An English Brewery Overseen by Monks

The conveyor belt was ready, the empty bottles were stacked and the machinery was about to splutter into life. But one more step was needed before any beer bottling could get underway.

That last step required a monk.

Within a minute or two, Father Joseph Delargy appeared, dressed in the white robes of the Cistercian order, to bless the proceedings in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And bottles of Britain’s only Trappist beer were soon rattling swiftly along the small production line.

Only beers brewed in monasteries with the active involvement of Roman Catholic Cistercian monks are classified as Trappist products, and there is just one in Britain — Tynt Meadow, a dark English ale that is celebrating its fifth anniversary.

At Mount Saint Bernard Abbey — set outside the town of Coalville in the lush countryside of east central England — the blessing is a part of the bottling routine that even nonbelievers say is perilous to skip.

“If it’s a day when it hasn’t been blessed, you can guarantee it will all go wrong,” said Ross Adams, a professional brewer who is not religious but was hired recently to help the monks maintain their place within an elite group. “It will be throwing beer everywhere, there will be parts falling off.”

There are just a dozen Trappist breweries worldwide, most in Belgium and the Netherlands. The only U.S. producer, St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass., said last year it would cease operations.

To be recognized by the International Trappist Association, products must be made within the surroundings of an abbey under the supervision of monks or nuns, and profits should be devoted to the monastic community, the Trappist Order or development projects and charitable works.

Named after the nearby field where the abbey’s founders settled in a cottage in 1835, Tynt Meadow is a malty beer, a little like a cross between a stout and an English bitter, with a faint flavor of chocolate.

That taste has proved popular, with brewing enough of a success that local volunteers are helping with bottling to relieve the burden on the abbey’s 17 monks.

The smell of yeast, familiar to anyone who has toured a brewery, fills the air outside one ivy-clad building on the abbey grounds. But the differences from a secular operation are soon clear. Step inside, and gazing down from the wall is a statue of St. Arnulf of Metz, the patron saint of brewers.

And forget about a 9-to-5 work day, for the monks at least.

Each morning, Father Delargy and his fellow monks rise at 3:15 for vigils, held at 3:30, the first of seven sets of prayers that end at 7:30 in the evening with compline, the night prayer. Lunch is eaten in silence, except for a reading.

The brewery is separated from the parts of the abbey where silence is observed and from its church, designed by Augustus Welby Pugin.

A dairy farm used to support the abbey, which was founded in the 19th century when religious tolerance permitted Cistercians to return to England after an absence of three centuries. There were 86 Cistercian houses until the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII.

But what sustained the community in the 20th century proved unviable in the 21st as milk prices dropped. Cistercian monasteries had a long tradition of brewing, particularly in Belgium, so beer making seemed an obvious alternative, even more so since records show that this abbey’s monks were brewing in the 19th century, unfortunately without recording their recipe.

“Certainly we had a big discussion on the moral aspects of brewing beer,” said Father Delargy, adding that monks “are not unaware of the difficulties that alcohol can cause.”

But they concluded they could, in good conscience, brew a quality product whose full-bodied style may discourage most drinkers from overindulgence. Still, the beer’s alcohol content of 7.4 percent is higher than most mass-produced brands.

A significant donation funded the purchase of top-notch brewing equipment from Germany, but even so, in those early days, “there were many times when we didn’t think we would get there,” recalled Father Delargy, whose responsibilities include ensuring the brewery complies with all religious requirements of the International Trappist Association.

Now that the beer has found its fans, Father Delargy attributes the success to the spirit with which the beverage is brewed — and with which it’s imbued.

“It’s a gentle product, and we hope that when people are drinking it at home, they can tap into the abbey a little bit,” he said.

Tynt Meadow uses as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, and with generous amounts of barley malt and hops, it borrows from the tradition of Belgian Trappists who believe beer “should be liquid bread rather than colored water,” said Peter Grady, operations and brewery manager.

The monks “never anticipated Tynt Meadow would be anywhere near as popular as it is,” said Mr. Grady, who is now helping develop a second, lighter, beer.

Tynt Meadow is not widely known in Britain, and about 65 percent of the 966 hectoliters (25,500 gallons) produced last year was exported, much of it to Belgium and the Netherlands, with 64,260 bottles sent to the United States.

When the monk responsible for brewing moved away last year, the abbey hired Mr. Adams as its first professional brewer — an adjustment for someone more used to working in craft breweries under city railway arches than in a tranquil abbey.

Occasionally the chime of the church bells can still be startling. “You forget where you are sometimes,” Mr. Adams said.

The volunteers helping with the bottling seem motivated less by religion than community spirit and affection for the product.

Steven Horsley, 67, a Trappist beer enthusiast who worked in procurement for Britain’s health service before retiring, is not religious and said the blessing caught him by surprise when he first volunteered. But now he finds it appealing.

“I do think it confers something special,” he said.

Andrea Wood, 53, from nearby Whitwick, who runs a kennel and breeds German shepherd dogs, was raised in Coalville, a place that suffered economically when mines closed in the 1980s.

“The monastery has always been that precious little jewel,” she said, adding that she enjoys Tynt Meadow in moderation. One glass is very nice, and “like a three-course meal,” she said.

This was Ms. Wood’s first volunteering session and, asked whether she planned to continue, she joked that it would depend on how many bottles she dropped.

As things turned out, there was breakage — not caused by Ms. Wood but by an ill-fitting replacement machine part that crushed several bottles.

Although the proceedings had been blessed, an hour’s work was lost, with the day’s total at 4,000 bottles well below normal. That will not change the routine at Mount St Bernard Abbey, however.

“If we hadn’t had the blessing,” Mr. Grady said, “it could always have been worse.”


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