Benedictine Brother Francis Davoren, left, head "brewmonk" or brewmaster, and Benedictine Father Benedict Nivakoff, director of Birra Nursia, toast with their blond brew in August 2013 at the brewery of St. Benedict's Monastery in Norcia, Italy. (CNS photo/Henr y Daggett)
is it about monks and beer? The two just go together. And as craft beer
continues to rise in popularity in the United States, the ones
responsible for creating western brewing practices are reclaiming their
This renewal is important for monastic life in providing
another opportunity for monks to produce their own goods and to sustain
their monasteries (in an age when many of their traditional farming
practices are in decline; see an odd example in Mepkin Abbey’s controversy with PETA).
St. Benedict affirms the necessity of the monk’s work: “When they live
by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then
they are really monks” (Rule, ch. 48). Benedict also states
that “the monastery should, if possible, be so constructed that within
it all necessities, such as water, mill and garden are contained, and
the various crafts are practiced” (ch. 66).
self-sufficiency is meant, in part, to insulate the monks from the
world, the crafts Benedict mentions are important to provide an
opportunity for the monks to witness to society. St. Benedict foresees
the contribution of the monk on society: “Whenever products of these
artisans are sold, those responsible for the sale must not dare to
practice any fraud. . . . The evil of avarice must have not part in
establishing prices, which should, therefore, always be a little lower
than people outside the monastery are able to set, so that in all things God may be glorified (ch.
57, quoting 1 Pt 4:11). Though speaking of prices in particular
(although aren’t Trappist beers the most expensive?), Benedict wants the
monks to glorify God when they enter into contact with the outside
world through their products.
This combination of bolstering
monastic life and creating a more dynamic engagement with our culture
has the potential for what has been called a Brew Evangelization.
The New Evangelization is a renewed proclamation of the treasury of the
Christian faith to meet the needs and challenges of modern culture,
especially for those Christians who have fallen away from the faith. The
revival of brewing is also a small recovery of monastic tradition.
Monastic brewing can be considered a part of a general need for
Catholics to reassert our presence and influence in modern culture.
brewery, which is certainly making a splash, is Birra Nursia, brewed by
the Monastery of St. Benedict, an international community with many
American monks, in Norcia Italy, St. Benedict’s hometown. Though only
two and a half years old, the beer was actually served at the Papal Conclave that elected Pope Francis. Cardinal Pell, when blessing their expanded brewing equipment this last August, described
their brewery as an “example of the new evangelization.” They have
recently increased their production and have signed a contract with
Interbrau S.p.A. to distribute their beer more widely across Italy,
Europe, and possibly even the United States.
Catholic News Service further explored the relation of the Norcia brewery to the New Evangelization:
Nivakoff said the monks began brewing Aug. 15, 2012, with three goals:
contributing to the monastery's self-sufficiency; solidifying bonds with
the town; and reaching out to people who are “turned off by religion.”
For those who wouldn't think of going to Mass, he said, the monastery
gift shop gives them contact with the monks “in a setting and over a
product they feel comfortable with. There's a spiritual gain for them,
even though they aren't looking for it.”
The growth of brewing in
Norcia is just one exciting example of more general growth. Just a year
and a half ago I noted the remarkable resurrection of monastic brewing
in the United States in my article, “Cause for Mirth: The Return of Abbey Brewing to the United States".
This resurgence in monastic brewing has only picked up more steam since
then. I’d like to highlight a few ways in which this renewal has
In my 2013 piece, I noted that some monasteries are
forming partnerships with existing breweries. Here is another example of
this practice: Highland Brewing in Ashville, North Carolina has done a
few beers in cooperation with Belmont Abbey outside of Charlotte, such
as a Trippel last year, which was served at the Abbey. They also brewed a Dopplebock (the traditional Lenten beer), describing it as “A traditional strong dark lager brewed with the help of Brother Tobiah for his fellow Monks at Belmont Abbey.”
