Brewing at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in England, 19th Century

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Mount Saint Bernard’s Brewer Rates His Own Product (1890)

Mount Saint Bernard Abbey (MSB) is one of three Cistercian communities in activity in the United Kingdom. The others are Caldey Island in Wales and Abbey Sancta Maria, Nunraw, Scotland. Each is Strict Observance (Trappist).

In Ireland, Mount Melleray Abbey is also Trappist.

None currently conducts any brewing, but MSB had beer in house for much of the 19th century, and I understand is considering restoring brewing. [Brewing has now commenced, see note below in bold].*

MSB is located near Coalville in Leicestershire. A delegation came from Mount Melleray in Ireland to found MSB in the mid-1830s. I have written earlier of Abbaye Notre Dame de Melleray (or Mellerai) in Brittany, France. To summarize a complex history, in 1790 Trappists departed from La Grande-Trappe at Soligny in Orne, Normandy due to the repression of monastic life under the Revolution. They sought refuge initially in Switzerland. Invading French armies forced them to flee, including to Russia and finally Britain.

In 1795 they were given refuge in Lulworth, Dorset by a sympathetic Catholic family. Finally, in 1817, under changed conditions in France, the monks departed Lulworth to found Melleray Abbey in Brittany. Recurring anti-clerical measures in France forced the monks to leave France again, and they established Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland as successor.

In this process of constant migration and re-establishment of Trappist life, Westmalle Abbey was founded by monks who intended originally to re-settle in Canada. Melleray Abbey in Brittany, and also the original home of the Strict Observance, la Grande-Trappe in Normandy (Notre Dame de la Trappe), were re-established finally by other faithful on a permanent footing. All indeed have continued to the present date, however the Trappists in France’s Melleray will depart the monastery later this year due to declining numbers. Other Trappist abbeys in Belgium are connected as well to this history, as are a number in North America. All are an outgrowth of the repression of monasticism by the French Revolution and later Napoleon.

Just as a reminder, both La Grande-Trappe and Abbaye Melleray in Brittany brewed beer. The French Melleray, founded by monks who departed Lulworth and some of whom were British, brewed on the English system – this is amply documented, which I discussed in earlier posts. While little is known about the beer they made, I would think it was probably all-barley malt. In the early 1800s beer in England generally was so, whether produced by commercial breweries or in manors or universities. Melleray’s beer probably resembled one of the grades of English mild ale then available, all rather strong in those days. If strong beer, it would have been diluted for drinking at refectory. It is possible, too, that Abbaye Melleray made a mixed-grain beer – this might depend on what the farm at the domain grew.

I would think records might be available at Melleray today in Ireland or indeed still in France to indicate how the Lulworth arrivals brewed in Brittany once established there.

As for La Grande-Trappe, almost certainly its beer was low-alcohol. Normandy had an old brewing heritage derived from Viking invaders, which partly was displaced by cider-making in the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, beer continued to be made in the region including by some abbeys and certainly was available at La Grande Trappe after Abbé de Rancé did his groundbreaking reformatory work. In fact, initially only cider was used but some fathers found cider didn’t suit them, and in any case was not always available. Abbé de Rancé, wishing not to have recourse to wine, commanded that a brewery be installed, as confirmed in this 1866 history of the legendary abbot and the Trappists.

Dieulouard Abbey in Lorraine, an English Benedictine establishment, brewed beer for almost 200 years before the French Revolution with high repute for taste and strength. It was probably served to the fathers in a low-alcohol version or was diluted – an 1890s source I cited earlier said the beer “supported dilution”. Just as today the Trappist monasteries don’t serve their strong specialties to the fathers, in former times the fathers likewise did not drink strong beer. If they did drink at all, a weaker version was available for daily use.

I explain all this as, in terms of what 19th-century monks drank at MSB, we should not expect necessarily to encounter unmixed (so to speak) reports. This is particularly so if, as seems the case, MSB offered only one beer, which surely was weak in alcohol. It is true Westmalle in Belgium excelled from the starting block in the brewing arts, but this may have been an exception, or it made strong beer mainly for guests and sale at the abbey gate.

So what did visitors say of MSB beer?

Here are the details in a reversed chronology, obtained from original research. In an article describing a visit to MSB in 1890 entitled An English Monastery, published originally in the magazine All The Year Round, the (un-credited) author asks his host what the fathers eat. The answer is, bread, vegetable soup, boiled rice, jam (“to help the rice go down”) and “a cup of beer”. To the reply “then you are not teetotalers?”, the father states dryly, “The beer is not exactly double X, you know”. Apart from the amusing subtext, one can deduce the beer was weak, in line with the tradition I explained.

The second statement, by a visitor who drank the ale with the monks in 1872, was that the beer was “most indifferent”. This can be read to mean weak again. Of course it is possible the visitor, who seemed rather supercilious by the tone of his piece, meant it was sour or tasted bad, but I don’t think likely that was meant.

A further statement is from our friend who authored the memoir of Antwerp I discussed in my previous post. In this book he includes a parenthetical entry on MSB which he had visited with a friend in March 1847. He states (at pg. 150) that he found the beer of “purity and excellence” along with the various foods served. He uses the term “home produce” to describe all these items but clearly he meant the produce of MSB, not of England or the U.K. in general.

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Now, true enough MSB’s beer could have changed over the decades, but I consider finally that it was fairly low in alcohol but otherwise sound. If the beer was small beer of 1% or 2% abv, it probably didn’t taste great. Some reading who are familiar with non-alcoholic beer may see what I mean (useful as that article is, sometimes). Possibly the MSB beer was 3-4% abv, this at a time when ales and porter started at 5% and went up from there, but I incline that it was quite weak: see above the c.1900 ad for Mont des Cats table beer, this may well have been the kind of beer MSB brewed.

An odd thing is that a few accounts of visits to MSB make no reference to beer or other alcohol at all. One describes the only beverage available as water. Maybe MSB brewed at some times and not others, or in some years and not others, it is hard to say.

