Exploring Belgium’s Chimay

This washed rind cheese is steeped in tradition

The first thing that springs to mind for many when you hear ‘Belgium’ is beer, but one of the handful of Trappist Breweries in the world is called Chimay, which is known for its Trappist beers as well as a distinct type of cheese of the same name.

Chimay is based at the Abbey of Notre Dame de Scourmont in Belgium, just a little to the North of the French border in the forest of Mont du Secours. As well as brewing, monks and monasteries are known for making and washing cheese. At Chimay, they make both beer and cheese, creating a link between the two.

“Its story is traditional and straightforward,” says Samantha Kane, business
development manager at Atalanta Corp., Elizabeth, NJ. “What makes Chimay unique is connectivity of land and community, which translates to all parts of the business.” She says the Chimay business employs 250 people and is the largest employer of region. “The monks are still at the helm, on the board and oversee all the production, and they want to give back, so all profits go to charity.”

It was back in 1850 when the Prince of Chimay asked for a group of monks from the Saint Sixtus Abbey in Westvleteren to establish themselves on the high Scourmont Plateau next to the town of Chimay in order to make something of the barren land there. They worked very hard to transform the unworked soil into fertile, usable agricultural land and, in 1862, they brewed their first beer, which was then known as ‘La Premiere’ and is now called ‘Chimay Rouge’.

In 1857 a dairy plant was created, with butter being made and consumed by mem- bers of the order. In 1876, their very own Brother Benedict headed to France to learn how to make semi-soft cheeses, and the monks started their cheesemaking. World War II halted operations; however, miraculously everything was untouched, and they restarted brewing again shortly after. In 1975, they moved the dairy out of the brewery to create a separate operation and to focus better on both.

The Philosophy of Chimay

There are around 11 monks now at Chimay. They no longer take part in the production, but serve more as a Board of Directors. All decisions go through the monks, and they still have their weekly tasting of the products. 

Their philosophy, however, continues. Everyone there works a strict 40-hour workweek. They are incredibly dedicated to the idea that you are meant to work for a certain part of the day, then study, pray and relax for the rest. They want everyone to have this same balance in life, and this philosophy is crucial. 

In the same likeness, they are conscious of the environment and focused on sustain- ability and reducing their carbon footprint. One example of this is that a third of the energy used within the brewery and dairy comes from their own solar panels. 

“What is unbelievable is the care for the environment and what they’re doing to mit- igate their impact,” says Kane. “Chimay’s operations have a large footprint for a small company operating in a small country.” 

Kane explains that a mote surround- ing the abbey protects the business’ water source, which is completely unadulterated. The business’ carbon footprint also is mit- igated due to the use of solar energy and recycled water for bottling and beermak- ing. “They do so much to give back to the land and what they’re taking from it,” says Kane. “They take what most food com- panies would be considered as small and make it an important part of their overall business plan.”

All profits from these businesses either go back into the monastery, allowing the monks to do charity work through the monastery itself, or through other chari- table outlets. Though they are the largest employer of the region, they are still grow- ing their number of employees. At the end of this year and into the next, the monks are starting a new project. Previously, there was a farm between the monastery and what is now a restaurant. The farm is being recreated to provide jobs for people with physical disabilities. The workers will be able to both work and live there. 

The Milk and Cheesemaking

Chimay has its own co-operative for milk collection consisting of around 250 farms from which milk is collected to make the cheeses. All these farms are within about an 18-mile radius of the dairy. They are not all certified organic, however, they use the least intensive farming possible. No pesticides are used on the farms or in the neighboring land, as the monks are dedi- cated to protecting the environment and their water source—the main ingredient for their brewing and a huge factor in the cheese production. The winter feed for the cows is also grown within the area. The herd sizes of the dairy farms vary between 15 and 200 cows and are a mix- ture (depending on each farm) of Jersey, Blanc-Bleu Belge and Holstein cattle.

“All milk used in Chimay is delivered daily,” says Kane. “Because the Chimay recipes are so traditional, the flavor profile has translated all these years. Even though cows eat different things, they found a way to represent the cheeses from their area.” 

At Chimay, cheeses are produced two to five days out of the week, and on any one of those days, they can complete up to seven makes. About 1,200 tons of Chimay cheese is produced annually. 

When the milk arrives fresh in the morn- ing, it is immediately checked to ensure that it meets the specs given to every single farm. Tank samples are taken and analyzed in the laboratory. The checks ensure there are no pathogens nor antibiotics present in the milk, which will only be transformed into Chimay cheeses if all quality checks are passed.

The milk is then pasteurized, skimmed and homogenized to 30 percent fat. The curds are then washed with a mixture of water and whey, which gives the cheese its characteristic, springy Tomme-like tex- ture. Once the cheeses are made, they are turned out and placed onto racks, then plunged into brine baths. Here, they remain for two to 48 hours, depending on the type and size. Certain cheeses are then washed using the Chimay beer to give it an extra depth of flavor. The others are brine washed. The cheeses are taken into one of seven different maturing cellars to com- plete the process, depending on their style. 

Chimay Cheeses

Chimay makes a variety of cheeses all year round as well as some seasonal specialities. 

There are different styles of Chimay. “Chimay Classic and Grand are tradi- tional, and La Premier is washed in beer and uses beer extract added to the paste,” says Kane. “Chimay Vieux has a natural rind and is similar to Mimmolet with a rich, almost Cheddar quality and a grass for- ward flavor with a sharpness at the end.”

The cheeses available through Atalanta are:

Chimay Classic – a semi-soft, washed rind cheese aged for 21 days with a grassy profile and buttery finish.

• Chimay a la Premiere – aged for four weeks. This is a semi-soft cheese washed with Chimay beer and con- tains hop extract within the paste. On the nose, there are hints of stone fruit, like the aroma of Mahon from Spain as well as a fruity paste and a hint of bit- terness from the hops themselves.

• Grand Chimay – aged for over 60 days. This uses a different set of cul- tures, giving it a flavor profile with more complexity, like a raw milk cheese. Grand Chimay is named from achieving its intense, Trappist char- acter from an ale-washed rind, while at the same time retaining a creamy freshness and florality.

• Chimay Vieux – aged six months and a happy accident launched in 1989. As with many cheese reci- pes, this was unintentional. After 100 years into Chimay’s Trappist cheesemaking history, the monks of Scourmont Abbey in Belgium started developing new recipes. During the maturing stage, some of these new, ‘experimental’ cheeses were forgotten for many months. When they were found, these mature cheeses proved to be a very delicious mistake. Vieux Chimay is dome shaped, not dissimilar to the French Mimolette, and houses a beautiful annattoed interior. It has a long, fruity flavor, caramel notes and a smooth finish. This cheese has the smallest production, as it can only be produced in the spring and summer months when the cows are grazing at pasture.

• Poteaupré – aged for 120 days, this cheese was only launched in 2007. It is housed in its own wooden box, like the French Mont D’Or, and is a softer, more creamy cheese with spicy aro- matics and a smooth finish. Atalanta has launched Chimay loaves, which are the same recipe as the Classic and La Premiere, but in a larger format, ideal for foodservice. 

Chimay does not have a commodity price tag; however, it does translate well in cooking applications.

In 2019, Atalanta launched a marketing campaign titled ‘Cut, Sip, Repeat’, for beer pairing. Yet, there are a variety of unique ways to incorporate Chimay into tradi- tional dishes. “It can be used to top burgers, as a topping for nachos or as part of a beer batter,” says Kane. “It also is popular as a raclette.” DB