Something brewing behind the abbey cloisters

Orchard and Cider Mill Manager Cameron Smith with a bottle of cider outside the abbey. Picture by Gerard Binks.
Orchard and Cider Mill Manager Cameron Smith with a bottle of cider outside the abbey. Picture by Gerard Binks.
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FOR centuries, the brewing of beer and cider was part of day-to-day life in the monasteries and abbeys of England.

Today that proud heritage continues at the historic Ampleforth Abbey in the North York Moors National Park, with the Ampleforth Abbey Cider produced there now being sold at some of the country’s most prestigious delicatessens and alcohol purveyors.

Around 24,000 litres of the distinctive, so-called “Eastern Counties” cider – so called to distinguish it from that brewed in England’s south-west – is now brewed every year at the abbey by a team of monks using an historic and time-honoured technique.

In addition to the cider, the monks also work to produce apple cider brandy and apple liquors, as well as damson and sloe gins.

And now, beer made to a centuries old Benedictine recipe is set to be sold at the abbey once again.

Today the production is overseen by retired food retailer Cameron Smith, who was taught the brewing process by Father Rainer Verborg, the monk in charge of brewing at the abbey until his health required a sabbatical.

Mr Smith works with the monks to produce the distinctive one litre bottles of fresh cider which are sold from the abbey and specialist retailers around the country.

“It has always been a Benedictine tradition that carries right through to today,” said Mr Smith, who grows fruit himself in nearby Husthwaite. “The production aspect of it has always been quiet simple.

“The abbey has had something going on with cider and apples for decades.”

The cider is made from a range of different apple types produced from the abbey’s two hectare orchard, home to more than 2,000 trees.

Ampleforth is still England’s northernmost commercial orchard with more than 40 varieties of apple grown there.

Most the harvesting having been done by late November before the cold weather sets in, the apples are taken straight to the cider mill for pressing. Monks still provide the workforce for the process, giving the cider a genuinely unique selling point.

Mr Smith said: “It was very localised and didn’t become a serious commercial enterprise until around 2004.

“By this time the abbey was probably producing around 7,000 litres a year and fairly quickly began sending some cider away to be distributed into cider spirit.”

Much of the sales and distribution takes place in the 30-mile radius around Ampleforth although some goes further afield. A lot is sold through various Campaign for Real Ale (Camra) events and festivals.

“We have a very nice niche market. We are fortunate that we have a very nice micro-climate here. It is a fabulous brand and has great prestige.”

From next year the abbey will also begin selling an Abbots Ale, based on an old recipe created by monks hundreds of years ago and now being produced at a brewery in West Yorkshire. However for the time being at least the abbey intends to continue producing its cider, which it makes from a mixture of several different types of apples, including Kidd’s Orange, Lord Derby’s and Bramleys. They are a mixture of 60 per cent dessert and 40 per cent cooking apples.

Despite the practice going back centuries, modern techniques are utilised to ensure the cider is made to correct alcohol strength, with Mr Smith and the monks checking the cider regularly during the brewing process.

The cider itself is fermented twice to give a brew that is 8.3 per cent in strength, with Mr Smith recommending that it be drunk in half pint measures rather than in traditional pints.

“The sugar infuses into the cider to give it a deeper colour. It comes out initially very cloudy but after the secondary ferment the sugar falls to the bottom of the bottle, leaving a cider that is as clear as a bell.”

The cider itself is sold predominantly in bottles, which until fairly recently were painstakingly printed and labelled individually by hand by the monks at the abbey. Even today the labelling itself is done by hand, although the printing is done with a machine.