I am not clear when brewing was abandoned at MSB, I’d think prehaps before the First World War. I hope MSB does make its own beer again one day. This would be salutary from a number of standpoints, while to be sure it’s a decision to be carefully thought. If MSB commences brewing, I would suggest it make an ale from all-English materials including the yeast. I wouldn’t use a Belgian yeast, in particular. Making a traditional English ale would honour much of the history in question: it was English brewing skill that was deployed at Melleray’s brewery in France in 1817. And English Benedictines brought similar skills to Dieulouard Abbey in Lorraine, as I discussed here, and made English-style ale the renown of Lorraine for almost 200 years.

Further, the “Belgian taste” is familiar in the market today from the numerous Trappist beers, and other beers in that style, available in the market. I would do something different, strictly English, in particular, and no American hops. This seems consistent with early MSB brewing history.

Finally, as to alcohol, I would make a fairly rich beer at 5% or 6% abv. 7% seems rather high, anyhow Ampleforth Abbey is currently filling that niche nicely. If the MSB monks will drink the beer and 5%-6% is felt too high, it can always be diluted with 50% sparkling water. There is historical precedent for monastic beer to “take” water in this fashion, as mentioned above.

Note re images: This first image above is from the website of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, linked in the first sentence of the text above. The second image appeared in this news storyin the Catholic journal La Croix regarding issuance of a beer in 2011 by Mont des Cats Trappist monastery in France. It shows a “table beer”, thus with no or very little alcohol, marketed when Mont des Cats abbey had a working brewery onsite c.1900. Images are believed available for historical or educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.

ADDENDUM: AFTER PENNING THE ABOVE I LOCATED YET A FURTHER ACCOUNT OF A VISIT TO MSB ABBEY, IN 1842, WHICH DESCRIBES THE BEER SERVED. SEE THE LINK AND MY DISCUSSION IN THE COMMENTS BELOW.

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*ADDED JUNE 27, 2018: MOUNT SAINT BERNARD’S NEW BREWERY IS NOW OPERATING. FOR A FULL UPDATE SEE MY POST OF THAT DATE, HERE.

 

An English Visitor Renders High Praise to Westmalle’s Beer, 1847

Hello Moeder, Hello Vader

George Podesta wrote in 1853 that Westmalle Abbey made the best beer in Belgium. Some may think that was a one-off, or fluke, but a book written six years earlier by an Englishman said the same thing. It chronicled an extended visit to Antwerp which took in also Westmalle Abbey and Brussels. The Englishman was writing only 11 years after the fathers commenced brewing operations in 1836.

The book is Antwerp. A Journal Kept ThereWhile running over 200 pages, it is anonymous, as was frequently the custom then for this type of writing. The author was well-born, and I’d guess in his 20s judging by the context. He indicated that he traveled in company with relations who were a “lady and gentleman”, possibly his parents. The book is not a travel guide of the Frommer or Lonely Planet type, nor is it a formal economic or historical study. Essentially it is travel literature.

Almack's_Assembly_Rooms_insideThere are many interesting nuggets. He wrote that well-born visitors invited to dance at balls were introduced to young ladies as potential partners. So popular were the ladies’ services, they would note the request in a “memorandum“, and frequently respond (I paraphrase), “I can’t do it Thursday, not Friday either, maybe Saturday, I’ll get back to you”. Another interesting remark is a story he relates of a friend travelling with his Yorkshire-born servant in nearby Holland. The friend calls for the man to attend him, but he is nowhere to be found. When he searches the hotel where they were staying, the tardy valet is finally located, he is among a group of “hotel people” (Hollanders), regaling them with funny stories and all laughing up a storm in Dutch.

The astonished master asks him, “How do you know Dutch?”. The attendant responds, “Sir, I never larned nothing of the sort, but bless ye, Sir, it’s nothing but bad Yorkshire”. The author of Antwerp goes on to give a short list of English and Dutch words to show many are essentially the same, e.g., mother is moeder. (Moeder sounds the way someone from Brooklyn, NY would pronounce mother – but then the Dutch founded New York…).

Anyway, the author of Antwerp was blown away by Westmalle’s beer. Here is what he said:

The dinner then on the table consisted of potatoes, Brussels sprouts – a delicious vegetable – eggs, brown bread cut into very thin slices, butter, cheese, and beer, all excellent of their kind, particularly the beer, which is the best I have tasted in Belgium.

On this trip as I said, he spent considerable time in Antwerp, and therefore surely tasted brown barley beer and probably other kinds. He also frequented Brussels, where he would have tried sour beers and possibly others again. So while he didn’t have the familiarity George Podesta had of Belgium – Podesta was an Italian-born writer who called Belgium his second home and had written of the country earlier – his opinion must be given weight. This is especially so because it came from an English pen and the English knew beer, especially then.

Note re image above: This Victorian ballroom illustration is in the public domain and was sourced here. It is believed available for historical or educational purposes. All feedback welcomed.

Did Abbaye Notre-Dame de la Trappe Serve Bad Beer In the 1800s? (No)

Fermenting_kvassTrappist and Benedictine brewing disclosed a high level of competence in the pre-Revolutionary era and through the 19th century with the restoration of the monasteries and brewing in Belgium and France. Earlier, I discussed the high repute among English and French-speaking observers which Westmalle’s beers had within a generation of brewing starting in 1836. 

I mentioned that Chimay’s beer, at an impressive 7.2% alcohol, was included in an 1877 Belgian journal which measured alcohol and other analytics of contemporary beers. I discussed Dieulouard brewery’s beer in the 1890s, formerly made in the same brewery by English Benedictines. English ecclesiastic tasters – thus permit them an appropriate reticence – found the beer dark and strong with no negative mentions such as sourness.

I mentioned that Melleray abbey in Brittany started up brewing under English auspices in 1817, and only good things can be deduced from the accounts.

An 1853 visitor to Mont des Cats abbey on the French side of the Belgian frontier called the abbey’s brewing “good light beer” and said it “does no little credit to their brewer”.

