Monks at Grimbergen Abbey, Belgium in the spirit industry were forced to close their brewery in 1797 when the Austrian Netherlands were invaded by France. In each French colony there was a separate revolution from the one in France. In the West Indies it took on the flavour of rum, tobacco and sugar. The West Indies were economically important as a sooq for slaves on islands like Nevis and as a source of sugar and chic spirits like rum.
The wealthiest British colonies in the Caribbean—Jamaica, Grenada, Tobago, Barbados, the Leeward Islands, St. Vincent and Dominica—did not ally themselves with the thirteen mainland American colonies, even though they were linked to the rebel colonies by trade prior to the war. The West Indies were a major theatre of turbulence because they were possessions of Britain, France, Spain, and the Netherlands, all of whom were belligerents at some stage of the American Revolutionary War. Their elected assemblies and plantation systems mirrored colonies like South Carolina. Nevertheless, they did not unite in even a limited campaign of opposition to Britain. The economic status of the West Indies guaranteed persistent naval clashes, seizures and re-annexations.
Both before and after the 1776 American Declaration of Independence from Britain, America’s thirteen colonies also played a key role in these skirmishes. Under King George III the island colonies were essential streams of revenue to finance efforts during the American Revolution. The strategic importance of the islands explains why in 1778 the British withdrew five thousand troops from New York for the conquest of St. Lucia- a strategic priority given its fine harbour at Gros Islet Bay. From there the British navy could observe the French around Martinique, having earlier lost Roseau to the French. Eighteen century Jamaica was the finest jewel in the British Diadem- long before India. By 1781, a plot was concocted among Comte de Grasse, of the French West Indian fleet and Francisco de Sangronis of the Spanish Indies, and court representative to the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez to aid the Americans and defeat the British naval squadron at New York and to capture the British Windward Islands and to conquer Jamaica. It was at The Battle of the Saintes, named after a cluster of islands between Guadeloupe and Dominica in 1782 during the American Revolutionary War that the French and Spanish were forced to abandon their planned invasion of Jamaica.
In the Age of Sail, planters among them the family of Joséphine de Beauharnais, a Martinican, who became the first wife of Napoleon and Empress of France, were among aristocrats who grew in stature from sugar and the sin of slavery. The character of French West Indian agricultural rum was akin to brandies with its peppery vegetal fragrance flourishing from the dark-chocolate volcanic earth at the foot of Mount Pelée. Revolutionaries fled to Trinidad under a Cedula of population from Grenada, Martinique, Guadeloupe and Dominica to Blanchisseuse, Champs Fleurs and Laventille. Roume De Saint-Laurent was the architect of this migration policy. He resided in Tobago where he remodelled its systems of law and taxation. His friend, Toussaint L’Ouverture was a witness at his divorce hearing and second marriage to Marianne Elizabeth Rochard- a coloured woman from Grenada. The British were wary about the French Revolution spreading to Trinidad and so Sir Ralph Abercromby arrived in 1797 with 18 warships forcing Chacon to surrender at the Valsayn Estate with assurances for the safety of the French landed gentry.
When the French closed the brewery at Grimbergen Abbey in 1797, Heineken’s Alken-Maes filled the market-gap with brown and blond lagers using the Grimbergen brand in Belgium. Carlsberg exports them and pays royalties to the abbey. Other abbeys like ‘Chimay’ and ‘Westmalle’ continue spirit works with ‘Leffe’ allowing spirits players to use its name. A 2015 excise duty hike in Belgium resulted in spirits sales dropping by 8-60% depending on the brand and with spirits players responding differently to the surge. Diageo Belgium decided to cut margins. Pernod Ricard Belgium reduced the volume of its bottles. Bacardi Martini Belgium increased margins. Retailers removed low rotation spirits from their shelves.
More than 200 years after invading French troops closed the brewery at Grimbergen abbey the Monks have decided to restart brewing. There is no immaculate perception. So their new craft beer will stand on tradition but will certainly be a ‘spirit of the 21st century’ alongside Boukman Botanical Rhum infused with allspice, clove, cinnamon, and natively foraged woods and barks from two of Haiti’s most renowned terroirs for rum: Croix des Bouquets and Cap Haitien.