When the Cistercian monks at Mount Saint Bernard monastery in Leicestershire took their plan to brew to the International Trappist Association, they got one piece of advice: don’t make a Belgian-style beer.
It’s advice they took to heart. The first English Trappist beer, which was unveiled at the monastery last week, is made with all native ingredients, including hops, malt and yeast. Tynt Meadow, named for the field where the monastery was founded in 1835, is a 7.4% abv, dark, bottled-conditioned ale.
'The Belgian monasteries told us not to do a Belgian beer,' says Father Michael, the monk in charge of brewing. 'We wanted to do something a bit different, too: it’s a Trappist-style beer, but it’s definitely an English ale.'
The beer has been five years in the making. The monastery turned to brewing after its 120-strong herd of dairy cows became unprofitable, and was sold in 2014. 'We considered a few things - Trappist monasteries make everything from cheese to washing-up liquid - but brewing had an intrinsic attraction,' says Father Erik Varden, the Abbot.
They took inspiration from the Monastery of Saint Benedict in Norcia, northern Italy, where a brewery was established in 2012. 'We saw there that a small brewery was something monks could do and could do well,' says Father Erik.
Mount Saint Bernard is the twelfth brewery in the world to gain Trappist designation. Trappist beer must be brewed in a monastery by monks or under their supervision, with all profits going to charity. In this respect, Tynt Meadow is unusual, since most Trappist beers are not made directly by monks: Orval, for example, is produced by professional brewers led by Anne-Françoise Pypaert, who is ‘overseen’ by monks.
Father Michael has done his homework. He spent a year perfecting the recipe on a 25-litre kit, testing a wide variety of malts and hops - but eventually settled, he says, on a recipe much like that with which he began. He also went on two courses at Brewlab, the brewing school in Sunderland, and has been advised by master brewer Constant Keinemans and the monks at the Dutch Trappist brewery De Kievit, where Zundert beer has been made since 2014.
Mount Saint Bernard Abbey is a suitably tranquil spot for a Trappist brewery. Located about five miles west of Loughborough, it’s dominated by the 222-foot-long, 19th-century Abbey Church, where the monastery’s 26 monks perform the divine office seven times a day. There’s also a small shop, where the beer will soon be on sale alongside a variety of items – including pottery made on site, religious books and (when in season) ‘monastic rhubarb’.
Father Erik Varden says that 'a considerable amount' had been spent on the brewery, drawn partly from funds raised from the sale of the dairy herd, but refused to specify exactly how much. Given the quality of the equipment – the 20-hectolitre brewkit is made by Johan Albrecht Brautechnik in Munich, and a Dutch firm was employed to design the bottle labels and branding – no corners appear to have been cut, though.
He added that they wanted to establish something that would serve the monastery for decades to come. 'This is a watershed moment for us,' he said.'We want future generations to look back and say, "they did that right."'
The brewery is based in space formerly used for a dining room, kitchen and laundry, and it took six months to convert. It’s a German-style brewhouse, with combined mash-tun and kettle, plus a lauter tun and whirlpool. Father Michael wouldn’t specify the ingredients, except to say that they are English. He added that there are no plans for further beers at the moment.
How does it taste?
Despite its explicitly English origins, Tynt Meadow (7.4% abv) is clearly a Trappist beer.
It’s rich and full-bodied, with a powerful fruit-driven aroma. Flavour-wise, there’s plenty of sweet raisin, banana and peppery hop character.
It’s a dark ruby-red colour, and the monks have had a special glass designed for the beer, as is traditional with Trappist ales. It had a short stem and tubby chalice, reflecting – according to Father Erik – the beer’s Anglo-Belgian heritage.
More than anything, this beer pays tribute to the traditionally very close relationship between the English and Belgian brewing traditions.
The name was settled on after a process of elimination. Belgian Trappists advised them not to use Mount Saint Bernard, while the nearest town – Coalville – was not thought to be appealing enough. Tynt Meadow was settled on because it sounds 'quintessentially English,' according to Father Erik.
This is not the first time beer has been made at the monastery. Father Erik says they have evidence it was made here in the 19th century. A book about local chimney sweeps includes a passage about about how they’d enjoyed the monks’ table beer after a day’s work.
Father Michael, meanwhile, was chosen as head brewer on the basis of his personal aptitude, says Father Erik. 'It was a matter of deciding who is most suited to doing the brewing, and who is most suited to carrying boxes!' he said.
The monks themselves won’t get to drink much of it, according to Father Michael. They are allowed beer only on Sundays and feast days. For everyone else, it can be source from distributor James Clay, who will have it for sale from 9 July. 'It’s a really special and unique beer,' said marketing manager Mike Watson. 'Fans of Trappist beer will fall in love with it.'