Beer, The Church, St Benedict and the birth of Underhill Ale

I don’t know if it is generally known but The Church historically has been responsible for any number of things that we now don’t associate as being church things at all. Take football for instance did you know, that many of the major league football clubs, (Liverpool both Manchester clubs, Chelsea) were all started by the church. Cricket clubs have been around for ages and also had links to the parish churches. Schools are probably a better known avenue of church involvement with both the Roman and the Anglican churches having faith schools, and historically; hospitals, health care, funeral arrangements housing for the poor, (perhaps not so elegantly), work houses for those without employment. Many of these were found in the centre of the community, along with the village pub. It is possibly been forgotten that this also was the province of the church. Admittedly this was often about controlling the opening times of public houses, but the production of beer goes back even further into the Benedictine monastery concept of hospitality.

Beer or its equivalent is as old almost as people themselves, alcohol was probably first discovered in the over ripe fruit that fell from the trees and fermented naturally (this would be known as wild fermentation) If you want to see this in action, just add some flour and water in a jar and then add a half of a plumb, leave it in the warm, it will begin to ferment in a couple of days depending on the temperature. This is a rudimentary yeast starter and if more flour (or ground grain) is added it will ‘rise’ or leaven the mix, which will be lighter and softer when, cooked. This is also a way to help hard starch to be converted into a more digestible form. Grain is able to be stored in a dry form over winter and provide food through the less fertile times of the year. From this fermentation we can see that bread uses in principal the same process as brewing. It is the yeast that creates the carbon dioxide (the bubbles) that is the lightness of the bread, the yeast ‘eats’ the complex carbohydrates that are in the flour. Flour is ground to help break down the starch and allow the yeasts to access the sugars locked in the grains. Today flour is milled to a fine texture and commercially produced yeast get to work on it with the help of ascorbic acid (vit C). If you ever want to see rudimentary milling then take a trip over to Eling near Totton to Eling Tide Mill, the only working tide mill in Europe, working because they still grind up grain using the power of the water in Eling creek.

Baking and brewing are often associated because it is a similar process, in brewing (and by extension distilling) the yeast is added to a wort, a liquid that contains the boiled out sugars from grain, potato, or any other starchy plant material. This would depend a lot in which country you are making your “brew”. In Ukraine, I know of one man who makes his wort from sugar and water nothing else, he then triple distils it to make home made vodka, which is fine because it is a drink that has little or no flavour. Beer on the other hand needs both body, a feel, thickness, creamy mouth feel, and you get this by utilising other things.

Beer has a long tradition of being associated with barleys, probably because this was grown widely in the UK and on the continent. Wheat, Oats and other grains will make beer of different kinds, Belgium wheat beer is a well known often slightly cloudy beer. Barley has a great advantage in that you can ‘malt” it. Malting is a process that allows you to maximise the amount of sugar that is available to the yeast. More sugar more alcohol, but also more complex flavour, more sweetness more ‘mouth’.

Malting barley is a process of allowing the single grains to come to just sprouting, allowing the seeds to be at their maximum readiness to grow. This is the time that the seed will have converted all that pent up energy to its most usable, bursting with potential growth, the malting process then heats (dries) the grains and can kiln them to a lighter or progressively dark colour in order to add colour and flavour; darker the malt dark the beer.

Malting is an art form in itself and as far as I know the nearest small malt house is in Warminster. The Malt that Underhill Ale is currently using (2018) as its base is grown in Hampshire and malted there.

The malt will release the sugars at different temperatures, as well as complex acids that give the wort flavour and so both time and heat become critical in the process, to much and you boil off the sugar not enough and you don’t yield all the potential sugar and get weak beer. Once the basic wort is produced, the grain flushed (sparged) then it is discarded, ours goes to anybody with chickens or on to the compost pile. We then come to the issue of flavour.

Flavour has not always been just down to hops, but they have become the standard for much modern beer, but a whole host of things can be added, think ginger, coriander, nettles, fruits, citrus, the American craft beer market has dozens of alternative taste to sample. Hops have an advantage in that as well as adding that bitterness they have a degree of natural preservative in them. Hops are the female flower of the plant and all commercial hops are female plants to prevent pollination, which renders the flowers useless. The bitter comes from the oil that is produced when the flowers are ripe. From personal experience I have to say this is a difficult thing to judge (they should sound when rolled by the ear like a good cigar!).

In order to access the oils and other flavours they need to be heated again to different temperatures when they release the flavours you want in order to produce the beer you want. Indian Pale Ale (light malt and lots of hops) was created as a drink to last the (sail boat) trip to the colonies who had a mighty thirst for a good ale but lived in a climate that was probably too hot to make good beer in. It was made slightly stronger (more alcohol) to preserve it during the journey. Stout (dark malt fairly hoppy) is a thicker brew that is fairly high in calories, as many a nursing mother might remember (Makison and many stouts).

