Brewing at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, 19th Century

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Mount Saint Bernard’s Brewer Rates His Own Product 

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.*

MSB is located near Coalville, in Leicestershire. A delegation from Mount Melleray in Ireland founded MSB 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 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. 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 the successor.

In this process of constant migration and re-establishment of Trappist life, Westmalle Abbey in Belgium was founded 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 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, La Grande-Trappe and Abbaye Melleray in France 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 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 what the farm at the domain grew.

Records might be available at Melleray today in Ireland, or indeed still in France, to indicate how the Lulworth monks 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, 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. In fact, 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, 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 stated Dieulouard beer “supported dilution”. Just as today when the Trappist monasteries do not serve their strongest beers to the fathers, in former times likewise monks did not drink strong beer. If they drank at all, a weaker beer was available for this use.

Hence, in terms of what 19th-century monks drank at MSB we should not expect to encounter connoisseur-level opinions. 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 original research. An article describing a visit to MSB in 1890, An English Monastery, was 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.

 

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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.

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*Added June 27, 2018: Mount Saint Bernard is now brewing again. For an update see, here.

 

2 thoughts on “Brewing at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey, 19th Century”

  1. I have since found another account of a visit to Mount Saint Bernard, from 1842, here is the link.

    The careful observer, Reverend Robert Aspland, stated that the beer served with the meal was like “table ale”. Table ale was the weaker sort of ale suitable for taking with meals.

    If regular strong ale c. 1840 was 7% abv and common ale was 5% (as we know in both cases), table ale would have been under the common ale certainly, anywhere from 1%-3% abv, possibly a touch more.

    The sources I’ve collected all seem to suggest, therefore, that Mount Saint Bernard’s beer was a weak, or table ale, therefore suitable for monastic life and in keeping with St. Benedict’s Rule to use the wine of the land moderately. (I use the two terms, ale and beer, indistinguishably in my post even though there may have been some difference in alcohol between table ale and table beer before 1850 – whatever difference there was is simply not material due to the variations which would have existed in each category).

    In terms of what Mount Saint Bernard might consider to brew if it starts up brewing again, I think this type of table beer, say 3% abv, while historically sound, is not suitable. While technically feasible to brew and bottle it – after all some commercial beer was as weak as that in the English market 40 years ago – it is too weak for the commercial market today. Such a beer would be difficult to keep from souring, as well, unless very well-hopped and even then… You could pasteurize it, but that is not desirable for a number of reasons, even if possible to do with the type of brewery to be used.

    I would suggest a 5% abv beer be brewed for bottling on the lines laid out in my post above. If served to the brothers at their meals, they can cut it 50/50 with water which will bring it close in alcohol and character to what the abbey brewed in the 1800s. Or, a second brew, draft-only, could be brewed at 2-3% abv to serve to guests of the abbey and the brothers.

    Doing a 5%-6% beer for bottling is not ahistorical in my view since it is known some abbeys made stronger beers for special purposes – a festival or holiday – and to sell at the abbey gate. So doing what I propose would fit into this history, which indeed most Belgian Trappist breweries follow at the present time, i.e., the strong beers in the line are sold to the public and the brothers drink (generally), if at all, a “single” or “pater” beer which is much less strong.

    Gary Gillman

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