Ampleforth Abbey, a Benedictine retreat in North Yorkshire housing the Abbey Church of St. Lawrence, is one of the largest Benedictine communities in the EU. In 2012, it announced the release of its “1802” Abbey Beer, a brown, strong (7%) ale. The story got some press at the time, Roger Protz wrote this piece for the Guardian.
The beer is not a Trappist ale as such since a brewery in West Yorkshire makes the beer for the fathers. Also, Ampleforth Abbey is not a Trappist (Strict Observance Cistercian) monastery. But the abbey supervises the brewing and stated the beer results from researches in its early records and the help of a Dutch brewer it engaged to work on the formulation. A couple of Trappist breweries in Belgium were consulted, as well.
Some in the beer world, used to romantic tales about a beer’s origin, might be forgiven for thinking the abbey’s story was a touch gilded. In fact, it’s not. If anything, with due monastic understatement, the Abbey only hinted at the rich history behind this beer. It is a credible emulation of a beer made at the abbey in France of which Ampleforth, founded in 1802, was the successor.
Monks in France, displaced by the French Revolution, arrived after various peregrinations at their new home of Ampleforth in 1802. And they brought with them the lore and knowledge of the brewing history of their former abbey in France. Yet more fascinating, these monks had a distant British past ultimately reaching back to Westminster Abbey. Their beer similarly had strictly English origins. Thus, the English Benedictine spirit, and an English brewing tradition, which had both nourished and sustained a French abbey outpost for 200 years, had come home.
Ampleforth Abbey did not itself take up brewing until a few years ago, but the earlier history is real and rich with detail. Not only that, it shows a significant influence of English brewing on French Trappist brewing and, in my opinion, that strong English ale (c. 7%) is at the origin of the signature of Trappist beer, the dubbel.
Because of the repression of Catholicism following King Henry VIII and the Reformation, Catholic teaching was severely restricted in England. Monks had little future, and many left to seek more welcoming contemplative and pastoral grounds. France was a refuge. Father Augustine Bradshaw supervised the raising of the necessary funds via connections in Spain and elsewhere. Under his direction, a group of Benedictines left England – some accounts state they were joined by Irish, Scots or Spanish colleagues – for haven in the Duchy of Lorraine, France, along the Moselle river.
A disused collegiate church, the Eglise St-Laurent, in De Dieulouard, Lorraine was given over to them by the Duke. They arrived in 1608 and founded the Abbaye de Saint Laurent, or St. Lawrence Abbey, whose name continues as part of the Ampleforth establishment. The fathers’ enterprise, and help from back home, assisted to buy adjoining lands on which to raise crops and livestock.
The monks promptly set up a brewery and instituted hop culture using cuttings brought from England. It was noted that they made la bière anglaise. A 1966 French scholarly piece on Lorraine`s brewing history (E. Urion, “La Brasserie et la Lorraine”) states one can even find isolated hop fields in Lorraine which grow the English variety the monks brought with them in 1608.
In the particular part of Meurthe-and-Moselle where the monks established, brewing was not well-known. Viticulture was, and indeed the English arrivals tended to vines too. But being mostly English, they liked beer and decided to brew it, not just for themselves, but as a way to support their community. This accorded with the Rule of St. Benedict which permits monks to produce beer, wine and food so they will provide for themselves and not require to live on public donations.
The brewing project was wildly successful*. Their beer, la bière anglaise and a “double beer” in recipe, had a high reputation through the 1600s and in the 1700s at least until the French Revolution. The abbey was favoured with patronage from the ducal court, aristocrats’ manors, and the people. The beer is mentioned, often with discussions of its characteristics and quality, in numerous French and English histories. One account says it was the best beer in Lorraine, the second being the beer made by a Sieur Hoffman in Nancy who had a monopoly there (1700s).
Accounts also state the beer was strong, brown, retained a high sparkle, and travelled well. And specifically, that it approached English ale in taste and strength. (Henri Lepage, N. Grosjean, Annuaire de Merthe-et-Moselle, 1885). Maybe Dom Perignon, or other French wine advisors, helped the monks get the sparkle, although I think this is doubtful (possibly the influence went the other way). Double beer was a Tudor standby, so clearly early English monk-brewers at Dieulouard brought good old strong English beer to their new home. By the way double in Flemish is … dubbel.
Hand in hand with the admirable religious spirit which prevailed within its walls, the material prosperity of the country daily increased. … Their enterprise (and English tastes perhaps), led them to establish the first brewery which had been seen in those parts. To this day their memory is in grateful benediction for having introduced in Lorraine the cultivation of the hop … This will explain their possession of a monopoly for the sale of all the beer required for the use of the court. To the time of the suppression, the brewery of Dieulouard maintained its reputation, and brought in no small gain to its possessors, and even when church and cloisters were leveled with the ground, the brewery was spared, and to this day it continues to fulfill its useful functions to the satisfaction of a thirsty generation.
Thus, in 1885 when this was written, the brewery was still in operation. When it closed I cannot say. Dieulouard`s early brewing history is recounted with respectful attention in Bières de Meuses et de Lorraine by Phillipe Voluer (1991), but there is no mention of its post-Revolution existence, even in the Moselle chapter of the book. No doubt the brewery was very small, and either didn`t survive the onset of German-style bottom fermentation after the 1870 war or the catastrophe of WW I. Voluer, a French brewing historian, stated the beer was likely brown in colour, well-saturated with gas, well-hopped, and enjoyed high renown in the Duchy. This accords with numerous other accounts. He said the brewery`s founders had a “maitrise du produit“ which accounted for the success of the brewery. He noted the interesting fact as well that the monks insisted on spring water for the brewing, not well water.
