Art of Craft ~ brews and reviews
By Greg Richardson

There 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 to strangers.

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 offerings.

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 wine.

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 Trappist community.

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 profit-making enterprise.

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 and he is on Twitter @StrategicMonk. You can email Greg at StrategicMonk@gmail.com, and he writes a blog for the Contemplative channel on http://www.patheos.com.

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