is a long history of monastic communities which brew beer.
One of the roots of this history is the nature of beer.
Monastic brewing began as a way for monks to feed themselves.
Traditionally, monastic beers were good sources of nutrition.
Beer was referred to as “liquid bread,” because it included the
same ingredients as whole grain bread. Monasteries would build
breweries to supply themselves. It was healthier to drink beer
than water in many places.
In addition, traditional brewing is a primarily contemplative
exercise. Brewers follow a recipe or approach which includes
spending time waiting for fermentation to happen. There is time
for reflection and contemplation while waiting.
Beer is also useful in hospitality. In an age before the
hospitality industry, monasteries were a safe place for
travelers to stay. Benedict’s Rule, which still governs many
monasteries, places a significant emphasis on being hospitable
One of the principles of monastic life is self-sufficiency.
Even monasteries with reputations for producing great beer limit
the time and effort they put into brewing. Many choose not to
distribute their beer beyond the monasteries themselves. The
goal is to produce an excellent product well, not to generate as
much revenue as possible.
Monastic communities were, and still are, responsible for
sustaining themselves financially. Each community finds a
service it can provide which will help it generate revenue.
Communities can be particularly creative in finding ways to
support themselves. Many offer hospitality for retreats, and
most specialize in offering particular goods and services. There
is a monastery which builds and sells coffins. Other communities
bake and sell bread or breakfast cereal. They make fudge, or
coffee, or jam.
New Camaldoli Hermitage, the community in which I am a lay
oblate does not, alas, brew beer. They are known for the
fruitcake they make, and recently added honey to their
Some monasteries still brew beer. Many people believe
monasteries produce some of the best beers in the world. Several
Belgian monasteries are well known for the beers they brew.
There are also German monasteries which brew excellent beer.
Trappist monasteries have a particularly strong reputation
for brewing excellent beer. Trappist monks are a branch of the
larger Benedictine family.
Other European monastic communities are known for producing
Benedictine or Chartreuse, for example. Some monasteries produce
There are, however, few monasteries in the United States
which brew their own beer.
I know of two American monastic communities which brew beer.
The Benedictine Monastery of Christ in the Desert on the
Chama River in New Mexico was the first monastery since
Prohibition to brew commercially in January, 2005. Their first
beer was Monks’ Ale, which they continue to brew today.
Abbey Brewing now has a product line which features four core
ales available all year and other seasonal ales. Their ales are
developed in a commercial brewery on the grounds of the
Monastery of Christ in the Desert and sold primarily in New
Mexico. Larger scale production takes place in cooperation with
Sierra Blanca Brewing Company.
I have had Monks’ Ale in Santa Fe, and when generous friends
have visited the monastery and been willing to share.
The second American monastery to brew beer is a Trappist
community near Boston, Massachusetts.
Spencer Brewery is on the grounds of Saint Joseph’s Abbey. It
faces a different range of challenges, primarily because it is a
While it does not have to satisfy shareholders, the brewery
must follow the wishes of the Saint Joseph’s community of 54
monks, as well as the International Trappist Association.
Trappist communities in Europe have a long tradition of
brewing excellence, and work hard to protect it. There can be
conflict over whether innovative ideas and practices might
weaken Trappist traditional excellence.
Trappist monasteries in a number of other countries have also
begun brewing beer in recent years.
Saint Joseph’s joined the International Trappist Association
in 2012. They have slowly grown into the American market and
expanded their menu to nine types of beer.
Both Abbey Brewing in New Mexico and Spencer Brewery in
Massachusetts approach brewing in a different way than a
Beer and spiritual life fit together.
Try a beer brewed by monks this month and find out if you can
taste the difference.
Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor in Pasadena,
California. He is passionate about craft brewing, listening, and
monks and monastic life. Greg has served as an assistant
district attorney and an associate university professor. Greg’s
website is StrategicMonk.com
he is on Twitter @StrategicMonk
You can email Greg at StrategicMonk@gmail.com
and he writes a blog for the Contemplative