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Inside Britain’s first Trappist brewery

Abbot Erik Varden of Mount St Bernard Abbey (CNS photo/Simon Caldwell)

Sir Alec Guinness reminisced in his memoirs about a visit he made to Mount St Bernard Abbey in 1957, a year after his conversion to the Catholic faith. Entering Augustus Pugin’s “austere white chapel”, he recalled that as “the sun, a fiery red ball, was rising over the distant farmland; at each of the dozen or so side-altars a monk, finely vested but wearing heavy farmers’ boots to which cow dung still adhered, was saying his private Mass”.

It is a scene perhaps redolent of Merrie England before the Reformation, and it also suggests the notion of time and eternity intertwining romantically in so sacred a place.

Yet if Sir Alec were making his visit today he would surely note how times have changed. There are no longer 90 Cistercian monks at Mount St Bernard, for example, but 26. Nor would the stench of dairy cattle sting his nostrils. If he was astute he might, however, detect a different smell altogether – that of hops, and of beer brewing within the sheds that once gave shelter to up to 200 cows.

In a dramatic change of practice, the monks have given up dairy farming and revived an earlier, lost tradition of brewing beer on site. It was for them principally a matter of adapting to market forces as the price of milk fell over the last decade, while the replacement of a tractor and upgrading the milking parlour were just two of the maintenance problems that threatened to hit them hard in the pocket.

With 10 of the community over the age of 80, the Cistercians wanted to rethink how they might function on a smaller scale – yet one which today is the same size as that conceived in the 19th century by John Talbot, the 16th Earl of Shrewsbury, when he agreed to build the monastery. This was after Ambrose De Lisle, his friend, assured him that Trappist monks would be “much cheaper to keep” than other Religious.

“We needed a sector of work commensurate with our present reality,” explained Dom Erik Varden, the 44-year-old abbot and a Norwegian convert to the Catholic faith. “Brewing was one of the options on the drawing board and ended up seeming the most attractive.

“A lot of people assume that in a place like this we get coffers of gold sent to us from the Vatican by Parcelforce every quarter. It would be nice if they came, but we depend on the work of our hands to ensure the upkeep of this place and to try to be good stewards. We hope to be able to generate the funds we need to maintain the place.”

After a year of market research, in Advent 2014 the monks made up their minds to set up the first Trappist brewery in Britain – and only the 12th in the world.

A refectory, laundry and kitchen were relocated and in their place were installed vast brewing vats imported from Germany, overlooked by a small statue of St Arnold, the patron saint of brewers, who offers the monks a perpetual blessing from a beer keg. The cattle shed has become the warehouse where cases of beer, produced at the rate of 2,000 litres a week, are stacked before distribution.

This month the beer went on sale for the first time. It is called Tynt Meadow English Trappist Ale, taking its name from the nearby pasture where the monks first settled when, in 1835, they arrived in Charnwood Forest, Leicestershire, to build the abbey.

The monks describe the beer as “mahogany-coloured, with a subtle, warm red hue, and a lasting beige head” and an aroma which “carries hints of dark chocolate, liquorice, and rich fruit flavours”. The beer, they say, “is full-bodied, gently balancing the taste of dark chocolate, pepper and fig. It leaves a warm and dry finish on the palate”.

The ale has already been nationally acclaimed, including by Roger Protz, the distinguished beer critic. Tynt Meadow, he told the BBC, is “seriously nice”. He added: “It is a great moment for both English beer and English history.”

To see how the ale has been received by ordinary punters one needs to look no further than Dean’s Beer Reviews, a YouTube channel in which a balding man in an England shirt (presumably Dean) pops open a 330ml bottle of Tynt Meadow after picking one up from his local specialist shop, Slurp Wine, for £2.80. He explains that Trappist beers are “not my favourite style but I was so intrigued to try this … you have got to give it a review”.

“Let’s dive in on it, cheers!,” he says. Seconds later, after smacking his lips and wearing an expression of surprised delight, he declares Tynt Meadow to be a “good traditional English strong ale”, adding: “That is a bloody lovely beer.”

News travels fast. The abbey is deep in the countryside, in farmland bordering a forest and a national park, yet on the launch day, customers queued to buy cases of 12, with nearly 3,000 bottles sold from the small abbey shop alone. Sales remained similarly high for the rest of the week.

“We have had so much encouragement and cheers from people who would be very remote from a place like this and what we stand for,” said Dom Erik. “They like the beer.”

Certainly, this isn’t just a novelty. The monks are seeking to produce a quality beer and a unique Trappist ale that will appeal to both the domestic and global market, and early signs are that they are succeeding.

As part of their preparations, the monks had visited other Trappist breweries and consulted experts in the industry.

Dom Erik said: “A piece of advice – and it was given very emphatically by our brewing brethren on the Continent – was not to brew a Belgian imitation beer but to lean on English brewing tradition.

“So we wanted to make something honest and elegant in the tradition of a strong English ale but nevertheless remaining in the continuity of continental Trappist brewing. We are using exclusively English ingredients and are trying to combine those two idioms – the English ale tradition and the Trappist.”

The ingredients include English barley and hops and a strain of English yeast. The beer is twice fermented and the result is a drink both sweet and bitter in taste with an alcohol volume of 7.4 per cent, making it strong compared to most British ales but significantly below the 10 or 11 per cent sometimes brewed by monks in continental Europe.

“It presupposes responsible drinking,” said Dom Erik. “It is not a beer to be quaffed. It lends itself very well as a culinary beer, a beer to be drunk with good food.”

The font for the labels for the Tynt Meadow beers replicates a 12th-century Cistercian script, developed by Brother Anselm Baker, an early monk of Mount St Bernard’s, and the logo depicts the three lancet windows visible on each side of the tower of the English Gothic-style abbey church.

The beer is brewed, bottled and packaged on site by the monks themselves in conformity with the standards of the International Trappist Association for their operation to be designated as an official Trappist brewery.

To be Trappist, a brewery must also be of secondary importance to the monks’ way of life, and the beer must not be brewed for profit but only to sustain the life of the community and in support of charitable causes.

“We brew to live, not live to brew,” said Dom Erik. “As you can imagine, we are not great beer-drinkers normally. One or two of us had more of an interest than others but we weren’t particularly sophisticated.

“One of the things we have had to do is train our palates. We have, I’m afraid, become terrible beer snobs. Once you have your palate you can taste the differ-ence between an artisanal beer and an industrial beer.

“You will find that our beer tastes differently at different temperatures. Some qualities are brought out better when it’s chilled, others when it is at room temperature. It’s for consumers to work out how they will enjoy it most.”

So gone are the days when the Cistercians of Mount St Bernard would sit scraping cow dung from their boots after a morning labouring in the fields. Yet Sir Alec was nonetheless correct about one thing: Merrie England is back.

Simon Caldwell is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in the July 20 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here