Long long ago water was more dangerous than alcohol.
You name a disease; all the microorganisms which caused it were dutifully present in drinking water. You took one sip of the mucky water those days you would be rushed to the hospital or an abbey nearby to be administered with medicines steeped in alcohol. Distillation and brewing cleared the mud making water potable. Just like we buy packaged drinking water, they sought spirits to stay away from dirt and disease.
Sadly long before we were born drinking water became potable. Alcohol was knocked off its throne and was asked to serve under wearing that disgraceful statutory tag around its neck shooing away its customers, with its services to mankind forgotten.
Times may have changed, priorities and tastes reset, but many abbeys in Europe cannot shake away the hangover of the Middle Ages when they tended the sick and the poor with the mysterious elixirs they made.
Things have never been easy down the time for the monks who made the spirits.
On the banks of Meuse river in Belgium one such Abbey sits with its walls reverberating with the horrid memories of its struggle against misfortunes which struck wave after wave.
Disaster hit Leffe for the first time in the 15th century. The dark plague struck the shores of Muese. Leffe had to sacrifice the lives of the Abbot and 7 monks.
It was just the beginning.
In 1460, a flood hit the Abbey drowning the then Abbot. The deluge left only the four walls around the Abbey and a tower where the remaining monks sought refuge, stuck their edifices over the water. The monks hardly got any time to repair the buildings when Charles the Bold and his forces hit them, looted and vandalized the abbey. The Abbey was almost gutted down in the fire.
When the going got tough only the monks could get going. Patiently. Meditatively. They continued with their tradition of making beer even through all these adversities.
In the 18th century the Abbey, which was rebuilt had to welcome a regiment of Hussars, mercenaries who were notorious for their cruelty. They had scant regard for the Abbey’s religious nature and they plundered everything including the brewery. What they did not guzzle down was broken and flushed out through the drains.
Still even the Hussars, perhaps because of a lack of revolutionary spirit, were far more kind when compared to the next group which stormed in – the French Republican Troops. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. They brought none of these to the portals of the Abbey as they stormed into the religious centre. Churches were anathema to French revolutionaries. In 1796 the Abbey was officially abolished and declared a state property.
Brewing of Leffe ale continued on a small note with the monks working out day and night from the dark corners even as the Abbey was sold piece by piece passing from generation to generation. It was shut down completely in the 19th century. During the first and second world war, the occupying forces melted down most of the brewing equipments from Leffe to make weapons.
Was that the end to a great brewing history of Leffe? Did fate get satiated when it saw the last nail driving in to coffin?
In 1952, when Father Abbot Nys met Albert Lootvoet, a brewer at Overijse, they had only one thing in their mind – The Leffe ale. They leafed through moldered, dog-eared papers for the magical recipe, to study the queer distilling processes and finally to revive the miraculous potion which the monks of the 13th century made in that Abbey near the river Muese.
The new beer Leffe, the flagship of Abbey beer was born. It only had to hark back to its long tradition and the travails of monks as they stood stoically against the rage of the elements, diseases and insensitive men to become an instant hit around the world.
Smooth and fruity with a spicy aftertaste, Leffe Blonde is now available in India also. So the next time you go to a beverages outlet, don’t forget the Abbey and the long run it made through history with all the dark forces behind the poor monks. Hold a glass of pale Leffe in your hands with a rich foamy head.
Imagine the monks meditatively working in dingy holes besieged by flood, fire, war, and revolution to make that amber you hold in your hand.
Now take a slow sip. With eyes closed.