Trappist 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.
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.
If 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.