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Yorkshire monks restore the abbey habit

Added: Sunday, May 27th 2012

The Benedictine monks of Ampleforth Abbey in Yorkshire have restored a tradition of monastic brewing that was lost at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Ampleforth Abbey Beer, a 7% russet-coloured ale, is the result of blending the methods of modern Trappist breweries in Belgium with fragments of knowledge garnered from the period in the 17th century when English Benedictines, living in exile in France, brewed and sold an ale dubbed “la bière anglaise”.

The beer is brewed by the Little Valley Brewery near Hebden Bridge, run by Wim van der Spek and his partner Sue Cooper. Following the Belgian method of designation, this means that Ampleforth Beer – with the subsidiary term Double/Dubbel on the label -- is an Abbey Beer rather than a monastic one brewed by the monks themselves.

But the brothers at Ampleforth have been heavily involved in the development of the beer and may consider moving brewing to the abbey. They have produced cider and cider brandy for several years and, with 2,000 acres at their disposal, have sufficient space to build a small brewing plant.

Dogged research has gone into the creation of the beer. Wim van der Spek at Little Valley is a Dutch brewer who has visited the Trappist breweries in the Low Countries – six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands – to study their recipes and methods of production. Father Wulstan from Ampleforth accompanied him, as he was determined to produce a beer with an authentic monastic character.

Van der Spek has married modern brewing techniques to information about the recipe made available by the monastery of Dieulouard near Nancy in Lorraine. The English Benedictines settled there when they fled to France in 1608 and they built a brewery to support their pastoral work.

 “La bière anglaise” was brewed with barley malt, wheat, hops, yeast and water and it would certainly have been a deep amber, russet or brown beer. Before the invention of coke during the industrial revolution, which enabled pale malt to be produced, grains used in brewing were kilned or gently cured over wood fires that created brown malt and, as a result, dark beer.

The beer brewed at Dieulouard was said to be “double fermented” and even “sparkled like champagne”. This raises the intriguing thought that the English monks may have had contact with Dom Perignon and other French Benedictines who developed sparkling wine in the 17th century, also in north-east France. What is certain is that the monks’ beer would have enjoyed a first fermentation in the brewery and a second one in oak casks.

Wim van der Spek’s beer for Ampleforth has a second fermentation in bottle rather than cask. It’s called Double in the Trappist tradition of producing beers in rising order of strength, labelled Single, Double and Triple. Ampleforth Double is brewed with pale and wheat malts and the colour is the result of three darker malts: chocolate, crystal and Munich, which are roasted to a high temperature or, in the case of crystal, is a stewed malt that cannot be fermented but which adds nutty and toffee-like characteristics. Soft brown sugar, another Trappist tradition, is also used. There are two hops varieties: Northern Brewer from Germany and Savinjski Goldings from Slovenia.

The yeast culture comes from an unnamed Belgian Trappist brewery but the Ampleforth beer is so strongly reminiscent of the ales produced at the Rochefort monastery in Wallonia -- the French-speaking region of Belgium -- that the origin of the yeast is not difficult to determine.

The beer has a spicy and peppery aroma from the hops, backed by roasted grain, chocolate and sultana fruit. Rich fruit and malt dominate the palate but they’re balanced by spicy hops, while the finish is bittersweet with dark fruit, roasted grain, chocolate and gentle hops.

One young monk at Ampleforth suggested the beer should be named Amplefroth Ale but this was vetoed by the senior clerics.


Until the dissolution of the monasteries, brewing in England was controlled by the church, which acted as a break on the development of commercial brewing. Ale, of varying strengths, was brewed for monks, pilgrims and abbots. Abbeys produced substantial amounts of beer. The malt house at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire, for example, was 60 square feet and the brewery produced 60 barrels of strong ale every 10 days. At a time when tea and coffee were unheard of and water was insanitary, ale was consumed with all meals.

The brewery attached to St Paul’s Cathedral in London made 67,814 gallons of ale in 100 batches over 12 months in the 13th century. This meant the brewery was making two brews per week. The number of monks and lay people at the cathedral was 185. The brewery had its own maltings and produced 22½ barrels per brew (M. Cornell: Beer – the Story of the Pint).

The English Benedictines, whose mother church was Westminster Abbey, fled to France in 1608. When Elizabeth I replaced Mary Tudor on the throne, the monks expected persecution – one monk who stayed at Westminster was tried for treason and executed. The Benedictines met up with French and Spanish members of the church at Dieulouard near Nancy in Lorraine, where they took over a church and turned it into the Abbey of St Lawrence.

The monks, who had the experience of brewing in England, built a brewery where they made beer for their own consumption and for sale: the income supported their pastoral work and the upkeep of the abbey. “La Bière Anglaise” was widely available throughout France and enjoyed a fine reputation.

In 1793, the Benedictines returned to England, this time escaping the anti-clerical French Revolution. Some of the monks settled in Yorkshire where a major landowner, Lady Anne Fairfax, had granted a house to her priest-in-residence, Father Anselm Bolton. Lady Anne, while a devout Roman Catholic, was a member of the Fairfax family whose generals had fought with Oliver Cromwell against the monarchy and its “divine rights” during the English Civil War.

Fr Bolton’s house was developed first into a priory and then the abbey that became Ampleforth. Work on the abbey finished in 1897 and included a boys’ school: the school today is co-educational.

Buying beer

Ampleforth Abbey Beer will be available in early July from the abbey shop. A box will cost £36 or 45 euros:; 01439 766778. Pre-orders can be placed now. There are plans to make the beer available commercially in the autumn.

Ampleforth beer