St Bernardus Closeup

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Having just secured draught exclusivity in the UK, it felt like the right time to tell the story of St Bernardus. A truly special brewery that we have admired and enjoyed for decades, and just like us, they’re entering the second generation of family ownership. To find out more, we spoke with Julie Depypere, current CEO Junior, and heir apparent to the brewery.

The St Bernardus story begins with early 20th century French tax law, and a group of monks looking to protect their humble revenues. With the Taxman’s interest growing, the monks abandoned their home in France at Mont des Cats, and took a look a few kilometres over the border to Watou in Belgium, where they settled and established the ‘Réfuge de Notre Dame de St Bernard’. Within a few short decades, the French government began to take a more lenient view on the Church Coffers and turned their interest elsewhere. The brethren upped sticks in the early 1930s, and abandoned the cheese dairy that they had set up, heading back home.

As well as the workings of a Cheesery, the monks left behind the St Bernard name, and the new owner Evariste Deconinck took it on, releasing a cheese under the name St Bernard Watou. In 1946 Deconinck was invited to diversify his business, and the monks of the nearby St. Sixtus Abbey in Westvletern agreed a 30 year deal to brew their beers under licence, as the Abbot had decided to significantly decrease capacity at the Abbey brewery. This was a truly profound moment in the history of St Bernardus, as not only did it result in the foundation of the brewery, but along with brewmaster Mathieu Szafranski came the revered St Sixtus yeast, still in use to this day. The deal was extended in 1962 for another 30 years, but in line with the expiry of this licence the Trappist organisation decreed that only those producing their beer within the Abbey walls would have the right to use the Trappist label. Production of the Westvleteren beers returned to the abbey, with output today not much higher than it was reduced to after the war.

The rest of the 1990s were a serious struggle for St Bernardus, faced with the challenges of trying to develop a new brand within an already congested market. All of this was made even more difficult with aging brewery installations and buildings that had seen little to no development for quite some time.

Then in 1998 current owner Hans Depypere purchased the brewery, the task ahead of him was made evident on the first day of his ownership when an employee plainly told him he was a fool for making the investment, the previous owners having not spent a penny on the place for decades. At this point in time the brewery had 6 employees and brewed around 8,000 hectolitres per year. Following Hans’ investment over the past 24 years, the brewery is now powering through 43,000 hectolitres, with the capacity available to double this.

2018 marked the completion of the most significant investment in the brewery to date with the construction of an entirely new wing with warehousing, a brewery shop, conference and function suites, and the absolutely stunning Bar Bernard. On the rooftop bar you can look across the stunning scenery of Belgium’s hop growing heartland, enjoying local cuisine, and even certain special St Bernardus beers that can’t be found anywhere else.

Bar Bernard
Bar Bernard

The guesthouse at the brewery has been redeveloped too, originally the site of the monk’s cheese dairy, then the home of the Dekoninck family, it now houses 10 fantastic rooms and is the ideal site for a family friendly brewery holiday in Belgium.

Julie and family in the Guesthouse
Julie and family in the Guesthouse

Onwards to the future of St Bernardus, and CEO Junior Julie Depypere. Julie joined the business in 2011 after a career in bookkeeping and auditing, having originally not wanted to pursue a career in the family business (a story not too dissimilar to a young Master J. Clay). Previous to buying the brewery, the Depypere family lived in the US, where Hans had a Home Security company, and a couple of other business interests. Eventually the brewery grew to occupy more and more of his time and he sold off his other interests to focus on St Bernardus full time.

Julie was in her early teens when he acquired the brewery and remembers that it wasn’t really a huge part of their day to day family life. ‘My Father really tried to split work and private life, in fact he would never tell us about brewery life. My sister Naomi and I used to study at the house of the original owner Bernadette, next door to the brewery, now the guesthouse. She used to give us prunes and cookies, it was a much more calm atmosphere than at home with so many children. When we wanted some work during school holidays we’d do some small jobs at the brewery, but I never planned for a career there.’

Thankfully though, she did eventually decide to enter the family business, and far from odd jobs for pocket money, Julie and the team are now embarking on a huge development project. installing a new bottling line and warehousing. As part of these works the oldest building on the site will be demolished, meaning that during Hans’ tenure, almost all of the brewery will have been rebuilt.