From its founding to its demise in 1789, the Saint-Laurent Abbey of Dieulouard had a strong English character. With other English Benedictine presence in France including at Douai, exiled priests helped from afar to keep the spirit of Catholicism alive in Britain. It may be recalled Britain didn’t relax the last restrictions on RCs until the early 1800s. The martyr Alban Roe had spent some time in Dieulouard, for example. The foreign monastic havens were not just a new home, but a way to keep Catholicism living in England.
When the Dieulouard monks who weren’t incarcerated by French Revolutionaries left for England, it took them a while to re-establish. Not until 1802 was land provided to them in Yorkshire, by Lady Anne Fairfax, to restore their community and mission. But they did finally succeed, and it must have been with some satisfaction to do so in their ancestral land, the one which had given rise to their faith but also the product which allowed the French abbey to flourish until Revolutionary zealots took it away.
The lore and special reputation of the brewery were never forgotten and finally, Ampleforth decide to issue a beer to reflect a weighty tradition.
When the Dieulouard abbey was destroyed or re-purposed as part of the suppression of the monasteries, the brewery, pictured in the woodcut above on the left, was not destroyed. It continued making beer under secular management well into the 1800s at least. The account in The Downside Review quoted from above states that the contemporary beer of Dieulouard (1885) was dark and “heavy” (strong). It sounds like Chimay’s beer of today and no doubt of 1877 (see my previous posting regarding Chimay beer in 1877). It sounds too like Ampleforth’s restored beer judging by reviews on Beer Advocate and Ratebeer. The latter is very much in the Trappist style and has been said to resemble Rochefort abbey`s beer.
The grain bill for Dieulouard abbey’s beer is thought to have been barley malt and one or more mixed grains (wheat, spelt, oats, rye), called “bled” in early abbey records. Ampleforth’s recreation uses barley malt and wheat – eminently consistent with known brewing procedures when Dieulouard abbey was active. True, the yeast in the recreation is a current Belgian ale type, but no yeast used by a Trappist brewery today will be like a brewing yeast of hundreds of years ago. (Beer Et Seq is persuaded yeast is relatively unimportant in brewing. I think had it been I who advised Ampleforth, I’d have suggested an English ale yeast be used, as that is possibly what the emigrating monks brought to Dieulouard in 1608 in jugs. But that is neither here nor there really).
What all this shows IMO is a significant impact of English brewing, not just on brewing culture of northern France, but on Trappist brewing specifically. The renown of the Dieulouard beer would have been known in nearby Francophone Belgium, where three Trappist breweries currently function, and probably in Trappist and other monastic communities in France, Belgium and elsewhere. The Trappists formed a self-contained, international community which famously shared training and expertise in agriculture, construction, devotions, and much else. They would had cooperation from other Benedictines, as well. Brewing had to be included. Consider too that monastic, English-style brewing was taking place, as I discussed earlier, on the other side of France in Brittany. I would think other breweries under exilic English management existed in France, but even those two, and especially Dieulouard, had to be particularly influential on monasteries in Belgium.
The fact that the key type of Trappist beer today is strong and brown, quite unlike the indigenous beers of Belgium and France when the abbeys were being restored post-French Revolution, attests to the influence Dieulouard had to have on 1800s monastic brewing. This meant, as I have long felt and other indices show (some of which I`ve discussed in recent posts), that English brewing skill is at the bottom of what is today the brown dubbel, the predominant Trappist style.
In the wake of the Reformation, British monks spent long periods in Brittany, Douai, Paris, and Lorraine among numerous other places in Europe. Their appreciation of beer, deriving from their heritage, and evident knowledge of how expertly to make it, fed into the type of beer we call Trappist today. Modern Trappist brewing doesn’t just reflect the popularity of British beer in France and Belgium between the two world wars. It doesn’t just reflect the prohibitory law of Belgium viz. distilled spirits, enacted at the end of WW I, which favoured the production of newly strong beer. The influence goes much deeper than that.
*After drafting the above, the work, The History of Ampleforth Abbey (1903) by Dom Cuthbert Almond came to the writer’s attention. See his chapter 18 on the brewery of Dieulouard. While acknowledging the high quality of the beer and its patronage by ducal court and local seigneurs, the author is less robust on the topic of brewery profits. He reckons that in the 1600s the brewery did not make much money. One presumes he had access to the relevant records to check. Nonetheless, he states that the brewery made a good return for the abbey in the 1700s due, he said, to the French king having granted right of sale for the beer on his domains early in the century. It may therefore be, until any further information can be known on this topic, that the “wildly successful” term should be restricted to the 18th century and not earlier. Still, the main points made in the post above are borne out by this chapter. Incidentally, Dom Almond states that the beer was regarded as (I translate) well-conditioned. This means the beer was allowed to stand long enough to develop a suitable carbonation and also clear itself of residual yeast and not be overly turbid in appearance. To this day, good conditioning is regarded as necessary for any beer albeit it is imparted typically in ways not foreseen in the 1600s and 1700s. The point being, the abbey’s product was clearly superior and its competition probably too often came to table flat and muddy-looking.
Also, I have made clear now, I believe, something not evident to me at the outset: Ampleforth is Benedictine but not Trappist or indeed Cistercian.
Note re images: the first image above is taken the website for Ampleforth Abbey`s shop, here. The second image is from a French historical and genealogical website, here. (It is also reproduced in the The Downside Review issue mentioned above). The third image, from a postcard of the Dieulouard brewery in (apparently) the late 1800s, is from the French auction website, www.delacampe.com, here. The fourth image is from Ampleforth Abbey`s main webpage, here. All are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.