The fact that these mentions survive at all from the 19th century is quite remarkable, and suggests a broader pattern of high quality throughout the abbey brewing world. This isn’t surprising when one considers that monastic brewing was instrumental in spreading the taste for good beer in Europe after about 800 A.D. Abbey brewing started to decline with the recurring problems monasteries encountered in various religious wars and the rise of secular brewing, but endured into the Revolutionary era in France.

Dieulouard abbey’s brewing, c. 1608- c.1790, was especially noted in this regard. Some German abbeys as well continued to brew concurrently with great skill, of which some evidence exists to this day.

I discussed also Abbaye Notre Dame de Bonne Espérance in the 1890s, in Dordogne, France. Its beer did not please the visitor who wrote about it, but this was due to its (for him) unusual yellow colour and thick unfiltered (“new”) character. There is no reason to think it was sour, or ill-brewed in any other way.

So when you read of apparently duff abbey beer it tends to jar the senses. To be sure, any brewery can make an off-product, it happens to the best of them. But taking all with all, one wouldn’t expect to read this comment from a visitor to La Grande Trappe in Soligny la Trappe, Orne, Normandy:

Our repast consisted of bread, butter, milk, herbs, and fruit; our beverage was equally simple, and far less palatable, being a liquid somewhat like a `half-and-half` mixture of ditch-water and purest Day and Martin in appearance, and in taste resembling nothing so much as `flat` beer, rendered tart by injudicious doses of vinegar.

The account is from a story in National Magazine in 1856, it appeared as well in other journals. I believe it originated in Tate’s Magazine, based in Edinburgh, in 1853. Day and Martin was a boot polish.

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The anonymous author, probably Tait, was anti-clerical, indeed anti-religious. His piece is rather scathing, often supercilious, and perhaps was intended not to cast a positive light on any aspect of abbey life, which he painted as unremittingly bleak and devoid even of the spiritual solace it was designed to secure its community. Still, let’s take what he said at face value. The real question is, was he talking about beer?

He doesn’t call what he drank beer as such: he says it tasted somewhat like flat beer that was sour. If it was beer, one would think he would have called it that. He refers to no brewing or a brewery at Notre Dame de la Trappe. While it is true that La Grande Trappe, as it is also known, the founding monastery of what became (officially in 1892) the Trappist order, brewed in its pre-Revolutionary heyday, there is no evidence that it brewed after its restoration from 1815.

In this fascinating 1895 article by Aleide Bonneau describing the abbey, published in a French magazine the Revue Universelle, not a word is mentioned about brewing. The article mentions all the ancillary activities of la Grande Trappe including its chocolaterie, but there no mention of beer, brewing, or any alcohol. It is impossible that the author would have missed this. He describes in detail what we would call an open-doors day, where the abbey allowed people through the porter`s gate to view the buildings and the monks. On the grounds were set up numerous “boutiques” where chocolate and other things were sold to raise money for the abbey’s orphanage. If bottles of beer were sold, the article would have mentioned it.

Readers interested in life in an 1800s monastery might click on the link because the article contains a number of very rare photos, indeed for any period. The monks’ dormitory is shown, a series of small rooms partitioned, almost like a college dorm except each is fully open to the corridor. The monks are shown working in a field, in full white vestments. In this case they stare at the camera, which is contrary to what you normally read, that they pay no or as little attention as possible to visitors. A drawing shows the monks dining in the refectory. Intriguingly, each has a set of bottles in front of him, one of which appears to be corked. But whether it contained beer is unknown.

caviar_prd_284_orgIf the beverage Tait disdained wasn’t beer, what was it? I offer two possibilities. The first is, it was kvass, the East European drink made from stale bread which generally is only lightly alcoholic.

One thing a Trappist monastery always had in abundance unless in extremis was bread. The bread in French monasteries wasn’t like our whole grain bread, not to mention the white Weston bread I had with eggs this morning. No, it was pain bis, a rough country bread made in huge loaves from rye or mixed grains and brown-to-black in colour.

Bread that had gone stale – what do you do with it? You can make kvass, a traditional drink in Russia and Ukraine and extensively consumed in the east. You just add water and let it ferment a bit, sometimes various flavours are added. I will aver that, having checked, I can find no evidence a drink like this was ever consumed in Normandy (nor did I find evidence a black, porter-like beer was ever made – to the contrary).

But bear in mind, monks had returned to France after 1815 who had spent time in exile far afield, including … Russia. They may have brought the idea from there as a quick way to make a lightly alcoholic, beer-like drink. Tait’s taste note – you can say that without tripping after four glasses of kvass, but don’t try it after one of Rochefort’s strongest – sounds a lot like kvass, which can be black as night, earthy, and is always partly sour.

If it wasn’t kvass, it may have been a coffee substitute, chicory, which was grown in France in the 1800s and used as a poor man’s coffee (that’s how it came to New Orleans). Chicory coffee can be sourish too especially to an unaccustomed palate.

But it wasn’t beer, okay? The Trappists don’t do bad beer.

Note re images: the first image shown, of kvass in preparation, is in the public domain and was sourced here. Attribution is as follows: By Edmund Schluessel (Sanyo S750i) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. The second image, of La Grande Trappe, is from this French website which markets reproduction of postcards, here.  The third, of a Russian-style black bread, is from House of Petrossian in Paris, here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

A Beer Fan Compares Westmalle Trappist To Other Belgian Beers – In 1853

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In Essai sur la Campine Anversoise, 1853, by George Podesta, which I referred to yesterday, Podesta described Westmalle Abbey’s beer as “the best in Belgium”. He also made further comments, which I will discuss here, which illuminate what Westmalle’s beer was.

He wrote (my translation), at pp. 64-65:

I have said the good fathers brew the best beer in the kingdom. Taste it, and you will prefer it by far to the rich faro of the capital, to the barley beer of the region which is always somewhat vinegary, to the bland and insipid beer of Louvain, and even to the beer of Diest which advised drinkers consider equal to the heady lambic of the capital.

