IN NOVEMBER, the nights get darker — but not just the nights; for me, it is the ales that darken, too. It’s too early yet for the first proper winter ale festivals, but not too early to seek out the “Winter Warmers” that breweries start selling at this time of year, when Hopback’s Summer Lightning gives way to ales with names such as Rudyard Ruby, Colton Coffee Stout, Funnel Blower, and Deer Stalker.
These should be enjoyed at leisure in front of a good log fire in a stone-flagged, dark-raftered inn, after a brisk winter walk with a few close friends who have tall stories to tell. But, even if one is confined to quarters by Covid or other unforeseen vicissitudes, a good dark ale opened at home and slowly savoured can soothe the day and enliven the evening. Many of these dark ales are much stronger — some of them almost barley wines — and they ask to be savoured slowly. They are conducive to quiet reflection, warm reminiscence, and something of that Otium Sacrum, the holy leisure, which the old monasteries were founded to preserve.
So, I was especially pleased when a friend gave me a bottle of Tint Meadow, an English Trappist ale, to take home and try. I had enjoyed various Belgian Trappist beers, but didn’t know that there was an English one, and this was all the better, as Mount St Bernard, where it is brewed, is a place I have visited, and whose life of prayer, and wonderfully rich and quiet atmosphere, I greatly admire.
I left it on a kitchen shelf for a while to settle, and, when the right time came, took it out and poured it gently, for these ales are all “live” and ferment a second time in the bottle itself, and one must dispense them carefully, so as not to cloud the ale with the leavings of the yeast.
It was superb: rich, dark, full of flavour, and so strong that I was content with the slow savouring of the one bottle all evening. It was only in the midst of that savouring that I actually read the rubric on the bottle about how it should be stored and served. In my experience, these instructions are all the same — store in a cool dark place and pour gently — but the monks of Mount St Bernard had added something to that mantra: “Store in a cool, dark, quiet place!”
Quiet! I thought that was just wonderful — even the beer, like the monks who brew it, must enter into the Great Silence! I thought of my own visit to Mount St Bernard Abbey, of how restorative it had been for me to drink the silence in, and now, in another sense, I could drink it in again. I also felt a little twinge of guilt that I hadn’t read the label earlier. Alas, our kitchen shelf is not always a quiet place, and I hoped my ale had not been too disturbed by George’s insistent barking at feeding time, by the clatter and the chatter of our own meal preparations, or by The Archers when it was Maggie’s turn to wash up, and Van Morrison, or the Grateful Dead, when it was mine.
But, savouring the last dark drop, I felt that the monks’ good brew had survived the ordeal. I did resolve, however, to get in a few more bottles to store in a greater silence and try again. Just by way of experiment.