And just to show that the Benedictine’s do not have a monopoly on brewing, the Franciscans have a new brewery, Friar’s Brewhouse in Bucksport, Maine. There is a strong precedent for Franciscan brewing as Paulener, the famous Munich beer, was founded by the Friars Minim
in 1634 (that’s St. Francis Paola’s face on the bottle!). The
Franciscans of St. Elizabeth of Hungary are brewing and selling their
beer locally. Two of their first beers were St. Francis Brown Ale and Whoopie Pie Porter. They started out baking, such as their hot cross buns, and their philosophy is rooted in that tradition, according to Br. Don:
batch is an act of faith, because you never know what it’s going to
taste like until you crack the bottle open. It really is exceedingly
gratifying. . . . Brewing beer is like baking, and baking is unlike any
culinary art. Your formula’s got to be right. It’s always interesting.
Around Christmas they also issued a limited release, St. Nicholas Christmas Ale.
There is also a promising new beer coming out of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon and their Benedictine Brewery. They released a limited run last summer and are currently selling Black Habit dark ale out of the abbey gift shop. The back of label reads:
the monks at Mount Angel Abbey, in the spirit of a centuries-old
monastic tradition, are dedicated to our craft for a higher purpose. We
use pristine Oregon water, and hops grown in our own backyard and brewed
in facilities located right on Abbey grounds. It’s a place where
monastic life cultivates work and prayer, with every bottled brewed to
the glory of God. We welcome all to enjoy our beer in food and
fellowship, nourishing both the body and the spirit.
A good summary of a Catholic brewing philosophy!
Benedictine Sisters do not want to be left out of this brewing renewal.
The Sisters of Immaculate Conception Monastery in Indiana are making
plans to open a brewery.
The biggest news, however, is from the
Trappists, whose brewing brand continues to grow: six beers in Belgium,
two in Holland, one in Austria, and now one in the United States.
of all, the world’s consistently top-rated beer, Westvleteren, brewed
by St. Sixtus Abbey in Belgium, issued a special release just for the
United States. The monks, who only sell their beer out of their
monastery in limited quantities (which is probably part of the reason it
is wildly popular), needed a new roof. It is interesting that they
looked to the United States for their special release: a pack of four
750ml bottles of their most popular beer, Westvletern 12, a quadrupel
style, which sold for $85. People literally camped outside for the beer.
I was not one of them, but to be completely honest I only heard about
There are two new Trappist abbeys brewing in
Europe. The first is Engelszell from Austria with four styles: Benno
(dubbel), Gregorius (strong dark ale), Jubiläumsbier (Belgian pale ale),
and Nivard (Belgian dark ale). The second new European Trappist beer is
the second Dutch Trappist beer, brewed by the Abbey Maria Toevlucht.
For about a year they have been brewing an amber colored beer that is
currently available only in the Netherlands and Belgium.
exciting, however, is the first American Trappist brewery, Spencer
Trappist, from St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA. (I clarify, however,
that this is the first American Trappist beer in some time, as many
American monasteries, including the Trappists, brewed before
Prohibition. We can say that it is probably the first commercially sold
Trappist beer in America.) They are brewing a Pater (or Father) beer, a
style the monks usually reserve for their own consumption. The Abbey website describes the beer as follows:
recipe was inspired by the traditional refectory ales known as
patersbier (“fathers’ beer” in Flemish) in Belgium. These sessionable
beers are brewed by the monks for their dinner table and are typically
only available at the monastery. Spencer is a full-bodied, golden-hued
ale with fruity accents, a dry finish and light hop bitterness. The beer
is unfiltered and unpasteurized, preserving live yeast that naturally
carbonates the beer in the bottle and keg and contributes to the beer
flavor and aroma.
It has been received quite well, getting high
reviews, and I give it my own hearty endorsement (though you have to be
prepared to pay shipping charges to taste it).
Evangelization. Is this an exaggeration? Well, it might be, but only a
bit. Of course, evangelization applies primarily to the direct
proclamation of the Gospel. However, in our day it is becoming ever
clearer that we need to evangelizespread the good newsabout the
goodness and integrity of nature. This applies most fully to the goods
of marriage and sexuality, but also to the basic simple goods of life.
We’ve become so removed from the basic production of goods that
reemphasizing simple things is also necessary for cultural renewal. Some
have speculated that brewing lies at the very origin of human culture (by developing agricultural practices).
our advanced time, rediscovering the beginning, even with simple
things, may be a good way to start over again. In this sense, monastic
brewing may lead to a brew evangelization.