Ampleforth Abbey: How monks mix God, booze and business

Ampleforth Abbey, beer and glass of beer Monks at Ampleforth Abbey have discovered a profitable formula for their beer

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When bottles of Ampleforth Abbey Beer went on sale in the summer of 2012, monks from Britain's largest Benedictine community in Britain found themselves in the spotlight.

The notion of a religious order brewing beer seemed quirky, if not strange to some. But the idea is actually based on hundreds of years of a proud Benedictine tradition.

Manufacturing to make ends meet is part of the Benedictine philosophy referred to in the rules of the order, or the guide followed by Christians faithful to the movement.

Restoring history

"St Benedict expects that monks will pay their own way and they will work for their money," Father Wulstan Peterburs, procurator of Ampleforth Abbey, told the BBC.

Seal of approval - The Trappist stamp

Trappist beers

Benedictine monasteries have formed an association which is composed of seven monasteries of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (COSO), commonly known as Trappists and Trappistines.

A beer can only be called a Trappist beer if it is brewed at a Trappist monastery under the supervision and responsibility of the monks.

The Cistercian monastery of La Trappe, France - where the idea of Trappist beer originated - had a brewery in 1685. La Trappe beer is now brewed in Koningshoeven Abbey in the Netherlands.

Source: The International Trappist Association

"One of the ways that monks have traditionally done it, and our community has done it, is through beer brewing."

Driven from England at the time of the Reformation and determined to survive, the Benedictine monks who later formed Ampleforth Abbey needed income. The income came from brewing the first beer of its kind - la bière anglaise - in France.

The Yorkshire-based monks see their current endeavours as a restoration of that historic practice. They are currently the only British monks brewing it, but there has been a global trend of Benedictine orders commercially making and selling beers.

That movement is best encapsulated by the Trappist tradition. Founded in 1664 in France, this is based on a strict interpretation of the principles of the Cistercian order of monks - a strict off-shoot of the Benedictine movement.

Trappist beers are brewed in monasteries, by monks.

"While the image of a Trappist brewery is that of small run, hand crafted beers made by monks toiling in the brew house, the reality is often quite different," John Clarke, of the Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) told the BBC.

"Chimay and Westmalle in Belgium, and Koningshaven in the Netherlands are quite sizeable and commercial operations albeit with the brothers very much in control to retain their Trappist accreditation."

Start Quote

Even monks like the occasional tipple”

End Quote Father Wulstan Peterburs Ampleforth Abbey

There are only eight official Trappist breweries, but a number of other monasteries have already applied for the stamp.

"Mont des Cats in Northern France and the abbey of Maria Toevlucht in the Netherlands. There has even been talk of a Trappist brewery in the USA," added Mr Clarke.

The increasing popularity of micro-breweries has seen beers produced by monks across Europe becoming a regular sight in off-licences and on supermarket shelves.

"It's a slowly growing phenomenon. The monks at Ampleforth are part of this trend," said Mr Clarke.

Belgian flavours

Trappist monks in Belgium take their brewing very seriously - six of the monasteries afforded the Trappist label are based in the country. Their beers are renowned for their flavour and quality and are exported all over the world.

The tranquil Orval Abbey, just outside Florenville in Belgium and near to the French border, is the home of one of these beers.

Faithful flavours

Spiced mulled cider

The Cistercian Trappist order opened their brewery in 1931 to pay for extensive reconstruction and renovation works at the monastery - and never looked back.

"In 2000 we brewed and bottled 40,000 hectolitres (about 1,056,680 gallons) of beer. In 2011 output increased to 67,000 hectolitres (about 1,770,000 gallons)," a spokesperson for Orval said.

Beers brewed by other monastic orders, or those made commercially on behalf of monasteries, must be labelled 'Abbey beers', a brand which now carries its own separate certification.

Currently the Ampleforth brew has this title, being brewed on behalf on the monastery at Little Valley Brewery, Hebden Bridge.

The monks at Ampleforth have a long way to go before they match the commercial output of their European counterparts, but the global appeal of Belgian beer shows how successful the honest labour of a simple monastic order can be.

Sales are healthy, with the monks focusing on local markets - their ciders and beers are now available in some supermarkets in the north of England.

Ampleforth Abbey If the success continues, the monks may begin brewing on site

Abbey Beer was named best drink of 2012 by regional food group, Deliciously Yorkshire, and the profits they are making on the back of their success are invested back into the upkeep of the monastic community.

"If we get to a level where the sales are very, very good we may look at bringing brewing to the monastery and making the beer onsite, as the Trappists do," Fr Peterburs told the BBC.

In Ampleforth, monks have been making cider on site commercially for years. Their orchard is one of the most northerly in England.

"We produce and press it on site. Monks even get involved with harvesting fruit, though we do have help. Like our beer, we also oversee trading," Fr Peterburs added.

Excessive drinking

Perhaps the most famous British Benedictine drink is Buckfast tonic wine. Made by the monks of Buckfast Abbey in Devon the drink is particularly popular in Scotland.

However at 15% ABV (alcohol percentage by volume) and relatively cheap to buy, the drink has been criticised for encouraging excessive drinking and anti-social behaviour. The tonic wine also includes caffeine.

The monks of Ampleforth are clear that while they make alcoholic drinks they do not encourage excessive drinking.

"We made a clear choice, and conducted lots of research before settling on a premium beer product," explained Fr Peterburs.

"These are small beers, they come in small bottles - to be clear that our position is not to encourage excessive drinking."

That said the monks themselves do enjoy the occasional bit of quality control.

"After all, even monks like the occasional tipple," Fr Peterburs added.

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