English Brewing Expertise Powers Trappist Beer

f78de4_07849f64242c4fb1a054ecc1e674fd1bEnglish Monks, Stars of Abbey Brewing in France, 1600s-1789

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 brewing from their former abbey in France. But yet more fascinating, these monks had a distant British past which ultimately reached back to Westminster Abbey. Similarly, their beer had strictly English origins.

Thus, in 1802 the English Benedictine spirit and an English-inspired brewing tradition, both of which 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, suggests 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 became a refuge. Father Augustine Bradshaw supervised the raising of the necessary funds via his connections in Spain and elsewhere. Under his direction, a group of Benedictines left England in 1608, and some accounts state were joined by Irish, Scots or Spanish colleagues. They found 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 founded there the Abbaye de Saint Laurent, or St. Lawrence Abbey, whose name continues as part of the Ampleforth establishment. The fathers’ enterprise, with help from back home, assisted to buy adjoining lands on which to raise crops and livestock.

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The monks promptly set up a brewery and instituted hop culture using cuttings 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. We infer that growth is the English variety the monks brought with them in 1608.

In the particular part of Meurthe-and-Moselle where the monks established, brewing had not been well-known. Viticulture was known, and indeed the English settlers tended to vines too. But being mostly English (or British), 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 to provide for themselves and thus not rely on public donations.

The brewing project was wildly successful.* Their beer was called la bière anglaise and was a “double beer” in recipe. It enjoyed a high reputation through the 1600s and 1700s 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 one being the beer made by a Sieur Hoffman in Nancy who had a monopoly there (1700s).

Various accounts also state that 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 to get the sparkle, although I think this is doubtful – possibly the influence went the other way.

Double beer was a Tudor standby, so it makes sense English monk-brewers at Dieulouard brought good old strong English beer to their new home. By the way double in Flemish is … dubbel.

An article in The Downside Review, Vol. IV, entitled “St. Laurence’s at Dieulouard” (1885), states as follows:

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.

And so 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 a post-Revolution existence, even in the Moselle chapter. No doubt the brewery was very small, and either didn’t survive the onset of German-style lager 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 clearly 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.

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From its founding to its demise in 1789, the Saint-Laurent Abbey of Dieulouard retained 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 that 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 French 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 where their faith originated but also the original home of the product which allowed the French abbey to flourish for so long.

Even though brewing did not resume in England, the lore and special reputation of the brewing history were never forgotten. Finally Ampleforth decide to issue a beer to reflect this 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 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 strength in 1877). It sounds too like Ampleforth’s restored beer judging by reviews on the online rating services Beer Advocate and Ratebeer. Ampleforth’s beer  is very much in the Trappist style and is 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 such as wheat, spelt, oats, rye. This blend was called “bled” in early abbey records. Ampleforth’s recreation uses barley malt and wheat, which is 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 likely be the same as from hundreds of years ago.

(While we believe yeast is relatively unimportant in the total brewing picture, had we advised Ampleforth on the recreation we would have suggested an English ale yeast, as it appears the emigrating monks brought their English yeast to Dieulouard in jugs in 1608. But that is neither here nor there really).

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What all this shows in our view is a significant impact of English brewing, not just on the brewing culture of northern France, but on Trappist brewing specifically. The renown of the Dieulouard beer would have been understood in nearby francophone Belgium, where three Trappist breweries currently function. And it was probably known in Trappist and other monastic communities in France 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 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 after the Revolution, attests to the influence Dieulouard had to have on 1800s monastic brewing. This meant, as I have long felt and other indices show (see my 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 (indirectly) the production of newly strong beer.

The influence goes much deeper than that.

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*After preparing the above  The History of Ampleforth Abbey (1903) by Dom Cuthbert Almond came to my attention including chapter 18 on Dieulouard’s brewing. 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 estimates 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, that my “wildly successful” term should be restricted to the 18th century. Still, the main points in my discussion are borne out by this chapter. Incidentally, Dom Almond states that the beer was regarded as (I translate) “well-conditioned”. This meant the beer was permitted to stand long enough to develop a suitable carbonation and also clear itself of residual yeast and not be overly turbid. To this day, good conditioning is regarded as necessary for any beer albeit this is ensured typically in ways not foreseen in the 1600s-1700s. The point is though, the abbey’s product was clearly superior and its competition probably too often came to the table flat and muddy-looking.

Also, I have made clear now in the text 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.