Manure threatens Belgium's most famous beer

Wednesday, March 20, 2002

ROCHEFORT, Belgium -- Water.

Of all the complex mixtures of yeast, malt, sugar and hops that produce great beers, water tops the list of ingredients on the labels of the renowned Trappistes Rochefort.

"Water is just like all the other ingredients -- only more important," Dom Jacques Emmanuel of the Notre Dame de Saint Remy abbey says.

The abbey is one of only a half dozen monasteries where monks still follow the centuries-old Trappist tradition of beer making.

But the water of the Tridaine spring is under threat. As farming has gone industrial, the enemy of Rochefort's Trappist beers has become manure.

Low levels of nitrates contribute to the dark, malty beer's fame and smooth texture. An increase would threaten that, as well as upset the delicate yeast preparations.

Manure brims with nitrates and two events have conspired to force the monks of the Cistercian Order of Strict Obedience to shed their customary reclusiveness and make their complaints heard.

First, a nearby chicken farm wants to expand, and it would create a source of pollution close to the Tridaine spring, Dom Jacques Emmanuel says.

The second threat may be more elusive. The many farms that feed the spring may be used as a dumping ground for surplus manure.

It's a concern shared by beer lovers the world over, who give the abbey's beers top marks.

Said a review of the abbey's Rochefort 10 on the Web site "Beer like this gives us a reason to live."

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