French Abbey Beer of Northumberland

I live on the outskirts of Newcastle upon Tyne in the northeast of England in a little village called Throckley. My area is steeped in history and local breweries will often brew beers to remember the stories of the region. 

A short walk from my house you can find the birthplace of George Stephenson, the grandfather of the modern train. One of Wylam Brewery’s most popular beers used to be Stephenson’s Rocket, named after the groundbreaking locomotive of George Stephenson’s son, Robert. 

Throckley is located along the route of Hadrian’s Wall, the 73-mile long Roman wall that stretched the entire width of England (and served as inspiration for The Wall from Game of Thrones) and the ruins of the Roman fort of Vindolanda is a short drive away. Twice Brewed Brewery in Northumberland often names their beers after Roman Gods with beers including Juno, Saturn, and Mithras, as well as a recently brewed beer named When in Rome, a gruit flavored with mugwort, meadowsweet, and elderflower to recreate a brew similar to that enjoyed by the legionnaires stationed nearby nearly 2,000 years ago.

One piece of history that has remained somewhat more obscure, though, is that around the end of the 18th century a group of French priests ran a pub around the corner from my house, the Royal French Arms. I became fascinated with the story as I began to research and learn more about its history, which eventually led me to set about following the example of Twice Brewed and create a beer the like of which may have been brewed by the clergymen of the Royal French Arms. 

Royal French Arms

The site where the French priests brewed beer during the tail end of the 18th century was turned into a pub called The Royal French Arms a century later. It’s now home to apartments, however a sign for the Royal French Arms remains affixed to the building bearing the Royal French Fleur de Lis.

Before getting to the beer they brewed and my attempt to recreate it, I should explain how it was a gaggle of French priests came to be running a pub in Northumberland; it goes back to 1789 when the French Revolution sent ripples throughout Europe. Catholicism permeated every pore of French society before the revolution. The French church was a wealthy landowner, collected a tithe of 10% of all agricultural produce, and the king wielded great influence over the mechanisms of the church — it was seen as part of the state and a threat to the revolution.

Over the next few years, a slew of anti-Catholic laws were passed by successive revolutionary governments. Church buildings were seized and either sold or converted into factories and warehouses. Crosses and church bells were melted down and turned into weapons. Religious statues and vestments were banned. French priests were forced to declare an oath to the French constitution and recognize the government’s authority as superior to Rome, or they were imprisoned, arrested, or executed.1,2

In this backdrop it is unsurprising that some French clergy decided they didn’t feel France was a safe place for them and fled across Europe seeking asylum. On October 5, 1796, nearly 300 such fleeing clergy arrived on the Tyne on a convoy of three transports escorted by the warship Serpent. They were received with a “kindness and hospitality honorable to the English character.”3

These priests were housed across Newcastle, most of them going to live with Catholic families but 38 of these priests came to live in a row of newly built houses in Heddon-on-the-Wall, the village bordering my own. This row of houses, previously called Heddon Square, became known as Frenchman’s Row after its new occupants. Although the priests were given an allowance of one shilling a day by the British government to live on, apparently quite a handsome amount in 1800, they also brewed their own beer and used their easternmost cottage as an inn to sell beer to the locals. 

Frenchman’s Row, today.

Six years later the clergymen would leave Newcastle and sail back to France in 1802 as it became safer following an armistice that was declared between Britain and France. The clergymen left a sundial as a gift to the people of the Northeast, in gratitude for the kindness the people had shown them. The sundial reads, “Time flies, memory remains,” and a Latin inscription that reads, “As your friendly race are glad to mark each hour with kindly gifts, so may every hour be prosperous for you.”

In 1897 a larger building would be built on the site of the eastern cottage and was named The Royal French Arms in remembrance of the old brewhouse run by the priests. The new pub was a pillar of the community for nearly a century before closing in 1995. A quarter-century later and a block of apartments called Royal French Court now stand in its place.4,5 

Recreating the Beer

My approach to recreating the recipe brewed by these French priests is historical, yet somewhat whimsical. If you asked a historian what kind of beer these priests made and served, their answer would be, “There isn’t enough evidence to say.” And while that is true, it leaves us without a beer and failing in our objective. And avoiding a beer recreation because of some holes in the recipe has never stopped me before (heck, I’ve even created a recipe for a beer that has never truly been brewed before — see my story on the Hollywood prop beer Heisler from the November 2021 issue of BYO). So the recipe on page 37 is my best guess based on the available evidence, filling in a lack of historical evidence with things that feel right and producing a beer that honors the memory of this little story the best I can. Like in Jurassic Park where they fill in the missing dinosaur DNA with frog DNA, except beer.

