Maredsous is the name given to both the abbey beer and the Benedictine abbey, found near Denée, between Namur and Dinant. Maredsous Abbey was founded in 1872, and was one of the first Belgian abbeys to re-establish its links with the country’s rich monastic past, after the destruction of the French Revolution (1789-1799).
Today, thirty-two monks live, pray and work in this pastoral location. They follow the Rule of St. Benedict – ‘ora et labora’ (pray and work) - a tradition that goes back to the year 529AD.
Unlike the Trappists though, this abbey no longer has a brewery within its walls: since 1963 the Maredsous abbey beers have been brewed, under licence, by Duvel Moortgat.
But while the monks may not be involved in the day-to-day brewing, the beers do still have an authentic abbey connection. The recipe comes from those of the original Benedictine beers, passed down over the centuries.
And current Abbot, Bernard Lorent, doesn't neglect to keep an eye on all matters of hop, yeast and malt. The reason for its relatively 'hands-off' approach to brewing lies with the abbey's strict interpretation of the Benedictine way-of-life. These are monks who have made a considered choice for a life of study and education.
Their lives are dedicated to prayer, work and hospitality. Not that the abbey wants to set itself apart from society. Far from it, in fact. Instead this small religious community has, for many years, established a way of life that's in tune with the needs of wider society.
A number of monks are involved in teaching; others are to be found working in the library; some are active in various fields of research, or have dedicated themselves to the ‘Centre Informatique et Bible’ – an IT and Bible study centre.
The monks are also employed in the abbey's art workshops, as well as in the cheese dairy. And of course, there are those responsible for the administration and functioning of the abbey. But whatever their task, they are sure to give visitors a heart-felt welcome. That's because, at Maredsous, hospitality is paramount. It's the Benedictine way.
Like many abbey beers, Maredsous is keen to stress its authentic pedigree, while still clinging tightly to the secrets of its brewing process. The monk credited with developing the current incarnations, bearing the Maredsous mark, is Father Atout. His written recipe has been carefully preserved in the abbey library. It's safe to say, though, that this is one item that isn't available for loan to visitors. Right up to the present day, Maredsous beers are brewed following, not only the original Benedictine recipe, but also the Benedictine philosophy. As a result, a large proportion of the profits made from the beer sales flows back to charity.
That can only add to the pleasure to be had, when tasting the results of this rich Benedictine brewing tradition – made real today in the shape of the three-some of the Maredsous Blond, Bruin and Tripel.
Apparently, all three 'abbeys' follow the same brewing process, using identical abbey-specific yeast strains and hop varieties. All three also re-ferment in the bottle. As a result they share a similar, distinctive character, acquired through the use of that special abbey yeast – and from their Saaz-Saaz and Styrian Golding aromatic hops.
The result is a trio of beers that are well-fermented, rather dry and fruity, with a full-mouth feel. There is a subtle difference between them, though, teased out by varying the mix, as well as by a progressive climb in the alcohol content. Each also has its own place in the monks' lives, and the monastery's history.
The Maredsous Blond (ABV 6.0%) is perhaps the most accessible of the three, and is also the monks’ traditional thirst-quencher. Zesty, dry and mildly mannered, it's a great everyday beer, for both session and table. The Maredsous Bruin (ABV 8.0%), by contrast, was originally intended to be a Christmas-only beer. But it has grown into a classic taster, readily enjoyed all the year around.
It is most notable for its powerful taste of roast malt. The malt used here has been roasted to high temperatures, resulting in a darkly-lustered beer. It also makes for a completely different taste to the other stable-mate dark brews found in the Duvel Moortgat range.
That's because, unlike for example the Mc Chouffe, the Maredsous Bruin hasn't been darkened with candy sugar. So this is an abbey beer with a somewhat surprising taste, evoking bitter, bready flavours, without being too heavy – though the alcohol does definitely come through in the taste.
Its bitterness comes with a nutty character, in combination with the roast taste of malt. A drink for real connoisseurs. The Maredsous Tripel (ABV 10.0%) is now the Maredsous beer that's the preferred – and perfect – choice for special occasions. Out of the three, it has the fullest body, though not the richest colour. This tripel has a light amber colouration, married to a very intense aroma and taste. It shares the fruity esters of the yeast used with the other two brews, plus a hint of caramel.
