Rochefort 8 Beer - ©

Sunday Musings: Little Guys Fight Big Business – Over Water

We often hear about how big businesses (or governments) are trampling little businesses (or people) under foot to get what they want. The expropriation process comes to mind. But now, it appears that a small group of Trappist Monks in Belgium are winning their battle against a mining giant…

Trappist Brewer - © 2021 Paul Cooper - Rex FeaturesA Trappist brewmaster checks the colour of a new batch of acclaimed Rochefort beer.

The Trappist monks of Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy in Rochefort, Belgium, moved to their current abbey in 1899. They had been brewing beer since the 1500s and continued to do so at their new location. In fact, their trademark strong beers have become revered as some of the world’s best.

But their historic brewing tradition fell under threat a couple of years ago when a neighbouring lime [chalk] quarry – owned by one of Belgium’s wealthiest families – announced it was going to expand its operations, possibly disrupting or fouling the brewery’s water supply. As all beer lovers know, the quality  and character of the water used for brewing is a major component in the overall flavour and appeal of any given brew. The Trappists were shocked that their neighbour would make such a proposal.

Insurance in their back pocket

But the brothers had a sort of insurance policy; a deed from 1833 that forbids anyone from changing the course of the Tridaine spring, which provides the water for the Trappists’ brewery and the drinking water for the town of Rochefort. That compact was sealed almost a century before the quarry started operations. The trappists and the town were confident they had an airtight (or, if you prefer, watertight) case.

Not to be deterred

Not to be deterred in their quest to expand, the quarry owners challenged the brothers in court. And lost. The big guys also lost an appeal to a higher court which upheld the term in the deed which asserts that no one can, “remove or divert all or part of the water[s] which supply the abbey.”

As of now, the quarry owners have not said whether they will appeal to an even higher court. But they are the Big Guys, and Big Guys are used to getting their way.

“It is an incredibly complex matter that is hard to explain,” quarry manager Geoffroy Fiévet said in 2019. “And of course people choose the side of the abbey and not the quarry. Nobody knows about lime, but everyone likes a Trappist.”

My take

I love this tale only if, for no mother reason, it shows the Little Guy can still beat the Big Guy in a fair fight. But I also love the idea that the French courts have sided with an ancient deed of right, and have also sided with the right of the Trappists to maintain and perpetuate their centuries-old brewing tradition.

I like to think this tale also demonstrates that, in some jurisdictions at least, culture can win out over commerce. It is comforting to reflect that, long after the chalk quarries play out and all the other wounds that business activity has inflicted on our world are healed, the Trappists of St. Remy will still be making their remarkable beer.

What’s your take?

~ Maggie J.