Being the early 1800s there is little documentation of the priests’ lives while they were in England, and certainly there are no dusty scrolls listing the malt bills and hopping rates hanging around in cupboards of the local village hall (I checked, there’s just a bunch of yoga mats and an inordinate amount of old mugs), but I still wanted to make a beer that they might have made, as close to what I can ascertain French priests might have brewed in the 18th century.

There aren’t really any records of significance regarding what pre-revolutionary French monastic beer was like. A lot of these records were lost in the fires of the revolution and all such monastic brewing stopped after the revolution due to the seized buildings and fleeing priests. Although some abbey brewing did start again in the 19th century, it was limited and sporadic. When the Abbey of Saint Waldrille began brewing in 2016 it was the first French abbey to do so in over 80 years. 

So we don’t have recipes from the time nor we do have a French abbey beer that has carried on down the years. So I was struggling for a starting point for my recipe until I remembered there was another group of priests that fled France at the same time as the priests of the Royal French Arms, but instead of fleeing to England they fled to Belgium and set up a Trappist community near Antwerp. In 1836 this religious community was raised to the status of abbey, which is also when they began brewing beer and are now a world-renowned brewer of Trappist beers. None other than Westmalle Brewery, somewhat more grand than the Royal French Arms but both founded in the same historical backdrop.

Westmalle is most well known for its Dubbel and Tripel but these are relatively modern innovations. What became the Dubbel was first brewed in 1856 and was the first example of such a style from a Trappist brewery, and the Tripel was not first brewed until 1934.6 The Royal French Arms was, thus obviously, not selling these types of strong Belgian-style beers 50 years earlier. Instead, my starting point in recipe development is the beer the monks of Westmalle Abbey drink themselves: Westmalle Extra. 

Westmalle Extra, at 4.8% ABV, is much more suitable for the austere life of a monk than the 7% and 9.5% ABVs of the Dubbel and Tripel, which are strictly for outsiders. This beer has had somewhat of a transformation over the years, however. Extra, or Extra Gursten as it was originally called, was the first beer the monks brewed in 1836, however records from the time show it wasn’t the pale beer it is today, but instead a 3.5% dark table beer. By the early 20th century it had slowly changed to the stronger, paler beer it is today.7 

So it would seem plausible to me, if the first beer French priests in 1836 would make would be a brown, malty, and sweet table beer, that might be the kind of beer French priests would make 30 years earlier. That was my starting point: A 3.5%, brown, sweet, and malty table beer. 

My resulting Newcastle Brun Ale.

Ingredient choices were a lot more limited in 1796 than they are today; roasted and crystal malts would only be invented later in the 19th century. Brown malt was in use but pale malt had been in common usage in Britain since around 1780 so a brown beer in 1796 would very likely have been a mix of brown and pale malt.8 The brown malt of the past isn’t exactly like the brown malt we find today, which at the time had more diastatic capability and could be used for a larger portion of a malt bill. No maltsters make this heritage style of brown malt anymore, however, so I did resort to using modern brown malt. For the pale malt I selected Crisp’s Chevallier® Heritage Malt as this was a popular barley variety in the 19th century and adds a rich, sweet character that works well for this beer. 

For hops, most would normally associate monastic brewing with the noble hops of continental Europe, but our brewers were in exile and Europe was engulfed in war, so getting hold of their usual hops would have been impossible. Instead, the priests would in all likelihood have relied on British hops. Britain in 1796 did have a few varieties but only one — the majestic Goldings — is still grown today. Goldings can add a honey-like sweetness to a malty beer so I was comfortable with this choice.

It’s very difficult to know what the yeast the priests used would have been like (this was pre Louis Pasteur so brewers of the time didn’t even really know what yeast was or that yeast was the cause of fermentation). I was torn between a couple of choices when it came to the yeast I would use on my own recipe. The first option I considered using was White Labs WLP530 (Abbey Ale) because that is the strain used by Westmalle today and with the original Westmalle Extra as my starting point for this recipe, it seemed to make sense. Another option was using an English ale strain and including some Brettanomyces if the priests were relying on local breweries for their starter yeast. Ultimately it felt weird making an abbey beer and not using an abbey yeast so I went with WLP530 and imagined the priests had smuggled some barrels of beer from home to use their own yeast, but if you’re brewing this yourself feel free to try an English strain and see what differences it makes!

