Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Klostergården - garden of the monks

It was Marymass in the Year of the Lord 1207, a group of robe clad and clean shaven men had gathered on a small island in the long fjord that passes by Trondheim and turns north into the Trønder heartland of Norway. These men, brothers of the Cistercian order, had been sent out to found a new monastery. This is the story of what they founded and the rich legacy they left behind, in the garden of the monks.

A pebbled beach on Tautra island in the Trondheimsfjord.

A visit to Tautra

As part of a general tour of Nord-Trøndelag county, in the geographical centre of Norway, a visit to the small island of Tautra, in Frosta municipality, is highly recommended. Not only for its natural beauty, the bird sanctuary or for its long history, but because of the tranquility you can only find on such a small island. The island is 3.5 km long and never more than 1 km wide, covering an area of just 1.5 square km, and only 50 people actually live on the island. But you can still find a place to spend the night, eat hearty rustic dishes and enjoy locally brewed beer: Klostergården. I'll tell more about this place later.

In order to get to Tautra you really need a car, as there is no public transport going all the way out. Heading up the E6 highway you need to turn off at a place called Åsen, located roughly halfway between Stjørdal in the south and Levanger in the north. If you're coming for Trondheim Værnes Airport, it's 25 km to drive to Åsen. When reaching Åsen, turn off the E6 onto the smaller 753 highway towards Frosta (should be a hard left turn if you come from Værnes). Follow 753 for about 22 km, at which point you will probably have seen several signs directing you to Tautra. Exit the 753 onto the smaller county road 67. After 1.5 km you'll reach the causeway bridge across to Tautra. This is a narrow, 1-lane bridge, so watch out for oncoming traffic. At the middle of the bridge you have to break for a gate which will open automatically once you're close to it. When across the bridge, hold right and follow signs to Klostergården.

The main building of Klostergården at Tautra.

To book a room at Klostergården, you can either call or send an email to ask for vacancies, contact information can be found at

Weekends can be rather full, so the best time to visit is on weekdays from Monday to Thursday.

Before returning to my own visit in July 2012, we need to pick up the thread from the introduction (if history is not your fancy, skip the next section and 800 years of history at your own peril) ...

The history of Tautra

On March 25, 1207, a group of Cisterian monks founded a monastery on Tautra or Tuterø, as it is also known. We don't know where they were sent out from, it may have been from Lyse Kloster near Bergen or from Munkeby near Levanger.

What we do know is that by placing their monastery on Tautra the monks made a good choice that would see their abbey prosper for the next three centuries. The reason why Tautra was such a good choice is three-fold. Primarily, an island provides isolation and safety - an important aspect in those days, which is clearly recognized in the name they gave the monastery: Monasterium sancta maria de tuta insula or Monastery of St Mary on the Secure Island. Secondly, by chosing a small island in the Trondheimsfjord they found a place with a milder micro climate than what is normal for Trøndelag, sea water damping the weather extremes. Finally, they chose an island located close to the old Norse power centre in Trøndelag: Frostating. Located less than 4 km inland, from the shore across from Tautra, the Thing Hill at Frosta was were the laws uniting the eight Trønder counties were made during the Viking era. Two centuries later, when the monks arrived, Frosta was still very much at the heart of Trøndelag.

The Cistercian order is known for its hard working brothers and sister, and the monks at Tautra were no exception. They constructed a large stone church and many buildings out of wood, a common building material in Trøndelag. They cultivated gardens, planting herbs and other useful plants, and must quickly have become a source of knowledge and trade for local farmers in Trøndelag.

At its height of influence, Tautra abbey controlled as many as 130 farms in Trøndelag, including the land of the former Munkeby abbey. But Tautra remained small, especially compared to abbeys elsewhere in Europe, with living quarters for at most 30 monks.

We don't know that much about life at the abbey, but the monks seem to have made it through the horrors of the Black Death in 1349 - which probably killed as much as half the population in Norway - without serious problems, because the abbey continued to prosper until the 16th century.

Things started to go wrong in 1510, when they received a new abbot from Denmark - Mathias Henrikssøn. He soon lost the job, for unknown reasons, but returned to the abbey again in 1531. This time he ruined the monastery and gave away its land to local nobleman Niels Lykke. However, Niels Lykke was in conflict with the mighty Archbishop Olav Engelbregtsson, who soon confiscated the monastery and had Mr Lykke executed in 1535. But this didn't last long either, because in 1537 the winds of the Protestant reformation swept across the kingdom, forcing the Archbishop and all monks to flee the country. The monastery and its lands were again confiscated, this time by the Crown.