‘For my Dad it will give some closure, he doesn’t want to retire before his brewery is brand new. He wants to be able to show everyone what he has made. The brewery will of course never be perfect, but in his head that’s the last chapter.’

Previous to the redevelopment and construction of the new wing containing Bar Bernard, St Bernardus sat among the hop fields of Watou as a pilgrimage for the hardiest Belgian beer nerds. After the development of the new facilities there has been a sharp increase in custom from the Benelux region as people use it as a base for exploring the breweries and countryside of West Flanders. Guests can now even rent eBikes from the guesthouse and tour Belgium’s Westhoek with ease.

Guesthouse Courtyard
Guesthouse Courtyard

Julie is buoyant about not only the future of St Bernardus, but that of Belgian Beer as a whole, thanks to the collaborative spirit of their domestic industry. ‘There are a lot of efforts from all the Belgian brewers together to sustain the status of Belgian beer. We are jointly investing in the Belgian Beer Experience in the old Stock Market. All the breweries invest in it. Because we really want to make a space for Belgian beers. We all work together and that is a real strength of the Belgian brewers. We all talk to each other, even regarding something as mundane as machinery. We really want all Belgian beer to be excellent, not only mine, but everyone’s. That is our strength. In a lot of other markets it’s all for themselves. If another Belgian brewer asks to come and have a look around, they’re welcome.’

In Belgium a lot of focus is put on the family breweries as arbiters of the nation’s brewing heritage. Given that Julie herself wasn’t keen to enter the family business, she is relaxed about the thought of her children and any future interest they may have in working in the business. ‘It’s not my first thought. I always want the right people in the right place, if my children aren’t right for it, they don’t have to do it at all. I like variety so if they want to do something else I’d be happy to help them. For me it’s very important that the top priority is the safety and soundness of the business, and to try and detach the emotion around inheritance.’

Hans Depypere, Owner of St Bernardus
Hans Depypere, Owner of St Bernardus

We’re proud to be doing our part to work with the Depypere family to continue this amazing story, by bringing a lineup of their beers on draught to the UK.

Extra 4 - 4.8% Patersbier

This stunning Belgian Pale Ale is the beloved Patersbier of St Bernardus. Perfectly balanced with zesty and floral hoppy notes meeting peppery fermentation aromas, all balanced against barley sweetness. We’re really excited at the thought of seeing away pints of this on UK terraces this summer.

Abt 12 - 10% Quadrupel

Arguably the most famous beer from St Bernardus and the best expression of the famous Saint Sixtus yeast strain. From start to finish, this beer keeps delivering new nuances in aroma and flavour. Taking you on a journey through coffee, banana, caramel, chocolate, and toasted breadcrumbs. Simply crying out to be paired with Blue Cheese.

Wit - 5.5% Witbier

A benchmark example of the Witbier style, developed in collaboration with the legendary Pierre Celis, who created Hoegaarden, arguably saving the style from extinction. Incredibly easy drinking and packed full of the trademark Witbier aromas of coriander and bright orange peel.

Tripel - 8.0% Tripel

Locally in Watou a Tripel is referred to as a Bernadetje, in respect to Bernadette the previous owner of the brewery. The St Bernardus Tripel is as classic as it gets, plenty of peppery fermentation notes, banana, and a good bitterness. Troublesome in how easy drinking it is.

Pater 6 - 6.7% Dubbel

Brewed to a recipe dating back to 1946, the period that the brewery produced the Westvleteren beers under licence. Ripe red fruits, coffee, chocolate, and dark sugar, all make an appearance in the flavour of this exceptional Dubbel.

St Bernardus Extra 4

Region: Belgian
Style: Belgian Golden Ale
ABV: 4.8%
Draught
keg dep - 20Ltr Keg a

Abt 12

Region: Belgian
Style: Abbey Quadrupel
ABV: 9.5%
Draught
keg dep - 20Ltr Keg a

Blanche/WIt

Region: Belgian
Style: Witbier (Belgium Wheat)
ABV: 5.0%
Draught
keg dep - 20Ltr Keg a

Triple

Region: Belgian
Style: Belgian Tripel
ABV: 7.5%
Draught
keg dep - 20Ltr Keg a

St Bernardus Pater 6

Region: Belgian
Style: Abbey Dubbel
ABV: 6.7%
Draught
keg dep - 20Ltr Keg a