This 163-year-old taste note, written by someone who was evidently a discriminating beer drinker, helps us to understand what Westmalle’s beer was like. We can deduce a number of things: first, it wasn’t sour. Podesta tells us squarely that the area’s barley beer – Antwerp and region’s brown barley malt style – was always somewhat sour. Numerous other sources of the mid-1800s confirm this. His reference to faro being rich or sumptuous is probably a reference to its sugary quality. Faro was and is a wild-fermented, malted barley-and-raw wheat beer, mid-gravity, 4% abv, approximately. Numerous sources say it was sour too but the sugar took the edge off.

Louvain had two types of beer (at least) and the one Podesta mentioned was clearly the “blanche” – a wheated style not dissimilar probably to the Hoegaarden type you can buy at many bars around the world today. I agree with Podesta that a blanche can be bland – it was considered mostly a summer refresher in the 1800s, not a cold weather drink. Louvain white may have tasted like Blanche de Chambly in Quebec, or Anchor Brewery’s wheated beer.

Podesta places Diest beer higher on the scale, with Brussels lambic, and the reason is evidently strength. These could attain 6% abv, maybe a bit more. Diest beer was rich-tasting – one source says “thick and sweet”, and could be sweet-sour as well. Diest used a lot of wheat in the mash, which probably gave it a sharp edge. A modern dark weizen of Germany, if you added a dollop of sugar, might approximate what Diest was.

So what more can we reasonably infer about Westmalle’s beer? It was not notably sweet like faro and Diest. It wasn’t bland like white beer. And it was reasonably strong, “heady” (“capiteux”), like lambic was and Diest too.

I would think Westmalle beer in 1853 – three years before the brown dubbel was produced – was either an all-barley beer – even though the abbey appears not to have grown barley in the 1850s – or a mixed-grain type, but in either case about 6% abv. And again, not sour, not sugary, not bland like a wheat beer. It was probably dark in colour, but this is unknown.

The fact that Podesta found Westmalle’s beer so good is notable given the generally poor reputation Belgian beer had internationally. This early Baedeker travel guide to Belgium mentions, see pg. 68, numerous of the beers mentioned above except for Trappist. It states Belgian beer will generally be “unpalatable” to visitors. The reason is, as many other observers noted, the sourness of most Belgian beer. It was therefore noteworthy that Westmalle’s beer was not sour. No other Trappist or monastic beer I have read of, so far, was sour.

Since monastics, especially Cistercians, were expert brewers and formed an international community with links to eminent brewing nations such as England and Germany, it is reasonable to infer that their beer was never sour and perhaps all-barley malt or reliant on barley for its quality. The strain of Trappist brewing in France and environs influenced by England would have favoured, at least from the 1600s onward, barley malt and no sourness. And we know there was significant English brewing expertise deployed in France in the 1600s-1800s, notably at the Dieulouard and Melleray abbeys.

I’ve said it before, but monks setting up brewing in Belgium were unlikely to borrow expertise and recipes from the next village. That is not how monastic endeavour worked. In many ways, Cistercian and Trappist communities functioned like a modern international corporation. Knowledge and techniques developed by the older abbeys, based on the primal text of St. Benedict and elaborated by his followers, were applied to set up and run the newer, albeit self-governing, monasteries.

As Jane Grigson whom I quoted not long ago wrote in relation to the network of Cistercian abbeys in Britain, the fathers came in with a well-defined plan to establish farming, other industry, and monastic life. This reflected a good measure of central planning and execution. Quentin Skrabec, Jr.’s remarks, in his book on Benedictine business success, are illuminating in this regard. By the 1400s, he says the abbeys were dominant in Europe, not just in brewing, but in many other industries, everything from forging to textiles to coal-mining.

We know cheese-making followed this plan – the Port Salut model is still “the” Trappist type of cheese. Why would brewing have been any different? Belgian Trappist and abbey beers today are strong, malty, not sour, well-hopped. Village beers, in contrast, often were weak, used grains other than barley, and were sour, sweet, or both. Trappist ale was never local and even today there are only really two styles amongst them: dubbel and tripel.  (Or if you will, top-fermented, barley-based blonde and brown beers in different strengths). Orval is something of an outlier, but even then is not a wheat beer, not sour, reliant on barley malt, well-hopped. Close enough.

A pattern emerges…

I will take the point that grains produced by a particular farm in a Trappist community may have influenced the mash-bill for its beer. Somewhere, a text must exist which guided the expansion of monastic brewing in Europe, maybe in Latin. One day it will emerge to public view and it will be interesting to read what it says.

Note re image: The image of a painting of St. Benedict giving his Rule to his followers is in the public domain and was sourced here. It is believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Westmalle Abbey’s Beer – Famous By 1853

Frans_Van_Leemputten_-_Market_day_in_the_Campine

An extraordinary picture comes down to us from an 1872 article describing a visit to Westmalle Abbey. By the second part of the 19th century, a small genre of travel literature was visits to a Trappist monastery. Numerous examples can be found in English and French magazine and book publishing of the period. They are most revealing of the way the monks lived and did their physical and spiritual work then.

One such report from 1872, by John Macdonald in his Monks of La Trappe, is particularly perceptive, and candid. It describes a scene at Westmalle Abbey where beer is enjoyed as part of the meal:

In spite of their black gowns and blue-collars, they are as jolly over their ale as if they were a company of English farmers at an inn…. The brew of which the hospitable father is so lavish, is inferior to none other in King Leopold’s dominions … one considerately shows one’s appreciation by grave laudatory remarks and repeated raids among the bottles, of which there stand a whole regiment in loose order on the table.

Usually references to beer at monasteries, then and certainly now, are made in a restrained fashion. One almost never reads that good enjoyment was taken in the drink, as the suggestion of it would seem at odds with the spirit of privation and other-worldliness which characterizes religious retreats. Yet in reality life was not so simple, at least not at all brewing monasteries. John Macdonald was prepared to be honest with his readers on the point, although his essay makes amply clear too that monastic life at Westmalle was highly spiritual and also well-organized in the physical and intellectual labours which supported the community. These included farming, brewing, wine-making, shoe-making, laundering, teaching.