Ruins of the stone church of the former Tautra Abbey.

Over the next few centuries, the monastery fell into disrepair, its stone buildings were used as a stone quarry for building fortresses in Trondheim. Later, in the 18th century, stones were also taken away and used to build the foundations of a new farm house nearby, a farm called Tautra Nordre.

In 1846, what was left of the ruins were purchased by a wealthy citizen and given to the newly founded Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments. They still preserve the ruins and have erected information boards next to it to educate visitors about its long history.

Tautra today

Today the island of Tautra isn't as isolated as it once was, because in 1979 a 2.3 km long causeway bridge was constructed between the island and the mainland. This allows the inhabitants of Tautra to drive over to Frosta, on the mainland, to do their shopping. And, vice versa, it allows bird spotters, tourists and visitors to Klostergården to come by car.

However, this causeway bridge turned out to be a mixed blessing to the creatures on the island. For the humans it was all well, but the colony of birds - so long used to safe isolation - was soon targeted by predators, such as foxes and cats, crossing over from the mainland on the bridge. To solve this problem, an automatic gate was constructed at the middle of the bridge. This gate only allows cars to pass through, not any 2- or 4-legged.

Most of the people living on Tautra are farmers, but one family has taken a different route. In 1994 the then 35 year old Ståle Harald Anderssen decided to renovate the old farm buildings at Tautra Nordre and take up the old art of the monks - growing herbs, fruit and other plants. He also decided to open a bed & breakfast, to offer visitors a place to stay while they explored the old ruins and the local produce. Klostergården was born.

In 2009, his son Jørn returned with a young familiy and a bunch of ideas on how to further develop Klostergården. One of the things he suggested was brewing beer, something the old monks at the abbey surely must have done. Thus Klostergården Håndbryggeri was born, with Jørn as the brewer. Brewing small 200 liter batches, Jørn ferments the beer on 600 liter stainless steel tanks formerly used to store milk.

The five tap handles at the Klostergården café on Tautra.

Today, Klostergården Håndbryggeri brews more than a dozen different types of beer - from light pale ales, via bitters and ambers to dark imperial stouts and potent barley wines.

All of the beers are made available on draft at the Klostergården café which is another reason why you really should have dinner here. The beers (only those of 4.7% abv or lower, due to Norwegian laws) are also sold in bottles at the farm shop, along with other local products such as juice and jam of Aronia berries, cheese and honey.

The beers of Klostergården Håndbryggeri

During my visit to Klostergården, the café had five different beers on tap. Naturally, I had to try them all :) The five beers were:
  1. Klostergården Amber (4.5%): A well made but fairly mild amber. It had a nice malt profile with some toasted notes.
  2. Klostergården Bitter (4.5%): Even for a bitter I found this too thin, lacking in taste and aroma.
  3. Klostergården Blond (4.7%): This Belgian-style blond had a nice fruity aroma with spice notes, but was a bit thin in the body and short.
  4. Klostergården Pale Ale (4.5%): A fairly hoppy pale ale, slightly too thin to support the bitterness.
  5. Klostergården Sommerøl (4.7%): A light bodied, well hopped and fruity summer ale. Really nice.
Fortunately, Klostergården had two stronger beers availlable on kegs, which they served at the café later in the evening:

  1. Klostergården Imperial Stout (9.3%): Pitch black, with a rich coffee and chocolate aroma. Full bodied with a silky smooth mouthfeel. It had a strong roasted taste and was fairly dry.
  2. Klostergården Barley Wine (9.7%): Dark brown, with a sweet barley wine aroma. Full bodied, creamy and sweet. Good bitter finish with some lingering sweetness in the aftertaste. 
The 9.3% abv Klostergården Imperial Stout.

Unlike the mild, shop strength ales, the last two were both full bodied and assertive beers. The Barley Wine, by the way, was actually from 2010 - having been cellared for two years.

When I had the chance to talk with Ståle Anderssen he mentioned that they were also experimenting with hops, growing several varietals in a field behind the ruins. He didn't know what kind, as that is the domain of his son - the brewer. Ståle said it's still too early to tell if these experiments will result in any good aroma hops, but if they do, the good hops will end up in beers from Klostergården Håndbryggeri.

I think that would be really awesome and a great way to continue the gardening legacy of the Cisterian monks who left these shores so suddenly, almost five hundred years ago.

The brothers would have been proud.

Klostergården hop trellies.

Photos from my visit on Tautra can be found at Flickr.

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