Mount Saint Bernard’s Brewer Rates His Own Product, 1890s
Mount Saint Bernard Abbey (MSB) is one of three Cistercian communities active in the United Kingdom.
The others are Caldey Island in Wales and Abbey Sancta Maria in Nunraw, Scotland. Each is Strict Observance (Trappist). In Ireland, Mount Melleray Abbey is also Trappist.
None currently conducts any brewing, but MSB had beer available in-house for much of the 19th century, and I understand is considering restoring brewing.*
MSB is near Coalville, Leicestershire. It was founded by a delegation from Mount Melleray in Ireland in the 1830s. I discussed earlier 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 repression of monastic life under the Revolution. They sought refuge initially in Switzerland. Invading French armies forced them to flee, to Russia and finally Britain.
In 1795 they were given refuge in Lulworth, Dorset by a sympathetic English Catholic family. In 1817 under changed conditions in France, the monks departed Lulworth to found Melleray Abbey in Brittany. Recurring anti-clerical measures in France forced them to leave France again, and Mount Melleray Abbey in Ireland was founded as the successor.
In the constant migration and re-establishment of Trappist life, Westmalle Abbey in Belgium was established by monks who intended originally to re-settle in Canada. The French Melleray Abbey, and also the original home of Strict Observance, la Grande-Trappe in Normandy (Notre Dame de la Trappe), were re-established finally by others on a permanent footing.
All have continued to the present date, however the Trappists at Melleray Brittany will depart the monastery later this year due to declining numbers.
Other Trappist abbeys in Belgium are connected to this history, as are a number in North America. They are an outgrowth of the repression of monasticism under the French Revolution and later Napoleon.
As a reminder, both La Grande-Trappe and Abbaye Melleray in France brewed beer. The French Melleray, whihc included some British monks, brewed on the English system – this is amply documented, which I discussed in earlier posts. While little is known of the beer they made, it may have been all-barley malt. In the early 1800s beer in England was generally 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, 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 the crops the farm at the domain raised.
Records perhaps are available at Melleray today in Ireland, or indeed still in France, to indicate how the ex-Lulworth monks brewed in Brittany.
As for La Grande-Trappe, almost certainly its beer was low-alcohol. Normandy had an old brewing heritage derived from Viking invaders, but it was partly displaced by cider in the Middle Ages. Nonetheless, beer continued to be made in the region including by some abbeys, and was available certainly at La Grande Trappe after Abbé de Rancé did his groundbreaking reformatory work. At first only cider was used but some fathers found cider didn’t suit them, and in any case it was not always available. Abbé de Rancé, not wishing to have recourse to wine, commanded that a brewery be installed, as confirmed in an 1866 history of the legendary abbot and the Trappists, Histoire de l’Abbé de Rancé et de sa réforme, Volume 1, by Louis Dubois.
Dieulouard Abbey in Lorraine, an English Benedictine establishment, brewed beer for almost 200 years before the French Revolution with a high repute for taste and strength. A low-alcohol, or diluted, version was probably served to the fathers. An 1890s reference cited earlier states Dieulouard beer “supported dilution”.
Just as today when Trappist monasteries do not serve their strongest beer to the fathers, in former times also monks did not drink strong beer. If they drank at all, a weaker beer was available.
Hence, in terms of contemporary opinion on 19th-century beer at MSB we should not expect connoisseur-level comments. This is particularly so where, as seems the case, MSB offered only one beer, which probably was weak in alcohol. It is true that Westmalle in Belgium excelled from the starting block in the brewing arts, but this may have been an exception, or the strong beer it made was mainly for guests or sale at the abbey gate.
So what did visitors say of MSB beer?
Here are some details in a reversed chronology, from my own research. An article described a visit to MSB in 1890, An English Monastery, published originally in the magazine All The Year Round. The uncredited author asked his host what the fathers eat. The answer: bread, vegetable soup, boiled rice, jam (“to help the rice go down”), and “a cup of beer”. To the rejoinder “then you are not teetotalers?”, the father answered dryly, “The beer is not exactly double X, you know”. The amusing subtext, taken with the tradition mentioned, suggests the beer served was weak ale.
A second statement, by a visitor who drank the ale with the monks in 1872, was the beer was “most indifferent”. This can be read as weak again. Of course it is possible the visitor, a rather supercilious person by the tone of his piece, meant it was sour or tasted bad, but I don’t think likely that was meant.
A third observation is from the person who authored the memoir of Antwerp discussed in my previous post. In the book he includes a parenthetical entry on MSB, which he 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 these items and clearly meant produce of MSB, not of England, or the U.K. in general.
MSB’s beer may have changed over the decades, but I think probably it was sound yet low in alcohol, 1%-2% abv. Possibly the MSB beer was 3-4% abv, this at a time when commercial ale and porter started at 5%, but I incline it was weaker. The above, c.1900 advert is for Mont des Cats Abbey “table beer”, hence weak beer, quite possibly the kind MSB brewed.
Some accounts of visits to MSB make no reference to beer or other alcohol. One states the only beverage encountered was water. Maybe MSB brewed at some times and not others, it is hard to say.
I am not clear when brewing was abandoned, probably 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 the decision must be carefully weighed. 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 brewery in France in 1817. And English Benedictines brought similar skills to Dieulouard Abbey in Lorraine, as I discussed earlier, and made English-style ale the renown of Lorraine for almost 200 years.
Further, the “Belgian taste” is very familiar in the market today from the numerous Trappist beers available, and other beers in that style. I would do something different, strictly English, in particular, with no American hops. This seems consistent with the 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.
Addendum: See in Comments below further period commentary on the abbey’s beer.
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.
*Added June 27, 2018: Mount Saint Bernard is now brewing again. For an update see, here.