Dorothy Cummings McLean

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Trappist beer returns to England, a hopeful sign for Catholics

Dorothy Cummings McLean Dorothy Cummings McLean Follow Dorothy

COALVILLE, Leicestershire, England, July 3, 2018 (LifeSiteNews) – Good news for beer-drinkers and monastery enthusiasts: a community of English Trappists have given up dairy farming and taken up brewing instead.

The Cistercian monks of Mount Saint Bernard Abbey blessed their new brewery, appropriately enough, on April 23, the feast day of the great patron of England, Saint George. They brew a lager they have named “Tynt Meadow” in honor of the plot of land on which their monastic life was re-founded in 1835.

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

Yes, I want some, too.

Trappist beer has a long history, its roots dating back to the founding of the Cistercian order in 1198 in Citeaux, France. Itself a reform of a Benedictine life that had grown too wordly, the Cistercian order was reformed again at the French monastery of La Trappe in 1664. Monks who accepted the strictures of La Trappe were known as Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists.

La Trappe already had its own brewery by 1664, for monastery beer-brewing had flourished during the Middle Ages. In that period, beer was one of Europe’s most commonly consumed drinks, often drunk at every meal. Water was not always safe to drink; weak or “small” beer was consumed even by children.   

Cistercians first came to England in 1128 when Waverley Abbey was founded by William Giffard, the Bishop of Winchester. Eventually 75 other Cistercian monasteries were founded in the British Isles. They were suppressed by King Henry VIII during the infamous “dissolution of the monasteries,” which took place between 1536 and 1541. Many monasteries, Waverley Abbey among them, were destroyed. Others were given to Henry’s friends as country estates.

Catholicism itself was outlawed until the reign of Henry’s daughter Mary, and then again with the reign of her sister Elizabeth until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. Shortly thereafter, Ambrose de Lisle donated land for the first monastery to be built in England since the Reformation. Filled with zeal to reseed Catholicism in Britain, he was disappointed to discover that Trappists don’t travel hither and thither as missionaries.  

Although the Mount Saint Bernard Abbey monks have supported themselves through the years at a number of handicrafts, their primary occupation – after prayer – has been farming. However, as the monks explain on their website, this no longer sustains even their simple way of life:

“At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it became increasingly apparent that farming was no longer viable at Mount Saint Bernard. Developments in modern agriculture, combined with the consistently low price of milk, made it hard to run our dairy farm profitably. In 2013, we reached a point where it seemed irresponsible to continue.”

The solution was to be found at the bottom of a glass – that is, the monks decided it was time for the community to start making beer again. They knew their community had been good at this in the nineteenth century – past visitors had recorded their happy memories of it – and after trying out home brewing kits, got some training from more experienced brewery brothers, including the Benedictine monks of Norcia.

Also helpful was their connection with the Trappist tradition as a whole, for Trappist beer is celebrated by beer aficionados around the world. So popular was it, that the Trappist orders went to court to stop commercial breweries from appropriating their name. Only Trappists may sell products labelled Trappist, and there are now twelve Trappists abbeys that produce beer: one in Austria (Engelszell), six in Belgium (Achel, Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren), one in Germany (Mariawald), one in Holland (Koningshoeven), one in Italy (Tre Fontane), one in the USA (St Joseph’s), and, of course, Mount Saint Bernard in England.    

“We’ve received invaluable advice from the eleven other Trappist breweries, and from the International Trappist Association,” the English monks posted. “We’ve also benefited from the kindness and counsel of several local brewers.”

Tynt Meadow beer is brewed with English hops and barley, using English yeast, and twice-fermented, once in the tank and then in the bottle. Sales begin on July 9 in the Mount Saint Bernard Abbey shop and in “selected stores and bottle shops.” I certainly hope one of those lucky establishments is in Edinburgh.

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Dorothy Cummings McLean

Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and novelist. She earned an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and an M.Div./S.T.B. from Toronto’s Regis College. She was a columnist for the Toronto Catholic Register for nine years and regularly contributes to Catholic World Report.  Her first book, Seraphic Singles,  was published by Novalis (2010) in Canada, Liguori in the USA, and Homo Dei in Poland. Her second, Ceremony of Innocence, was published by Ignatius Press (2013).  Dorothy lives near Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband.