In the early 1900s, the Trappists fled the Mont des Cats (named after an ancient local tribe) and escaped to Watou. There they took up residence at the 'Patershof' farm (also known as 'Courtewyle'), just a stone’s throw from the current brewery. They re-named their new home the 'Réfuge de Notre Dame de St Bernard' - and it was to prove a refuge in practice as well as in name. But why did these monks come to Belgium at all? In France, they had to pay tax on their revenues and that was not (yet) the case in Belgium. Safe in their new home the monks took up cheese-making.
As France took on a more tolerant attitude towards religious communities the monks of Mont Des Cats decided to cross back over the border. Their vacated dairy was taken over by Evariste Deconinck. Later the Réfuge’s site would become the property of the Bruges Public Centre for Social Welfare.
During this period Deconinck expanded the dairy. Today the Brouwershuis where they made cheese on Trappistenweg (Trappist Road) is a guesthouse. Back in the 1930s, it was producing two different branded kinds of cheese: 'St Bernard Watou' and 'Port Salut de Watou'.
Not long after the Second World War, Evariste Deconinck was invited by the Trappist monks at Westvleteren to brew and market their Trappist beers under license, originally covering a 30-year period. Brewmaster Mathieu Szafranski (who was of Polish descent) brought his considerable know-how to the new site, bringing both recipes and the famed St Sixtus yeast as a new brewery was established right next to the cheese workshop. The cheese-making business was sold in 1959 with the equipment and the brand name going to the Poperinge milk dairy, St.Bertinus, which would later itself be acquired by the Elvapo group. In 1986 Belgomilk took over the business. In the early 1960s Guy Claus, the husband of Bernadette Deconinck (the daughter of Evariste) joined the brewery, opening up the opportunity for talks with Westvleteren Abbey to renew the license agreement. In 1962 a new 30-year deal was signed to keep the beer flowing until 1992.
In 1992 the agreement expired for good, as the Trappist breweries had decided to award the "Authentic Trappist Beer" label exclusively to beers that had been brewed inside an abbey. From then on, the brewery’s beers were marketed under the St.Bernardus brand name. This period was marked by uncertainty as the brewery tried hard to revive its fortunes and inject new life into its brand.
Hans Depypere took over the brewery in 1998 and, slowly but surely, put it back on the rails. Under his management, brewery sales grew from a few hundred thousand liters to a high of 4 million liters according to 2017 sales figures. This required a fair amount of investment, so far this has meant the opening of an entirely new wing in 2018, where they have incorporated space for additional warehousing, a new brewery shop, a new venue for meetings, conferences, and parties, a new reception area for brewery tours and, to top it all off, an impressive 360° rooftop bar that also serves as a tasting room and goes under the eloquent name of 'Bar Bernard'.