Michael Jackson, in his own courteous way, once hinted at something of this nature, he was referring to an abbey’s beer which was only drunk at special occasions, but was told one monk liked to take a glass each morning at 10:00 a.m. The host imparting the information was non-judgmental. Even in the hyper-idealistic environment of the monastery, humanity is always present. Macdonald for his part surely was aware of the popular image of the monk in England, the “merrie monk”, and perhaps was playing up to that, but his account has the ring of truth read in the context of the full account.

Macdonald also describes Westmalle’s hothouses where grapes were grown for wine. The grapes were grey-green in colour, he said. He likened the wine to sauternes. This wine was obviously made from the Muscat variety, indeed this is still grown in Belgium and sometimes added to beer for some extra fermentable sugar and flavour. (It occurs to me now that Westmalle’s early cultivation of grapes and cereals perhaps led to experiments which led to this interesting wine-beer hybrid). Macdonald gives a lyrical description of the abbey wine vaults and pictures himself in “shirt-sleeves”, with chair up against the wall enjoying a “sparkling” drink from the “casks and casklets” and “bird’s-eye”, a form of pipe tobacco. One form of muscatel is sparkling, the “d’asti”, so it all ties in. However, he makes it clear the monks did not take Bacchic pleasures. The wine was reserved for guests and sold to buyers outside.

duck-1What grains was Westmalle’s beer made from in this period? No information is available to my knowledge. In “Essai sur la Campine Anversoise“, 1853, by George Podesta, the writer calls (at pg. 64) the abbey’s beer “the best beer in Belgium”. This was three years before its dubbel was inaugurated, yet already its beer had renown. Podesta stated that the fields of the abbey grew “wheat, rye and oats”.  There is no mention of barley. Barley beers of various kinds were brewed commercially throughout Belgium, and in particular “bière d’orge” (barley beer) was a well-known type of Antwerp and its hinterlands, of which Westmalle’s domains form a part.  This beer was fairly weak, brown, and usually sour according to a number of contemporary accounts. De Koninck, the famous beer of Antwerp, is a descendant of this beer, albeit it lost the sourness on the way – not a bad thing, IMO.

Trappist beer, from my historical researches, was not sour, and in fact there is specific evidence to this effect regarding Westmalle which I will discuss in another post. But albeit not sour, if not made from barley, it might have resembled one of the saison beers of today which aren’t sour. If made from barley, which evidently was available to those who wanted to brew from it, it may have resembled De Koninck of today except that Westmalle’s dubbel, from 1856was stronger.

The achievements of the Westmalle monks are described vividly by Macdonald – his essay is every bit like a modern travel documentary except that words substitute for the images. The success of Westmalle is all the more remarkable given what the fathers had to work with: thin, sandy soil in one of the least productive parts of Belgium, the Campine. When monks were given land by state or nobility to work it, it wasn’t always fecund; the reverse was more usually the case. But monks were looked to for their knowledge, resourcefulness, and dedication to make unforgiving land productive. They often succeeded where secular farming didn’t. Westmalle’s venture began in 1796, faltered with the convulsions of war and displacement, resumed in 1815 and grew steadily from that time with brewing commencing in 1836. Westmalle is today the very picture and image of monastic brewing.

Note re images: The first image, a painting from 1910 by Frans van Leemputten entitled Market Day In The Campine, is in the public domain and was sourced here. The second image, of a glass of De Koninck beer with accompanying illustration, is from the brewery’s website, which I linked in the text above. Both are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Some Recent Tasting Notes

Just some beers I’ve liked in the past weeks:

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Above is Molson Coors Hops ‘n Bolts, via its Creemore unit (it’s brewed up there, I believe). It’s an India Pale Lager. This one was first-rate because no sulphur notes. Sometimes it has it, sometimes it doesn’t. The beer is much better without it, where the hops and malt have their full say without that boiled eggy thing hanging over the taste. I hope the brewery will work on this as I believe it will sell much more of it in this perfect form.

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Since I’ve been writing so much about Trappist and abbey beers, I thought I would try one, or rather one in their style, brewed in Quebec. This one, which has some kind of connection to the Oka Trappist Monastery, is full-tasted, sweeter than many Belgian examples and all to the good with a sweet gale-like herbal note. The Belgian yeast is there but it doesn’t overpower the drink as it does in many Belgian examples. A textbook golden ale in the Belgian way.

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Above is Palm Ale, the “spéciale”  which is derived from an English pale ale model c. 1900 and became a popular beer in Belgium as an alternative to lager. It’s good, and flowery English hops are there (O when will a craft brewer use them in the quantity they were meant for vs. another “terrific” grapefruit bomb?). However, the body is light and there is evidently adjunct there. It would be better all-malt and with more of those hops. I still liked it though, served very fresh at Biermarkt, Don Mills Shops branch.

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I’ve mentioned this a few times but it deserves reiteration: this beer is first league all the way. Rich, malty, fresh, natural. Virtually a perfect dunkel, short of Ron showing me something better in Franconia. Also tasted at Biermarkt recently.

Chimay’s Original Trappist Beer: Was It From Wheat or Spelt?

spelt__15577.1366129174.1280.1280Today, Chimay’s beers are mashed from malted barley, with sugar and wheat flour added as additional fermentable material.

Other BelgianTrappist breweries and abbey beers also use malt and sugar, generally, but some may be all-malt or all-grain at any rate.

In the 1800s, as monasteries and brewing were being restored or newly established in the wake of the French Revolution, it is unclear what grains were used for Trappist beers in Belgium. As I have explained, there is an English strain in Trappist brewing, via e.g., English procedures applying at Melleray in Brittany (early 1800s) and at Dieulouard abbey (early 1600s-c. 1790). This might suggest barley malt was the basis of the beers brewed there and perhaps 100% of the mash. Bear in mind too that when Dieulouard was operating there were few brewing abbeys (if any others) left in France on the eve of the Revolution, so the English influence would have been stronger when abbeys and brewing re-started after 1815 in France and in what became Belgium.