The Finished Beer

The beer came out with a creamier mouthfeel than I expected and with caramel notes lingering on the tongue, much sweeter than you’d expect from its final gravity of 1.007. The floral notes of the Goldings had room to shine in such a low-ABV beer as well. The Belgian yeast didn’t really come through as prominently as I expected — there were no fruity notes or the distinct plum character the strain is known for. The dominant esters were spice, specifically a strong black pepper note especially as the beer first hits the tongue. This may have had to do with the beer being lower in alcohol than the beers generally brewed using this yeast strain.

The resulting beer feels rustic and it is. The recipe might be improved with some crystal malt and a little bit of chocolate malt. A stronger ABV might accentuate the sweetness, and a bouquet of continental hops might accentuate the esters. But I feel, as much as I can, I achieved my aim of honoring history and the sentiment of the words left on the sundial: Time flies, memory remains.

Newcastle Brun Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.034  FG = 1.007  
IBU = 18  SRM = 15  ABV = 3.6%

4.8 lbs. (2.2 kg) Crisp Chevallier® Heritage Malt
2.4 lbs. (1.1 kg) Crisp brown malt (50 °L) 
3.5 AAU East Kent Golding hops (60 min.) (0.7 oz./ at 5% alpha acids)
5 AAU East Kent Golding hops (5 min.) (1 oz. at 5% alpha acids)
White Labs WLP530 (Abbey Ale), Wyeast 3787 (Belgian High Gravity), or LalBrew Abbaye Belgian-style Ale yeast
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by step
Mash grains at 154 °F (68 °C) for 60 minutes. Batch sparge for 15 minutes, raising the mash to 162 °F (72 °C). Once the wort is collected in the kettle, bring wort to boil. Conduct a standard 60-minute boil. Add 3.5 AAU East Kent Golding hops at the beginning of the boil. Then add another 5 AAU East Kent Golding hops at 5 minutes. Cool wort down to 75 °F (24 °C) and transfer to fermentation vessel. Add yeast as packet directs.

Start fermentation at 75 °F (24 °C). After high kräusen, raise to 78 °F (26 °C) to allow the yeast to finish strong. Allow 1 week to condition after active fermentation then package the beer. Carbonate to 2.4 v/v.

Newcastle Brun Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, partial mash)
OG = 1.034  FG = 1.007  
IBU = 18  SRM = 15  ABV = 3.6%

Due to the high percentage of specialty malts that should be mashed, this is a difficult recipe to translate into an extract version. Here is an approximate that will come out a little more roast coffee rather than roast nutty flavors.

3.3 lbs. (1.5 kg) Maris Otter liquid malt extract
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Crisp Chevallier® Heritage Malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Crisp brown malt (50 °L) 
2 oz. (28 g) pale chocolate malt
2 oz. (56 g) Carafa® III Special malt
3.5 AAU East Kent Golding hops (60 min.) (0.7 oz./ at 5% alpha acids)
5 AAU East Kent Golding hops (5 min.) (1 oz. at 5% alpha acids)
White Labs WLP530 (Abbey Ale), Wyeast 3787 (Belgian High Gravity), or LalBrew Abbaye Belgian-style Ale yeast
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by step
Mash Chevallier® and brown malts at 154 °F (68 °C) for 45 minutes, then add the chocolate and Carafa® malts. Allow an extra 15 minutes steep time. Wash all the grains with 1 gallon (3.8 L) of hot water. Add water to have 6 gallons (23 L) in the kettle. Bring wort to boil. This is a standard 60-minute boil. Add 3.5 AAU East Kent Golding hops at the beginning of the boil. Add the liquid malt extract with 10 minutes left in the boil, then add another 5 AAU East Kent Golding hops at 5 minutes left. Cool wort down to 75 °F (24 °C) and transfer to fermentation vessel. Add yeast as packet directs.

Follow the remainder of the instructions in the all-grain recipe.




3 Mackenzie and Dent. Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead. p 66-88, 1927

4 Heddon-on-the-Wall, Local History Society,

5 Graham, Frank. Old Inns and Taverns of Northumberland. 1959

6 Hieronymus, S. Brew Like a Monk. Boulder: Brewers Publ. 2005



Issue: December 2022