By Greg Kitsock
Wednesday, April 28, 2010; E05
"It's so quiet up here. You forget you're in the city, which is why I like it," Nathan Zeender says, standing by the front gate of the Mount St. Sepulchre Franciscan Monastery in Northeast Washington.
The 33-year-old computer programmer is neither a monk nor Catholic, but as he surveys this emerald-green oasis in the midst of the city, he talks excitedly about his "American abbey project": an attempt to bring the monastic brewing tradition to Washington.
In bygone centuries, beer was safer to drink than water, and monks brewed it for their own consumption as well as to supply thirsty wayfarers. As early as the ninth century, the Abbey of St. Gall in Switzerland had three breweries in full operation. Today, there are perhaps 18 monastery breweries throughout Europe that earn their keep by selling beer, most famously the Belgian Trappist breweries such as Chimay and Orval.
No, Zeender isn't going to set up a brew kettle on the property (although he notes that a long-forgotten root cellar, unearthed last year, would be perfect for aging beer). He home-brews in the basement of his Brookland home, but with the monks' permission, he is experimenting with ingredients from the monastery grounds. He has planted an 80-square-foot plot with hop vines, which are already four to five feet tall and rapidly scaling the trellises he erected. He and a friend, Chris Schierkolk, maintain three beehives to produce honey for his homemade beers and meads. The honeycombs are empty; the harsh winter killed off his bees, Zeender says, but he's having new colonies shipped from Georgia.
Zeender's goal is to make beer that is "evocative of the place." He says his bees will rely heavily on neighborhood tulip poplars for their nectar, which produces honey with a light, delicate flavor that gently accentuates an English-style mild ale. "I really love dry, crisp beers," he says. "You wouldn't want to use a heavier honey, like buckwheat."
Mount St. Sepulchre was founded in 1897. The grounds contain the bones of a fifth-century Irish saint (St. Benignus of Armagh) and replicas of the catacombs in Rome and monuments in the Holy Land. At one time, Zeender says, the monks raised cattle and vegetables on their 42 acres and cultivated an orchard. Today, the main agricultural activity consists of growing Easter lilies and rosebushes. The monks are too few to do all of the manual labor, so a volunteer guild, of which Zeender is a member, helps out.
Zeender sees other possibilities for using local ingredients in his home-brews. He plans to collect peaches and persimmons from trees on the monastery grounds and will immerse them -- fruit, skins and seeds -- in a pale ale. Some of the volunteer gardeners have planted Concord grapes. Most people would think about using them to make wine, but Zeender notes that grape skins are home to wild yeasts that he can use to ferment the high-alcohol sour beers that are his passion.
In his basement, Zeender keeps two immense wooden barrels, each capable of holding about 50 to 60 gallons of beer, a "group project" he shares with several other local home-brewers. One is a bourbon barrel from the A. Smith Bowman Distillery near Fredericksburg. The other came from Chrysalis Vineyards in Middleburg and formerly held red wine. The barrels harbor a complex culture of brewer's yeast, wild yeasts and bacteria that exert their will on the sugar-rich liquid bubbling away inside. "It's like Thunderdome in there," he says.
From a glass carboy with cherries (pits and all) floating in it, Zeender draws a sample of a bourbon cherry ale. The unique brew combines a tart fruitiness with a sweet coconut flavor acquired from a previous aging in the bourbon cask.
He hands me a pumpkin blonde ale, aged in glass with toasted oak cubes, that he named after American guitarist John Fahey; both, he says, are "spontaneous and organic." The golden ale has a piercing acidity that is clean and refreshing. Instead of cinnamon and nutmeg, the spices that give most American pumpkin beers their flavor, he has opted for honeysuckle and rosemary, adding a delicate spiciness to the aftertaste.
His beers are like nothing I have tasted. If he ever does persuade the monks to install a brew house, I can imagine beer geeks queuing up to pay $50 or more a case.
Two factors would work against Zeender's turning pro, however. Many of his beers require prolonged aging, a year or more, which might render them uneconomical to produce commercially. And because he leaves so much to the whims of nature, it is unlikely he could create the same flavor in two consecutive batches.
That's all right with him. Zeender says most American commercial beer has become "denatured," a commodity from a factory. "Beer is an agricultural product," he says. "It's grass and fungus and water."
A life close to nature is probably what Zeender finds most attractive about the monastic existence. "I don't know if I have the faith for it, but I could see myself as a studious monk," he says.