Still, as scholar Richard Unger and others have documented, mixed grain bills were often used in Middle Ages brewing in England and France. Second, brewing would often depend on what a monastery had available to it and in particular what crops it produced. There was probably a variety of grain bills used in French, Flemish and Walloon monastic brewing from 1300, say, until the French Revolution. German abbeys in Bavaria would have used all-malt from the time of the Pure Beer Law – at least one supposes this, but then they had or could obtain malt by virtue of being in an area known for brewing which used this material as a matter of course.

Bioland Bayern Dinkel, Juli 2002, Kloster Plankstetten, ökologischer Landbau ,Getreideanbau

In my recent post describing a visit to a brewing monastery in France in the 1890s by E. Harrison Barker, I noted he called the brew there, “monastic barley brew”. This implies that barley figured in the recipe, but we don’t know for sure. Barker may have reflexively called the beer “barley brew” because of his English background and knowledge that beer was made from barley. Also, the beer’s taste seemed rather foreign to Barker, and one reason for that may have been its non-barley malt grain bill.

What did Chimay, for its part, use in brewing after its founding on land ceded the Trappists by the Prince of Chimay at Scourmont in 1850? The monastery probably knows from its own records, but if it does, I don’t think this information has ever been disclosed.

We have a way to infer what was used from an account of its farm operations written in 1869. In that year, a book was published containing a description of the monastery, called “Histoire de l’Abbé de Rancé”, written by Abbé Louis Dubois. He stated in detail the crops grown: wheat (2/3ds of the field), rye (1/3rd), but with spelt (a form of wheat) and oats also produced. Perhaps proportions varied with crop rotation. No mention is made of barley, and indeed other sources suggest barley did not grow well in Belgian Hainaut at least in this period.

We know, too, from Georges Lacambre’s French-language brewing manual of the same period, that saison beers in Hainaut used barley malt and spelt but often only spelt. The spelt was always malted. Other grains if used, such as rye or oats, were not malted, he said.

This leads me to think that Chimay, including the 7.2% abv one I discussed recently from 1877, was a wheat or spelt beer, or possibly a mix of grains I have mentioned known to have been grown at the abbey then. In this regard, the beers would taste, all things equal, lighter than a barley malt beer and be fairly frothy, as modern wheat beers are.

If in 1877 Chimay was a wheat or spelt or mixed grain beer, it might resemble certain modern saisons; in fact this seems likely to me.

Of course, possibly Chimay in the decades after its founding did grow some barley for brewing and other purposes. Perhaps the fathers obtained it by trading or otherwise from outside the abbey’s domain, as well. But I incline to think they used what was typically grown by them.

The modern use of sugar and wheat flour in connection with barley malt makes sense to me as a way to lighten the body of a beer which, in its formative years, may have been notably light-bodied due to a substantial malted spelt or wheat content. The monks may have, probably did, know the earlier history of farming and brewing onsite. Once barley malt was fixed on as the base material, they may have decided to leaven it, so to speak, with other materials. Purpose: to achieve a profile similar to the beers originally made on the estate.

I still feel English brewing influence contributed to the dubbel style and strength, but the knowledge now of what Chimay actually grew between 1850 and 1870 suggests to me some early Trappist beer, or at least Chimay’s, was not all-barley malt and may have used none in the mash.

Note re images shown: the first image shown is from this homebrewing supplies website. The second is from this organic farming website of the German government. Images are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

An English Visitor Reports on Trappist Beer – in 1893.

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E. (Edward) Harrison Barker was an English professional travel writer. His active period was the last 25 years of the 1800s and into the Edwardian period. It appears he was the son of Thomas Jones Barker of Bath, a well-known artist who specialized in equestrian and military subjects. One of the “Charge of the Light Brigade” paintings is his.

E. Harrison Barker specialized in France among other countries. He lived there for at least ten years before authoring, among many other books, France of the French. It was well-received for its perspicacity and, as one reviewer put it, the writer’s independence of mind.

In particular, Barker had an interest in southwest France: he sought out areas then still viewed as retrograde in the Belle Epoque. Poverty and backwardness could be pronounced there. In one book he describes an area where little other than bread sustained the people, who had to sleep on hard wooden benches.

Once he described a French clergyman (not monastic) who doted on his library of learned tomes. The priest subsisted on nothing more than bread and oranges but glowed with delight when describing a collection to Barker that included Milton and Shakespeare…

There are other illuminating moments, and wry ones. In one, a sharp-witted peasant-woman says to him, I paraphrase, “Why do you tramp hundreds of miles into desolate areas like this only to encounter poverty and imbeciles?”. She adds, “If I was you, I’d go to Paris and London and be enlightened by the best minds”.

The book review which recounted this thought her overly practical and modern; I think it missed the point, which is not to take away from the value of Barker’s work.

In 1893 Barker, in typically wide-screen style, described a visit to a Trappist monastery, the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Bonne-Espérance, in Echourgnac, France. The piece is called A Night With The Trappists. Echourgnac is in a still-remote pays west of Limoges in Acquitane’s northern Dordogne. At the time it was marshy, fever-ridden, impoverished. Older people still often did not know French, as against the patois they grew up with.

Barker specialized in introducing such regions to a public more familiar with France as a destination for gentlemen to finish their education, or for holidaying. But even then some people wanted the exotic, the less-travelled, proverbially, and he gave it to them.

chimay_3x3in_shelftalker_cropped_doreeThe fathers had come to the marshlands in 1868 from the noted Port-du-Salut abbey in Mayenne to improve agriculture in the area, drain the swamps, make cheese (in the Port Salut way, naturally), and help the people. The particular area they went to was, and is, called, “the Double”, oddly to our ears.

The priests built a brickworks first, to fashion and cure the bricks from which the abbey was later built. Barker’s description of his stay is absorbing, not least because of repeated references to the abbey’s beer. He speaks often of the food too, which was certainly rude: bread and cheese, which he enjoyed, thin soup, and “black macaroni”(?).

No meat was eaten, following spartan Trappist ways, and fish is not mentioned. Still, the monks seemed to thrive on the diet – and their beer.  Indeed, as Barker noted pointedly, “There is no escaping malt liquor here”.

