as with all Trappist beers – part of the proceeds goto charitable causes. So rest easy knowing that the more you drink, the more good causes are being rewarded.
The somewhat convoluted history of Achel's brewing does beg the question – who actually developed the Achel recipe? The answer is that Achel's beers are something of a collaborative Trappist effort. First of all, there was the late Brother Thomas, from Westmalle, who was followed by Brother Antoine from Rochefort.
Achel is prime example of how knowledge is shared amongst the Trappists confrères. Brother Thomas knew exactly what he wanted, when he started out planning for Achel's brews.
“A tasty thirst-quencher, light but with a great taste; that is what the day trippers are after. A genuine, pure beer without added aromas”. His successor, Brother Antoine, had learned the ins and outs of the trade in Rochefort. There, he spent some twenty years helping to brew the well-known dark Trappist beers of that abbey.
These days, however, it is independent brewer Marc Knops, and assistant brewer Jordi Theeuwen, that are wielding the mashing stick. And Achel continues to co-operate closely with Westmalle’s main abbey, never ceasing in their efforts to improve quality.
That said, the abbey is still forging its own path, even as it maintains that close deliberation with the confrères of the other Trappist abbeys. Every Trappist community is proud to produce its own beers.
Why should they be copycats?
In common with all Trappist abbeys, Achel isn't open to everyday visitors. The brothers insist on peace and silence. However, Achel does offer the advantage of an on-site tavern – one that also provides a direct window onto the to-ing-and-fro-ing's at the Achel brewery. You can literally view the brewer at work behind a glass wall, even as you sup on the fruits of their labour.
The abbey tavern is found in the former stables, which have now been completely renovated, and refurnished as a hostelry. If the weather is fine, there will be dozens of walkers and cyclists flocking here, eager for a seat on the spacious terrace in its interior court. It really is an ideal stop before, during or after a walk or cycle ride.
The tavern's 'on tap' brews have actually been available here for longer than the better-known bottled beers. Since 1998, Achel has been one of the few Trappists to offer a freshly-poured genuine Trappist beer, with its Achel 5's, intentionally easy-going drinks. These light brown or brown beers are intended to quench the thirst of the many walkers and cyclists who visit the abbey.
They also have the cachè of a limited circulation, being only available in the abbey's tavern. Many beer lovers, however, will prefer the abbey's stronger beers – available in both small and large bottles – that are sold in the tavern (and elsewhere).
In addition to its Trappist beers, the tavern's menu includes a choice of patisseries, cheeses, small snacks and hot dishes, such as the abbey soup. From the terrace you can access the food store, the bookstore/gallery and the exhibition room - so you can't deny there's a full Trappist experience to be had when visiting Achel.
Achel sits in a region of quiet rambling countryside, but over the years, agricultural activity has taken a back seat near the abbey. The government has owned the majority of the agricultural land since 1989, and much of the area is now a designated nature reserve.
It forms part of the municipality of Hamont-Achel, a small community of 14,000 in the Kempen region of Flemish Limburg. Behind its present-day prettiness, Achel is a town of past tragedy and sadness, too.
In 1918, two German munitions trains blew up here, in one of the world's worst recorded train accidents. Half the town was blown away and around one thousand people, mainly German soldiers, lost their lives. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that the armistice ending the First World War had only been declared a week earlier.
The abbey of Achelse Kluis lies in the heart of a green belt that includes the Leenderhei and the forests of Hamont-Achel. It has a well-developed cycle route network, and forms part of the area's tourist driving-route. Much is also being done to restore the landscape around Achel. So the Hamont-Achel area is a really great destination for a day out, or a short break.
Its nature is very much unspoilt, its forests and sandy heath-lands giving visitors the experience a genuine Kempen landscape. Walkers will find signposted trails criss-crossing it, with a total length of 140 km.
The Achelse Kluis is also soon to feature prominently in the a new cross-border conservation project. The Transnationaal Landschap De Groote Heide – located partly in Belgium, part in the Netherlands – has been working on this project of rejuvenation. The small Tongelreep River is now again flowing through the Achel area, following the same course as when the monks first arrived.