It makes for a complex, rich degustation beer. Put them together, and, from the parent brewer's point of view, the whole Maredsous set makes for a distinctive line amongst Duvel's wider offerings.
Hedwig Neven, Head Brewer at Duvel Moortgat, tells me that he feels Maredous enriches the range – furnishing beers that are in a different class to Duvel or Vedett, for example. One such difference is in the aging profile of the Maredsous Bruin.
“Can you store the Maredsous Bruin in your cellar, to let it mature”, I ask. While Hedwig prefers fresh, young beer, he agrees that laying down will not harm a Maredsous Bruin, quite the contrary. It is a fact that such dark beers age more slowly than blond ones, and in storage they will develop touches of port. However, a Maredsous Blond should not be stored too long. Keep an eye on the ‘best before’ date, is Hedwig Neven’s advice.
The abbey itself is an impressive structure, built in the neo-gothic style, and towering over the Molignée valley. Its buildings are emanate a strong sense of spirituality, a calm which is quietly infectious. Here you can relax and enjoy the beautiful abbey gardens, soak up their tranquil atmosphere, and admire the natural splendour of the abbey's setting.
There's plenty else to occupy you, if you're happy to stay on-site; you can visit the church, the monastery and the long-established school of creative arts. Tours can also be arranged at the Saint-Joseph visitors’ centre.
This is the first point of contact to obtain leaflets or further information on the region, the abbey, where to stay, or local church services. The guided tour takes about an hour, and is followed by a beer and cheese tasting in a de-consecrated chapel, which has retained its original fittings and furniture.
Here, you will learn more about the beer, the cheeses and the traditions of the abbey. All Maredsous products can be purchased from the visitors’ centre and come in their own original gift wrapping. What may come as a surprise is that Maredsous is also a major centre of knowledge. The Bible Centre was set up in 1872, and has been housed in a separate building since 1947.
It contains around four hundred thousand books and magazines, manuscripts, rare coins and medals. The overriding theme? No prizes for guessing: Bible studies, theology, liturgy, religious law, the history of churches and monasteries.
Or more succinctly: the study of religion. Greek, Latin and French literature are well-represented. The sole remaining book by Erasmus, ‘La Lettre de Jacques’, is lovingly preserved here. A further education college is also connected with the abbey: the College of Saint Benedict was founded in 1881. Moreover, the Benedictines’ cultural activity includes publications such as the ‘Lettre de Maredsous’, ‘Revue Bénédictine’ and the many exhibitions held in the Centre Grégoire Fournier. This building houses the scientific collections of Father Grégoire Fournier (1863-1931).
Lovers of architecture will find much to enjoy here. The abbey complex, built in a neo-gothic style, was the life’s work of Jean-Baptiste Béthune, a self-taught architect (in other words, an autodidact ). Maredsous embodies the 19th-century vision of the Middle Ages. Béthune wanted to revive the Gothic style (13th – 15th century), considering it the most outstanding symbol of medieval Christianity.
The floor plan of the abbey is based on that of the 13th-century Cistercian abbey of Villers-la-Ville, in Walloon Brabant. Béthune managed to realise his dreams in just twenty years. He drew up the plans and designed the frescos, as well as the leaded glass windows, statues and furniture.
However, there was one important element of interior decor that passed him by: the frescos inside the church. The German abbey of Beuron, which oversaw the Maredsous abbey, entrusted this important task to Didier Lenz, a fellow German. And so a Germanic neo-Roman style (which was also influenced by ancient Egypt) was introduced into this otherwise French-infused Abbey.
Maredsous is an abbey is surrounded by a sea of green. Meadows and woodland dot the landscape of the picturesque Molignée Valley, and a number of walks and cycle tours departing from the Saint-Joseph visitors’ centre.
The nearby artisans’ village of Maredret is 'nostalgia incorporated', with its old church and abbey barn. The ruins of the medieval fortress of Montaigle and the proud fortified farm of Falaën can also be found in this valley.