He was greeted with a glass of it by the porter, poured from a stone jug. It was also served in bottles on numerous occasions during his stay, including with each meal. While Barker seems to have liked beer, one senses he was taken aback to be given beer so often, “monastic barley-brew”, he called it.

At one point he intimates some of his hosts had an ulterior motive, their own refreshment, of course. Barker didn’t like the brew initially, describing it as “yellow” and in another passage, looking like pea soup. He also called it “thick and slab”, a phrase in Shakespeare. “Make the gruel thick and slab” is from Macbeth). Slab meant gluey.

However, he states he became accustomed to the beer. I’d like to think it tasted like Chimay Gold, made today by Trappist monks at Scourmont, Belgium.

No doubt Barker’s beer wasn’t fermented highly, which makes sense for a drink serving as a daily standby: it was surely low in alcohol, that is. One of his hosts stated the beer was “new”. It was probably yeasty and turbid, like some beers which are toast of the town today. Plus ça change.

The brewing here shows too that it was not only monasteries in northern France, Belgium, and other northern climes who brewed; brewing took place, in line with old monastic practice, all over Europe where monks did their work, even in some southern parts. It’s a reminder too that most grain-growing areas had a beer of some kind at one time or another.

Why would a “yellow” beer strike Barker as unusual? This is hard to say. He was probably used to pale ale, mild ale, and porter, beers that ranged from orange-amber to black. But who knows… Barker noted that the abbey made both wine and beer. He pined for the wine, a white was made but only served in winter. Barker was there at the wrong time, the bane of any traveller.trappe-echourgnac-31193_w500

When he departed, the monk seeing him off offered him a last glass of monastic barley brew – which he refused. Not so sporting I think. He comes off as a combination of prig and practiced traveller, almost stereotypically English by which I mean, the image the English had then in foreign parts. (Do they still? I don’t know, my sense is things have changed).

But the account is withal very interesting and a sure guide no doubt to place and time.

What happened to the Trappist projet at Notre-Dame de Bonne-Espérance? By 1910 the profound anti-clerical legislation of 1903-1905 did it in. The monks left, inventaire was taken of the goods, and they were sold off. But the story ends well from a Trappist standpoint. In 1923, a community of sisters established a permanent presence, also of the reformed Cistercian (Trappist) order. They had come from another part of the southwest, spent time in Spain under exile, and finally were given refuge in Echourgnac in the relative détente of State and clergy that followed the convulsions of WW I.

The nuns are there still today and make the Port Salut-type cheese that Barker ate. Indeed in 1999 a second cheese was added. It is matured in a walnut liqueur fetched not too distant, and became a hit. No beer or wine is made as far as I know.

Michael Jackson, the great beer writer, introduced modern Trappist beer to the secular sphere. He once described an overnight visit to a monastic brewery in Belgium. But he wasn’t the first to do so, and who took note of its beer.

Note re images: the first image is of the subject abbey in Echourgnac, France and was taken from the website of Service des Moniales, a site devoted to the sisters of all orders who inhabit convents and serve their communities. The second image is from the website of a marketing agency for Chimay beer, here.  The third image is from the French tourism site, France-Voyage, here. All are believed available for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.

 

 

Trappist Dubbel vs. Belgium’s Traditional Styles

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Dubbel – Not From Terroir, It Reflects A Higher Authority

No one will ever agree on a list of Belgian beer styles, and it has been said the beer culture is too anarchic and creative to admit of one.

Still, accepted categories do exist. You can find them in various books, including Michael Jackson’s iconic early studies. You can find them online, e.g., Beer Advocate’s useful list.

When you look at these materials as well as 19th century sources such as this 1862 National Magazine article and this French-language industrial survey (undated) by Louis Guillaume Figuier, a fuller, consistent pattern emerges.

There are the sour beers of the Brussels area, based on lambic; white beers with wheat from Louvain and Hoegaarden; spelt-based beer from Liège, now generally called saison; brown beer from Malines/Mechelen; Trappist beers and the “abbey” group with the brown dubbel as their core; the Louvain peeterman, which was a deep yellow, often honey-infused, dextrinous beer. There are today English pale ale-types, e.g., Palm Ale, which have an early 1900s British inspiration. There are a few porters such as, ironically, Monk’s Stout, also of British inspiration, and the Scotch of ditto inspiration. Also Bush beer (Scaldis in some markets), the Burton-type, extra-strong ale developed in the 1930s. And to be sure the oude bruin (old brown) and red ales of Flanders.

I view the strong dark ales of the Trappist and abbey breweries as a sub-set of dubbel: it’s strong brown beer, not heavily hopped. Martin Lodahl, who wrote one of the best short treatments of the Trappist and abbey group, would agree.

I exclude beers which seem clearly to have disappeared including those based on maize, potato or rice, and those which use a hop no longer grown.

This is not exhaustive but sets out the main categories. And today also, there are American-hopped beers or others showing U.S. influence, strong ales such as Delerium Tremens which are hard to classify, and all kinds of fruit beers, some of which are traditional.

Delirium_nocturnumOf the 19th century group, none can clearly be pointed to as predecessor of the Trappist dubbel style. Ostensibly closest is the brown beer of Malines, which in the 1862 magazine article above, see pg. 30, is even called a double brown beer. But look at how Louis Figuier described it in the French account mentioned above. He said it was “cut” one-quarter to one-third with beer that had matured 12-18 months to give an old beer taste to the blend. That is not dubbel.

All dubbel I’ve had is clean and non-lactic. Certainly this is so from the Trappists but also for the abbey beers I’ve had: Leffe, Grimbergen, St. Sixtus, St. Feuillen, Brunehaut’s, etc.

Ditto for North American emulations.  An “abbey” isn’t sour. Or if it is, it isn’t a traditional dubbel.

