The conveyor belt was ready, the empty bottles were stacked and the machinery was about to spring into life. But one more step was necessary before any beer bottling could begin.
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 fast down the small production line.
Only beers brewed in monasteries with the active involvement of Catholic Cistercian monks are classified as Trappist products, and there is only one in Great Britain – Tynt Meadow, a dark English beer that celebrates its fifth anniversary.
At Mount St. Bernard Abbey – set outside the town of Coalville in the lush countryside of east-central England – the blessing is part of the bottling routine that even non-believers say is dangerous to skip.
“If there’s a day it hasn’t been blessed, you can guarantee it’s going to 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’s going to throw beer everywhere, there’s going to be parts falling off.”
There are only a dozen trappist breweries worldwide, most in Belgium and the Netherlands. The only American manufacturer, St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass., said last year that it would cease operations.
To be recognized by the International Trappist Associationproducts must be made within the environment of an abbey under the supervision of monks or nuns, and profits should be dedicated to the monastic community, the Trappist Order or development projects and charitable works.
Named after the nearby field where the founders of the abbey settled in a cottage in 1835, Tynt Meadow is a malty ale, a bit like a cross between a stout and an English bitter, with a faint taste of chocolate.
That flavor proved popular, with brewing success enough that local volunteers help with bottling to ease the burden on the 17 monks of the abbey.
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. Enter, and looking down from the wall is a statue of Saint Arnulf of Metz, the patron saint of brewers.
And forget about a 9-to-5 workday, for the monks at least.
Every 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 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 allowed 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, when milk prices fell. Cistercian monasteries had a long tradition of brewing beer, especially in Belgium, so brewing seemed an obvious alternative, especially since records show that the monks of this abbey brewed beer in the 19th century, unfortunately without recording their recipe.
“Certainly we had a big discussion about the moral aspects of brewing,” said Father Delargy, adding that monks “are not aware of the difficulties that alcohol can cause.”
But they concluded that they could, in good conscience, make a quality product whose body style can dissuade most drinkers from overindulgence. However, the beer’s alcohol content of 7.4 percent is higher than most mass-produced brands.
A significant donation funded the purchase of advanced brewing equipment from Germany, but even so, in those early days, “there were many times when we didn’t think we’d get there,” recalled Father Delargy, whose responsibilities include making sure the brewery complies with all of the 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 drink is made – and with which it is infused.
“It’s a mild product, and we hope that when people drink 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 that Tynt Meadow would be anywhere near as popular as it is,” said Mr. Grady, who is now helping to develop a second, lighter, beer.
Tynt Meadow is not widely known in the UK, and around 65 per cent 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 US.
When the monk in charge of brewing moved 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 railroad arches than in a quiet abbey.
Sometimes the ringing of the church bells can still be surprising. “You sometimes forget where you are,” Mr. Adams said.
The volunteers helping with the bottling seem less motivated by religion than community spirit and love 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 attractive.
“I do think it gives something special,” he said.
Andrea Wood, 53, from nearby Whitwick, who runs a kennel and breeds German shepherds, was raised in Coalville, a place that suffered economically when mines closed in the 1980s.
“The monastery has always been that precious jewel,” she said, adding that she enjoys Tynt Meadow in moderation. One glass is very nice, and “like a three-course meal,” she said.
It was Ms Wood’s first volunteer session and, when asked if she planned to continue, she joked that it would depend on how many bottles she downed.
As things turned out, there was a breakage – not caused by Mrs Wood but by an ill-fitting replacement machine part which crushed several bottles.
Although the proceedings were blessed, an hour’s work was lost, with the day’s total at 4,000 bottles well below normal. That, however, will not change the routine at Mount St. Bernard Abbey.
“If we didn’t have the blessing,” said Mr. Grady, “it could always be worse.”