All the above sketches out the journey to modern brewing, but much of the ground breaking research was not just happened upon, it was made by the Benedictine (and other) religious orders. Sure many cultures had been making something like beer, sometimes used in ‘religious’ and cultural ceremonies , but the monks of St Benedict really perfected the art.

St Benedict one of the oldest saints to establish permanent communities with an emphasis on teaching, caring for the sick and hospitality. The monasteries perhaps influenced by the early church and the old testament Hebrew imperative of offering guests hospitality, found that they needed to define what hospitality actually meant. In the early middle ages the water was not very pure and not many people drank it, they drank a lightly alcoholised type of beer. This is known as small beer, perhaps only enough alcohol to sanitise it, 1.5 – 2:00%. It had the advantage of having some calorific value and helped the bread go down. As growing brewers the Benedictine order began to refine their beer’s, it is thought that beer was drunk during lent and other fasts because it was not solid food but had enough nutrients to allow the monks to continue with their work,often hard manual farm work. As they were good brewers their craft grew and becoming better and better was noticed by the nobility and as such a potential sales base was established. If you wanted better sales then you refine your beer and make a quality above the everyday ordinary. Thus, there were three grades of beer made by many monasteries and probably different strengths to go with them. The Benedictine’s perfected their art and have continued to do so until this day. There are monastic breweries still producing beer in Belgium today that can trace their lineage back to those early days. One has just re-opened in the UK and several new ones in the US. One of those best known might be Leffe billed as a Trapist ale (a premium beer brand owned by InBev Belgium) sadly not now made in the monistary itself.

Our own brewery has come about following the 2015 lent course that Winchester Diocese asked people to consider the life of St Benedict. ‘Ben’ wrote his rule for monastic living based around poverty – prayer and hard work (often manual labour) silence and hospitality. In considering this a group of parishioners considered how this sense of radical hospitality might find an expression in our parish; looking at the Benedictine way of life, we found the history of beer making. There was a small group of people who enjoyed making beer (often given away to the congregation at events) who discussed the possibility of making and selling beer as a form of mission and funding some of the activities of the church.

To date the vicars amateur attempts at making up ‘kits’ of beer (concentrated beer wort that comes in a tin – just add hot water and sugar) have developed into a small but growing nano brewery that produced fine craft beer from scratch (all the boiling and mixing above). The Underhill Centre is now licenced to sell alcohol and parts of the building are licenced to produce beer to sell, duty is paid to HM customs and Revenue on the beer made. A small group of founders, both church and community, crowdfunded Underhill Ale a highbred social enterprise that looks in the future to become a full micro brewery. The Underhill Centre (named after Rev Spencer-Underhill) is now licenced to sell alcohol and parts of the building are registered as being a brewery, each month when beer is brewed the appropriate duty is paid to HM Revenue and Customs and the beer brewed is able to be sold.

To date this has been something of a fairly unique brew each time. To build a company around brewing, there needs to be some form of consistency and this is the true art of commercial brewing. The fun part is that you can also make one off fine crafted individual brews as well. There has so far been UPA (Underhill Pale Ale) 1, 2 and 3, Summers End (dark brew abv 4.4% and currently (Oct 2018) Harvest (abv 3.4%). The plan is to brew a consistent UPA at about 4.5%. We currently use Maris Otter Malt as bulk adding Crystal malt (or other variations) to add body and colour. As mentioned above the Maris Otter Barley is Hampshire grown. In talking to one of the bearers at a funeral at the church I found out that his grandfather had put an acre over to barley on the family farm and had also half an acre of hops as well. The Meon Valley seems to have been a hop growing area at one time, but we have found no current commercial hop growing there now. As we are trying to develop a scene of localism in our brewing I grew two varieties of hops in the vicarage garden this year Cascade and Gouldings. Both grew up strings over the little patio on the south side of the house. The Gouldings yielded about 350g (dried weight) and the Cascades around a kilo (dried weight) both went into the Harvest brew. It's a learning process in much of this and next year I’m hoping to build a larger hop barn in the bottom part of the vicarage garden, with 6 more plants. There is a micro brewery in London that has a dispersed hop barn spread over a number of different peoples gardens! We are fairly excited because one of the church members actually has what may be original local hops growing in their garden. This would be brilliant because if they are an old Hampshire variety they may well offer a unique traditional local addition to our brews.

Underhill ale is not all about making the beer, with a developing social side to the group. We are very interested in beer, drinking our own beer, but visiting other brewery’s (October 2018 Red Cat Brewery near Winchester) as well and learning about how other people brew. The social side is open to anyone who wants to come. We are planning some social events for 2019 with speakers and food so watch this space and the Facebook page for @Underhill Ale

We currently sell our ale at events and fetes

Chris Rowberry

October 2018

The opinions in this description represent those of the author alone and not those of St John’s Church. Any inaccuracy’s please contact the author via the Underhill Ale web site.