The brown beer of Malines, in Second Empire and Third Republic France, was surely similar to the modern Flanders beers which have a decided sour tang: Liefmans Goudenband, say, also Rodenbach’s family of beers. The flagship Mechelen beer today, Gouden Carolus, is sometimes called a dubbel. Whether it falls in the dubbel category may depend whether you feel you can detect a sour tang in it. Some online taste reports suggest there is one, and many don’t mention it. I haven’t had the beer in some years, so can’t say.

My point is, when Westmalle first brewed brown beer 1856 and Chimay commercialized a similar beer in the 1860s, they could not have followed local, secular precedent of any kind. The same thing for Westvleteren’s brown beer first sold 1931. Achel, brewing in modern times from 1999, offers a typical dubbel. Rochefort’s beers have always been in this veinOnly Orval went a different direction in the 1930s with its old-fashioned but English pale ale style, perhaps reflecting the particular influence British brewing had in secular Belgian brewing then.

Another point: if dubbel was really a takeoff on a local, long-established style, the beers from the monasteries in the French part should be saison and/or another Walloon type of the 1800s. The monasteries in Flanders should all have sour red or brown beers, or something like peeterman, or a potato beer. They don’t. This is judging by what they have all made since the 1970s, but given their traditional focus I doubt they would change anything important like a lactic character or a colour. They may ensure their yeast is reliable; they may update their equipment, or tinker with abv or a hop; they will not change the fundamental style of a signature product.

They might add a new beer though, which appears to be the case for tripel. And it’s not done that often!

The phoenix that Belgian monasteries were in the 1800s made their best beer, and the one first sold to the public, in line with an intramural, Benedictine, international tradition. Dieulouard’s Saint-Laurent Abbey, which I discussed in recent posts, was a major part of that heritage. It was one of the last monastic breweries in the two centuries preceding the French Revolution, but a very successful one.

I very much doubt any of Dieulouard’s beer, Westmalle’s 1856 brown beer, Chimay’s 7.2% beer of 1877, or Westvleteren’s beer sold from 1931, was sour. Dieulouard’s beer was inspired by English brewing tradition and the English, generally, did not appreciate sour beers – I said generally. Sourness had a place in some porter, for a time, and it was part of the profile of some old ale. It may have prevailed in isolated regions, e.g., Bristol and environs. It wasn’t the “taste” of the nation as a whole.

One way we know how Belgium was different is that English and French-language observers often noted that Belgium’s beer in the 1800s was typically sour. Average levels of acidity in English beer may have been higher then than now, but had English beer been as sour as Belgium’s, you wouldn’t read such statements. An example, from 1890, is from this Parliamentary hearing at paragraph 4384.

In addition, English and the top grade of monastic ales were always on the strong side, vs. Belgium’s beers typically consumed by the people; the same applies to dubbel and its derivatives.

Trappist and abbey dubbels have no counterpart in traditional, secular Flemish or Wallonian brewing. They also do not derive from whole cloth: they have a separate tradition, elements of which I have described or adverted to.

Note re images: the first image above is Tavern Scene, c.1658, by David Teniers, a Flemish artist. It was sourced from Wikipedia, here. The second image, also from Wikipedia and also in the public domain, was sourced here; it shows a beer from Huyghe Brewery in Belgium. Both are believed available for educational and historical use. All feedback welcomed.

The Session, No. 111 – May 6, 2016 (Posting One Day Ahead)

The Session logoOliver Gray, of the Literature & Libation site, has penned a thoughtful and witty article, here, to set out May’s Beer Blogging Session topic. He indicates some lassitude with the beer scene and his own interest in beer and breweries, and wonders if it may be symptomatic of a broader trend. He asks for input from bloggers whether yea, nay or other. Below is my contribution, which is an edited version of a comment I made on Oliver’s posting the other day.

Sample quote from Oliver: “Maybe it’s the politics of purchasing or selling. Maybe the subculture has peaked. Maybe this is the natural progression of a hobby that has no real tie to the industry behind it”.

I don’t feel the way Oliver indicates. And I’ve been following beer and the beer industry since the mid-1970s.

I think it may come down to a very in-depth appreciation of the beer palate, I mean at its best. That is a continual search, it doesn’t end with the next 100 craft breweries to come to your attention, or the last 500. It goes on because you enjoy the great experiences when they occur and the unpredictability of the search.

For some (and I’m not saying Oliver), it is enough to have tried the major categories, travelled to some beer destinations, and read a lot of books and online sources on beer. But for me, it’s the taste that is really important. Very few beers really have the “right” taste, meaning obviously one I think is nigh perfect. But some do, they can be craft beers, non-craft, imports. I just know when I encounter a particularly fine example of a beer type and that’s probably what keeps it going for me, the search. Indeed it can vary within a brand as the way a beer is handled before you drink it can result, and often does, in different tastes for the same beer.

My suggestion is – to anyone once a certain knowledge is gained – focus on what you really like. One needn’t try everything, or be up on every new brewery. Once past a certain point, we have all tried more than enough to scope the beer palate. While I am interested in all styles of beer especially from a historical point of view, I don’t usually drink more than a small number of styles. Rarely sour beers, for example – but occasionally I’ll find one that shows me how interesting they can be. Rarely smoked ones, unless again I find one particularly good, e.g., Roog BraufactuM, a smoked dark wheat beer from Radeberger (Germany) I had the other day.

I like pale ales, porters, blonde lagers and dark lagers, mostly. Last night I had a Krombacher Dark draft that was virtually perfect – the perfect dunkel style, for me – others are free to dispute.

Also, there are many side-streets in the beer world. There is a huge amount to learn about beer history, for example. About malt. About hops, or yeast – characteristics, history, flavours.

It never really ends, there is always more to learn. The beer palate is the core of it for me, but I find all the aspects really interesting: Heineken’s new Brewlock dispense system, say, which I wrote about recently. I pay no mind to the fact that Heineken may not interest many craft fans. I make my own judgments about what I think is good or interesting, as all readers should.

But there is nothing wrong with not being committed, that’s okay of course. If it’s run its course with anyone, that’s fine, but it is not (I believe) any harbinger of what is in store for the industry. I predict its continued growth and the continued availability of better beer.