Step aside, guys. The lady is in charge. Welcome to Brasserie d’ Orval, Anno 2014.
Things have changed a lot in the male-dominated world of the Trappist Abbey breweries in the last few decades. A significant number of women now work at these hallowed places, mainly in the area of lab work, marketing, and quality control. The reason for the quality control segment is perhaps that, in Belgium and elsewhere, it is a widely held belief that women often possess a more sensitive sense of smell and taste than men, and hence, can be better choices for quality control jobs.
You can read that as: all sensory aspects of beer tasting. Tough job, eh?
But at the top of the brewery ladder, there has never been a woman in charge as brewmaster at any Trappist brewery. Until last year, that is. In late October, 2013, Jean-Marie Rock, celebrated brewmaster at Brasserie d’ Orval, at l’ Abbaye Notre Dame d’ Orval, retired. His replacement had been named some months earlier: Anne-Françoise Pypaert, Director of Quality Control since 1995, and second in command to Mssr. Rock.
I visited Orval on September 2, and interviewed Anne-Françoise while there. It was my fifth visit to the brewery since 2003, yet it was the first time I had ever met the brewery’s new boss.
Anne-Françoise, in fact, was the only woman working at Orval when she was first hired in late 1992. Now, there are eight women employed there: one in the lab, one in Research and Development, four in the office, one in the cheese factory, and one as…brewmaster. There are 37 workers overall in the brewery and cheese factory.
I asked Anne-Françoise if she had considered brewing as a career when she first started studying Biochemistry in the late 1980’s, and she replied that she did not think it possible, as brewing was such a male-dominated world at the time. She remarked: “However, after a few years, while still studying for my degree, I started to think it might be possible to find work at a brewery, as things were changing then. So, I focused on applying at breweries, and they hired me here.” She has never worked another job since graduating from her university, which is quite remarkable in this day and age.
Well, perhaps not so remarkable, as the Trappist breweries are known as fine places to work, with generous pay and benefits. The Trappist monks take care of their employees.
Surprisingly, Anne-Françoise first tasted Orval just a couple of days before her initial interview at the brewery. “I liked the beer right from the start, as I have always been a beer lover,” she commented, smiling. “And I tell people who ask me that women like Orval too, and other bitter beers. I like to fight the perception that women only like sweet beers,” she added.
Anne-Françoise studied at Institut Meurice in Brussels, which is now called “High School Lucia Debrouckere.” (Note that high school has a different meaning in Belgium than it does in the U.S.) Obviously, though, her on-the-job training with Mssr. Rock for over twenty years has shaped her brewing talents. “But, I am not the same person as Jean-Marie. While the method of production is nearly the same, as he was my mentor, we have very different management styles.”
My next question was: “How does it feel to be the first female brewmaster as a Trappist brewery? Are you proud of that achievement?” To which Anne-Françoise replied: “Yes, I am proud, sure. I am very happy.”
As if all that wasn’t enough to impress you, Anne-Françoise is also head of production of Orval’s cheese factory. Where she finds the time to do it all is anyone’s guess. Orval produces three cheeses, all based on the Port Salut style: there is young, aged, and cheese washed with Orval beer. Sadly, the cheeses are only available in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. I have my fingers crossed that this could change in the future!
As to any U.S. trip plans, Anne-Françoise told me she has never made a visit stateside: “But I would like to go and visit the U.S.A. Surely to visit Spencer (the new American Trappist Abbey brewery, see here for more details) and maybe make an audit of their beers,” she said, laughing.
I have the feeling she’d be received with a warm welcome stateside.
Pink Boots Society, take note.
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