“I don’t think we want to be Heineken”, says Father Terrance, the Prior at Ampleforth Abbey, “that’s not the idea and it’s always going to be a niche product, but that’s what we want.”
Perched on the southern boundary of the North Yorkshire Moors, the Benedictine Abbey’s striking location is a draw for many of the students at its prestigious school. But it’s the monastery’s newest money-making venture that enticed me to visit.
‘La biere anglaise’ or Ampleforth Abbey beer was launched this summer after a 200 year old beer recipe was discovered within the Abbey. The Ampleforth community had settled in France following the reformation by Henry VII, but came back to England in the 1790s, fleeing from the French Revolution, with the precious recipe. They spent nine years wandering the British countryside, staying in Lancashire before eventually settling in Ampleforth.
“We came back to England as refugees”, explains Father Terrance, “and wandered around Lancashire to start with because most of the monks had Lancashire origins. But they actually owned a house here because of the connection with Gilling castle, so we came here and that’s really the reason why it was started at Ampleforth.”
The beer recipe was found a few years ago in the Abbey, but it isn’t the first addition to the Abbey’s alcohol produce. Ampleforth cider has been made and sold for the past four or five years and at 8.3 per cent proof, Cameron Smith, the orchard manager, describes it as a “silent assassin”. Yet, this is not unusual for monastic alcohol.
We’re not aiming at that market. The last thing we want to do is to contribute to drunkenness and social disorder and all that sort of thing.
The whole cider production is still small-scale despite an increase of capacity to 25,000 litres in recent years. “I have picked a few [apples]”, reveals Father Terrance, “or some of the other monks [will] if you’ve got a spare afternoon. So there is a monastic input to it. Some retreats even – we do a ‘work and prayer’ retreat which involves picking apples as well as saying your prayers.”
Saying your prayers and picking apples sums up the monastic attitude: helping at any opportunity in any situation. The monks at Ampleforth, with ages ranging between 30 and 94, work in parishes, at a monastery in Zimbabwe, they teach in the college, get involved in hospitality and retreat giving or work within the monastery itself looking after the elderly. But this is only sustainable with a solid revenue stream – the boarding school provides Ampleforth’s biggest income but the sale of its alcoholic produce is growing.
Globally, there does appear to be a connection between beer and monasteries. Apart from Ampleforth’s own ‘la biere anglaise’, Trappist beer, brewed by monasteries in Belgium, is said to be one of the finest in the world. In England, Buckfast Tonic Wine is brewed by a monastery in Devon. There are many ways a community could supplement their income but many monasteries choose alcohol – often rather strong alcohol. Father Terrance calls it “quite typical monastic work”, adding, “a lot of monasteries have farms and make money from doing that. And in a way that’s just another agricultural industry.”
“We have old monks that need to be cared for, we have buildings that need to be repaired. All that sort of thing. And we have to be, not exactly commercial, but we have to not make a loss because otherwise where is the money going to come from if we do?”
It’s not just the monks who lend a hand in helping with the orchard. Cameron recites how last year while eight prisoners were sent to work on the orchard one of them absconded because he, “owed someone in the prison money so the only way out of that situation was to do a runner.
“But he got caught quite soon and then he got sent to a different prison where the people he owed money to weren’t. The really sad news is that there were eight of them, they worked like Trojans – superb. On the Friday, which was when he did his runner, at lunchtime we had fish and chips planned and were going to let them go for a swim as a thank you. Well, he did a runner at 11 o’clock so they didn’t get the fish and chips and didn’t get a swim. They were quite miffed.”
Ampleforth’s cider really took off as a commercial activity after Father Rainer planted 1900 trees around the Abbey in the 1980s and the hope is the new beer will do the same. “We have tried other things. But it is hard selling 40 tonnes of apples, it’s impossible. People will come along and buy a box or a few bags but they don’t want to take 40 tonnes.”
The move towards commercial production of both Ampleforth cider and beer appears to be more incremental than a sudden change. Cameron stresses that the “pure ethos I think is about using what we have. It would be a crime to have 40 tonnes of apples going to waste each year. So there’s the question of also using it and making the best of it.”
The majority of raw materials needed for brewing can be found on a farm and monasteries often turned to breweries because the beer produced was better to drink than water. However, this still doesn’t explain why monastic beer is so highly regarded and so strong compared to other tipples.
“Because the community travelled far and wide”, suggests Cameron “they probably managed to source materials and the ingredients, like hops and wheat, from the best places to get them and they had the contacts. So, I bet you they had the network to get the best of what they didn’t grow because if you think of what happened with beers in England it was actually brewed and made because the water was so bad. I don’t think there was too much refinement in how you made beer in the 1800s or 1700s it was just anything bar water.”
“And cider is the same. Cider in the West Country was part of people’s income, they were paid in cider. Again it was because it was better than the water.”
The strength of the Ampleforth beer and cider is due to the double fermentation within bottle conditions, giving it more sugar and therefore a higher proof. And although you might not think that the monks consume alcohol, Father Terrance explained how drinking beer, in moderation, is a lunchtime practice for the monks at Ampleforth.
“Traditionally we have beer at lunch. We just get a glass of beer, I mean, not half a pint even, just a glass – the jug gets passed around. Not everybody takes it of course, but that’s quite traditional and whether we are going to have our own beer I don’t know, at the moment it is just bought in beer.”
Though, there is one monastic produce that has become part of drinking culture – Buckfast. Made by monks in Devon, Buckfast Tonic Wine has the reputation of being a Glaswegian favourite.
“We’re not aiming at that market”, Father Terrance says reassuringly, “we are deliberately trying to not aim at that market. The last thing we want to do is to contribute to drunkenness and social disorder and all that sort of thing.
“That’s not what we want to do, that would be undermining what we are about and I don’t think Buckfast wants to do that. They are embarrassed about that use of their tonic, it’s really meant to be semi-medicinal. So you just have a little tot of the stuff. That’s what it is sold as; it’s not really sold as something you drink by the bottle.”
Ampleforth’s own beer, ‘la biere anglaise’ was officially launched in July and although only available in a certain number of bars and shops, there are a number of places in York that stock it. Cameron suggests that there has been a “real renaissance in Yorkshire products”, adding that there has been a lot of demand for their cider.
Although monasteries may be unlikely producers of some of the finest quality beer, it is a traditional practice and one that is on the up at Ampleforth Abbey. Indeed, demand is outstripping supply. Father Rainer used to sell out every year, “he had a market that was expanding but he wasn’t expanding fast enough”, Cameron describes.
Yet, I sense a willingness to keep the beer relatively small-scale. As Father Terrance says, it should be something that is “rather special…we don’t want it to be the sort of beer which people just knock back and get blitzed.”
And that seems to be right. While what was once a hobby has been turned into a small-scale business, I think that is where it will remain. There is no desire to expand further and no need to with a profitable private school next door – however much I would love them to. The reason Ampleforth makes beer and cider is not due to a love of the liquor, but because of a love of the work they do at the monastery and in local parishes. The link between monasteries and beer may be puzzling but when you have 40 tonnes of apples, what else can you do.