Between the Kluizerbrug and the thick local forests, this stream is now happily meandering, just as it once did, through this new nature reserve.
A beautiful lane, departing from the abbey gates, will take you there, via the Sint-Benedictuslaan crossroads. The silence quickly descends, just a couple of hundred metres in. From there can choose from a number of walking trails, through a mosaic of landscapes, with forests of pine and leafy trees interwoven with heath-lands and marshes.
Getting There & Around
Whether a cyclist, walker or beer-lover (or all three) you'll need to know where to go and how to get there, on your Achel trip. Hamont-Achel is actually located right on the Belgian-Dutch border, and can be reached by car using the E313 Hasselt-Luik – or the E314 route coming from Genk-Eindhoven-Aken (Aachen).
There are also railway stations in Mol, Neerpelt, Genk, Hasselt, Eindhoven and Maastricht, which will get you quite close to Achel. Getting here by bus is less easy.
Route 18a departs from Neerpelt to Achel-Statie, some three kilometres away. The Dutch Zuid-Oost Brabant bus route 467 is another option from the east, operating a regular service to De Kluis from Achel Statie. The Achelse Kluis area is also very popular with cyclists. In fact, the area is home to a Limburg cycling network that's some 2,000 km in length. The bike network also has many different trails, connected by nodes, where cycle tracks cross each other. The nodes are numbered individually and are clearly indicated by a blue rectangular sign.
Walkers do well too. A 25km walking trail marks the way from Achel to Eindhoven in the Netherlands, should you want to hop across the border. Along its route you will be completely enclosed by the Kempen forests.
Or you could try one of the seven Trappist walking trails (7-11 kilometres long). They are named after the 7 Trappist abbeys dotted around Belgium and the Netherlands. Just like their respective abbey beers, each walk is said to have its own character. Horse riders will also find much to enjoy here. There are over five hundred and fifty bridle paths, usually on unsurfaced trails with a covering of sand. There are dozens of loops, allowing you to pick your own route.
Gastronomy, Food & More Beer
One of the better-known gastronomic delights of the area is the artisanal Catharinadal dairy – a rather prolific local cheese-maker. In total, Catharinadal boasts 43 different types of cheese undergoing maturation, with well over a hundred different types, once you include flavourings.
Ginger, horseradish, nuts, blue-veined cheeses... the list goes on, all of which are, of course, made from fresh unpasteurised milk. The best known cheese here is probably the Grevenbroecker, also known as ‘Achelse Blauwe’.
The dairy is housed in a former nunnery in Hamont-Achel, where Bert and Carine Boonen now run a farm with around 100 dairy cows. They have opted for the Maas-Rijn-Ijssel breed, as the milk from these cows is known to be less bitter than that of the traditional Holstein breed. It has produced cheeses that are certainly well-received. In Lyon in 2009, Catharinadal's ultra-creamy unpasteurised blue cheese was awarded “Best Regional Cheese in the World”.
Catharinadal also produce cheese from sheep and goats milk. Their 'pecorino' (an Italian ewe's milk cheese) is one that really evokes the taste of the sunny south-side of the continent.
But Catharinadal's gastronomic gifts don't stop at cheese. They also produce fresh chocolate milk, freshly-made cottage cheese, rice pudding, ice cream and yoghurt. It all started with the butter produced by Bert’s father. And he is still here today, churning the milk just the way he has always done.
If you get a chance, don't neglect to drop into a bakery in this Kempen region and ask for a Hamonter Teutenkoek. This is prepared from an authentic and ancient recipe. Regional Limburg dishes are not hard to find in the many cafés and restaurants in the area. Coffee here is especially welcome when it's accompanied by a slice of the local treat of Limburgse vlaai. And there's inevitably a surfeit of choice of these at any of the local bakers or cafes.
Tourist information for Hamont-Achel:
Tourist information for Limburg province: