Drinking The Beer The Monks Drank

Important news from Belgium for beer lovers — the monks of Grimbergen Abbey have managed to piece together long-lost information about the ingredients and methods used to brew their different beers going back in the Middle Ages, and have started to brew beer again.  The rediscovery of the recipe is a kind of historical detective story where language plays a key role.

rtx6vw88The story starts with the monks of the abbey, who like other monks of the Middle Ages, brewed, and enjoyed, beer.  (In fact, some monks fasted during Lent and drank only specially brewed beer that was a kind of liquid bread during that period — which probably made for an interesting Lenten season.)  The Grimbergen Abbey brews were known far and wide, and their ingredients and the methods used by the monks were set down in books first written in the 12th century.  The monks continued to brew their beer, changing their recipes periodically, until 1798, when French Revolutionaries, who were no friends to religion, burned the monastery to the ground.  The 1798 incident is one of three times that the monastery has burned down.

But the monks of Grimbergen Abbey are resolute.  Fortunately, some of the monks rescued the 12th-century books and stored them, but the recipes and methods were thought to be lost because no one could read the writing, which was in a mixture of old Latin and old Dutch.  Four years ago, the monks at the monastery decided to tackle the problem and invited volunteers from the community to help them in trying to decipher the writings.  Together they were able to identify ingredient lists, the types of hops and bottles and barrels that were used, and even the names of the different beers the monks brewed over the centuries.

Now the monks, in partnership with Carlsberg which offers a number of the Abbey’s previously known beers for sale, have built a new microbrewery on the site of the original brewery and have started to brew a beer based on some of the old recipes and methods.  It’s a heady brew — 10.8% alcohol, by volume — and will be sold by the glass in Belgium and France.

A toast to the indomitable beer-loving monks of Grimbergen Abbey, and the volunteers who helped them to recover a bit of liquid history!

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Computers, And Sod Carriers

We’re in the process of replacing the office computers at our firm.  This week, the wave finally hit my floor.

I had been dreading it, frankly.  I’ve had my computer for years, and it did just what I wanted it to do.  Like many aging Baby Boomers, I was comfortable with the existing technology and not especially eager to move on to something new that I would have to learn all over again.  The younger generation at the firm, on the other hand, was keen to get newer products and integrate them with the tablets, PDAs, and other electronic gizmos they’re always tapping on around the office.

IMG_6132This week, as D-Day approached, I got a multi-page memo about what I had to do to get ready for the change.  I groaned, thinking it would be a huge hassle.  But as my secretary and I walked through it, with her interpreting for the Luddite as necessary, I realized I didn’t have to do most of the stuff because I wasn’t using much of the functionality of even the older computer.  I hadn’t modified the tool bar, subscribed to any RSS feeds (at least, I think that is what it was called), added a bunch of websites as favorites, or changed my desktop, so I didn’t need to do much to get ready for the changeover.

I was grateful that the prep process didn’t take longer, but also a bit embarrassed that I really wasn’t making great use of the awesome capabilities of my desktop computer — which tells you something right there, because most of my fellow lawyers seem to have ultra-thin laptop units that they cart around and set up at every meeting.  The laptoppers seem to be far more technologically comfortable and adept than the desktoppers.  It’s like the separation that occurred in the late Middle Ages, when a craftsman class arose out of the serfs laboring in the fields.  I’m still one of the bent-backed, sod-carrying group.

When I arrived at the office yesterday, to find a new computer with a Skyping camera on top and a headset (a headset?), I was filed with wonder, trepidation — and determination.  Maybe it’s time for me to get off the sod and become a silversmith before it’s too late.

Musee National du Moyen Age

048We’ve had a number of special experiences during our trip to Paris, but one of my favorites was a visit to the Musee National du Moyen Age — the National Museum of the Middle Ages. Formerly known as the Cluny, this Left Bank museum is a wonderful find for the history buff and the art lover.

The museum is located in an actual medieval building, so the very act of entering and wandering around helps to give an idea of life in the middle ages — at least, for the aristocracy and the clergy. You enter the the museum through a walled, cobblestoned courtyard, past the remains of the Latin motto of the place when it was the town house of the abbots of Cluny, and then move through cavernous stone rooms and cellars where various items and exhibits are found.

055The rooms are filled with a rich trove of the art and handcraft of the Middle Ages. If you are a fan of stained glass windows, this is a must-see visit, because the many exquisite examples of glassworker craftsmanship are displayed at eye level, where they can be carefully studied and fully appreciated. It’s great to see the stained glass at St. Chapelle, where the full effect of entire windows is felt, but there is an advantage to examining individual panes, too. The vivid colors and staging of the scenes are spectacular, and the expressions on the people depicted, and the familiar attributes of Biblical personalities, like St. Peter and his ever-present key, come to life when the stained glass is examined up close.

052Another evocative exhibit featured the formerly lost heads of the kings of Judah. When the mob attacked the Notre Dame cathedral during the French Revolution and tried to turn it into a secular temple, they knocked the heads off the kings of Judah who stand in line above the front doors. The heads were replaced in the middle of the 19th century, but the original heads were thought to be lost forever. That is, until 21 of them were unearthed during the 1970s. They now are on display in the Musee National du Moyen Age, still looking somewhat startled that they were removed from their former stone bodies.

There’s lots to see in this museum, such as the mysterious, obviously symbolic series of tapestries featuring a woman, her servant, a unicorn, and other creatures, marvelous wood altarpieces and stone statuary, and many religious items. I particularly liked the flow and pace of the museum, which was in sharp contrast to the jam-packed crowd scenes at the Louvre. There was plenty of room, and time, to enjoy the exhibits and appreciate the opportunity to learn more about the life and craftsmanship of the Middle Ages.047