Back to previous page


Post Most

Monastic beers: Strong ales with a strong tradition

By ,

A 1,500-year-old tradition of monastic brewing is putting down rootlets in 21st-century America.

You can taste its fruits in Ovila Quad, the third in a line of ales that Sierra Nevada Brewing in Chico, Calif., has released in partnership with the Trappist monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, Calif. A “quadrupel” is a vague style of recent origin; the term was first slapped on a beer by the La Trappe monastery in the Netherlands. Generally, it denotes a strong, dark ale that measures 10 percent alcohol by volume or higher. Bill Manley, Sierra Nevada’s director of communications, describes Ovila Quad as “kind of figgy, with a rum-raisin aroma, but finishing quite dry.”

The Quad follows the rich and plummy Ovila Dubbel and the lemony, spritzy Ovila Saison. Both earlier efforts linger on area shelves in 750-milliliter cork-and-cage bottles.

Unlike such popular Belgian brands as Chimay and Orval, the Ovila releases can’t be labeled Trappist beers: They’re not made by monks. Ken Grossman, Sierra Nevada’s president, doesn’t wear a robe and cowl, nor does he rise at 3 a.m. for morning lauds. (Actually, he’s Jewish.)

However, the monks of New Clairvaux have participated in the beers’ formulation and promotion. If you attended last June’s Savor festival in the District, you might have been handed a glass by Father Thomas Davis, the monastery’s abbot emeritus, or by Father Paul Mark Schwan, its current abbot. What’s more, some of the proceeds from the sale of the Ovila beers are helping to finance a treasured goal of the monks: the reconstruction of a 12th-century chapter house on the monastery grounds.

The chapter house — originally part of the Santa Maria de Ovila monastery in Trillo, Spain — served as an assembly hall for Cistercian monks for more than 800 years. In 1931, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst shipped the building, stone by stone, to California. But he never got around to building his dream castle, and the stones languished until New Clairvaux acquired them in 1994.

“The last ceiling stone will be placed in several weeks,” Davis reports, but much work remains, and so the partnership with Sierra Nevada will extend into 2012. According to Manley, the brewery plans to rerelease the Ovila Dubbel year-round in four-packs of corked, 375-ml (12.7-ounce) bottles. Sierra Nevada also will release two more limited-edition Ovila beers in the larger format: a Belgian-style strong golden ale and a version of the quad, aged in brandy barrels.

Has New Clairvaux considered installing its own brewery? “The idea has been proposed,” Davis says, but “it is too early for the monks to seriously consider the proposal.”

Monastic brewing is much older than even the chapter house. “It goes back to Charlemagne at least,” says Stan Hieronymus, author of “Brew Like a Monk: Trappist, Abbey, and Strong Belgian Ales and How to Brew Them” (Brewers Publications, 2005). “The whole idea of the Benedictine tradition is that you have to live by the work of your hands.” Their motto: “Ora et labora,” pray and work. The monks brewed not just for themselves but also for thirsty pilgrims who sought lodging in an era predating Hiltons and Best Westerns.

Many of Europe’s abbeys, however, were ransacked and the property secularized during the Napoleonic era. The seven Trappist-run breweries of Belgium and Holland commenced brewing in the mid-19th century or afterwards, while abbey styles such as dubbel and tripel are 20th-century inventions.

Their beers are less well known, but Benedictine monks run several breweries on mainland Europe, including Andechs, Ettal and Weltenburg in Germany. In the 19th-century United States, the Benedictines of St. Vincent Archabbey turned Latrobe, Pa., into a brewing center long before Rolling Rock did.

Now, Benedictine monks are brewing again in America at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northwestern New Mexico near the village of Abiquiu. (“It’s beyond nowhere,” says Hieronymus.)

As of press time, the monks were on retreat and incommunicado, but Berkeley Merchant was happy to speak. Merchant is the general manager of Abbey Beverage, a commercial offshoot of the monastery, and an oblate; he has vowed to lead a life of prayer and good works, like the monks, but lives outside the abbey gates.

The brothers, according to Merchant, have installed a half-barrel nanobrewery at the monastery, with plans to upgrade to a five- or seven-barrel system. As soon as their brewery is fully licensed, they intend to use it for experimental and limited-edition brews.

In the meantime, they’ve been contract-brewing and bottling two brands at Sierra Blanca Brewing in Moriarty, N.M. Monks’ Ale is a Belgian-style single (also called an enkel or patersbier): a malty, moderate-strength ale of the sort that the monks might sip in silence at dinner. Monks’ Wit is a classic white ale, seasoned with coriander, orange peel and a few “secret spices” that Merchant declined to reveal.

Brad Kraus is a 30-year veteran of the brewing industry who oversees the brewing. Not all of the monks are involved in beermaking, he says. (The abbey also earns its keep through sales of soaps, candles, lotions and religious items.) But several of the brothers accompany him to Sierra Blanca two or three times a month to help with brewing and bottling. “And pretty much the whole community pitches in for the hop harvest,” he adds. The brothers have sown a quarter-acre with hops, including native New Mexican varieties found growing wild in the hills, which they plan to use for a draft-only tripel.

Output is minuscule, about 1,000 barrels this year, but Abbey Beverage has a toehold in eastern Pennsylvania, and talks are underway with distributors in Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

Abbey Beverage is eyeing other territories as well, says Merchant. Abbey beers are dear to the hearts of craft aficionados, not just for their quality but out of fascination with the monks’ simple, contemplative, close-to-the-land lifestyle.

“This is what monks originally did,” says Kraus. “They raised vegetables, made cheese, you name it, not just to support themselves but to provide for the community.”

Adds Hieronymus: “When I visited New Clairvaux with Bill Manley, I saw a monk on a tractor who looked to be about 90. There must be something about the Trappist life that’s good for you.”

READ MORE: Beer Column archive

© The Washington Post Company