Maredsous is located in the valley of the Molignée, a tributary of the river Meuse. Not far off is the fortress of Montaigle, constructed around 1309, but stripped down completely at the start of the 19th century. This fortification was built on a 160m rocky outcrop, at the confluence of the Flavion and Molignée rivers.
Falaën is known as one of the most beautiful villages in Wallonia. Its imposing 17th-century fortified farm is still in use. The giant brick-built farmhouse, constructed according to a square plan, is protected by solid walls, guard towers and a drawbridge. At the centre of the court you will find the stocks.
This building also houses the Musée des Confréries Gastronomiques. The Confréries (or 'broederschap') are an organised brotherhood of locals, concerned with promoting the traditional regional cuisine. That includes the notable peket gin, beers, cheeses, sweetmeats of Namur. But they also focus on recording and preserving the history of the region, its culture and economics.
The nearby Meuse town of Dinant is a place of picture-postcard perfectness. Almost exactly in the centre of this small city you'll find the imposing collegiate church of Notre Dame. Perched high up on the rocks, its citadel is a sentinel fashioned out of stone, keeping watch over both city and river.
Travelling on the upper Meuse from Dinant, in the direction of Givet, you will gain a fascinating insight into the course of local history. In the area surrounding Dinant you will find the ruins of two medieval fortresses: Poilvache and Bouvignes. Further on, towards France, you will come across the glittering ‘Versailles on the Meuse’, Freÿr Castle. And finally, not to be missed is a visit to the splendid gardens and water features of Annevoie.
Getting There & Around
The abbey is located midway between Namur (Namen) and Dinant in the community of Denée, 90km from Brussels. If you're travelling by car, take the E411 Brussels-Luxembourg motorway, and leave at exit 14. By train, travel to Namur and then take bus 21 to Maredsous.
A top-tip: try using the ‘railbike’ from the old Falaën railway station, and follow the ancient tracks towards Maredsous. You'll find yourself travelling through this verdant oasis at a pleasingly leisurely pace. Then, all of a sudden, you will spot two towers rising above the forest – you have arrived at the abbey!
The Anhée – Aisemont cycle route (36 km) follows the old 150A railway track, leading to Maredret railway station (now taken out of service) and traverses the Molignée valley. This is an ideal way to get to know the region’s attractions, and take some exercise at the same time.
You can also mix walking and ‘railbiking’, as the paths and bike trails follow the same route between Warnant and Maredsous. There are six signposted walks around the abbey and in the Molignée valley. Distances vary between 4.5km and 12km. Route maps are available from the abbey’s visitor centre, where you can also buy more detailed, topographical maps.
Gastronomy, Food & More Beer
Just like the beer, the Maredsous cheese originates from the abbey. Father Atout was the man behind much of Maredous's gastronomic fame. He wrote up the recipe for the abbey beers, was in charge of the bread-baking, and is credited with developing the Maredsous cheese, in the abbey’s cellars.
These recipes are still kept within the abbey. Abbot Bernard Lorent and the monks safeguard them, and keep the cheese-making tradition alive. The Maredsous abbey cheeses follow a unique, traditional maturation process, one that has remained unchanged throughout centuries.
There are several factors that contribute to the Maredous flavour. First, the milk is collected daily from regional farms that have gained a quality mark. Then there are the Maredous cellars. The temperature here averages 12°C, with a humidity of 95%. That's perfect for the microbiotic flora that gives the cheese its colour, its characteristic smell and its creamy texture and taste.
But the maturation process itself, which is all done by hand, also plays its part. The cheese-master is a man dedicated to maturing of the cheese, with regular ‘washing’, or sponging the crust, using mineral water sourced from 90m below the Maredsous cellars. It's a job perfectly suited to those living a peaceful life within the abbey walls. And perfectly suited to producing a cheese fit for gourmets.
Tourist information for Dinant town:
Avenue Cadoux 8
Tel: +32(0)82/22 90 38
Tourist information for Namen (Namur) province:
Toerisme Provincie Namen
Avenue Reine Astrid 22
Tel: +32(0)81/77 67 57