It was the monks before the punks

From the Brand Historian’s Timeline: 1240

Long before the punks arrived, it was monks who created all the best brand narratives in beer, and in the whole of tonsured Christendom, the best brewsters were found in Belgium. One Order, in particular, has made its mark on the world of beers brewed in Abbeys, and Saint Norbert of Xanten founded it in 1120. His followers were called Premonstratensians – which is not the easiest of names to get your mouth around, especially when giving a vote of thanks for an evening spent sampling their famous, if somewhat austere hospitality. 

Whilst monks had been brewing for years, something encouraged by the Rule of St. Benedict, Saint Norbert’s White Canons made their first brew at the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Leffe in 1240, and thus can claim with some justification, to be one of the world’s oldest brands.

The Abbey of Notre-Dame de Leffe is situated at Dinant, at the confluence of the Leffe and Meuse rivers, in the southeastern part of modern Belgium, but which at the time was a patchwork of feudal fiefdoms, on the fragile marches of Holy Roman Empire. Given its strategic position, life was always going to be difficult for Leffe and its white monks. In its long history, they would dodge Valois and Hapsburg, Bourbon and Bonaparte but fail to hide the brewing coppers when the Germans arrived on two occasions in the twentieth century. But somehow the reputation of the beer of the White Canons survived and flourished so that in the 1980s and with a bit of help from Interbrew, Leffe became an international power brand: its colour-coded twins, Leffe Blonde and Leffe Brune, sitting alongside its flagship, Leffe Tripel – a magnificent bottled-conditioned, fruity golden beer that perhaps best embodies the Norbertine brewing tradition.

Leffe is no longer brewed today in Dinant. Production was moved to the Stella Artois brewery in Leuven, but the Order apparently still receives royalty cheques for the use of the Leffe story from Anheuser-Busch, who acquired Interbrew in 2008.

Apart from its beers, Dinant is also famous for being the birthplace of Adolphe Saxe, who, despite several life-threatening mishaps in his youth, survived to patent the saxophone in 1846. A pretty brilliant piece of cross-category marketing innovation, the saxophone is a woodwind instrument that sounds as if it belongs to the brass family. Today, it provides the perfect soundscape for a night out in Dinant, perhaps ending at Le Café Ardennais with at least one double Tripel. 

Bene+dic, Domine, creaturam istam cerevisae….

A Playlist for a Leffe session:

1240 Gregorian Chant

1910 Rapsodie for Orchestra and Saxophone Claude Debussy

1959 5 by Monk by 5 Thelonious Monk (Piano) Charlie Rouse (Saxophone)

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