An English Visitor Reports on Trappist Beer – in 1893.


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.