Press Release: U.S. monastery brews return after a century

by Kevin on February 16, 2012

Thursday, February 16, 2012

By Bob Batz Jr., Pittsburgh Post-Gazette




Abbey Beverage Co.

The chapel of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northwestern New Mexico, near the village of Abiquiu.
A new beer brand coming into the Pittsburgh market next week from New Mexico is “made with care and prayer.”
The brews — Monks’ Ale, Monks’ Wit and Monks’ Tripel — are the handiwork of the Benedictine monks of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in northwestern New Mexico, near the village of Abiquiu.
Beer aficionados will be familiar with beer made by monks, but in Europe. In Germany, Weihenstephan claims to be the world’s oldest continually operating brewery, founded by Benedictine monks in 1040; Weltenburg Abbey brewery started in 1050. And Trappist monks are renowned for the beers they’ve brewed for centuries in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Originally, monks brewed beer for their own consumption and for their guests. But several monasteries have continued to help support themselves by selling some beer, too; Trappists make such famous brands as Chimay.
Monastery brew presentation
Vecenie Distributing’s Tony Knipling will present four monastery brews — two from New Mexico’s Monks’ and two from Germany’s Weltenberg — plus Victory Brewing’s HopDevil in a class called “Holy Beers and the Devil.”
It will be held from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on April 9 at Crate in Scott. Cost is $50 and that includes cheeses presented by Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.’s Carol “Dearhart” Pascuzzi. Register at (412-341-5700 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 412-341-5700 end_of_the_skype_highlighting).
American monastic beers are something new, certainly in Western Pennsylvania. That is, if you don’t count the beer that monks made in the late 1800s and early 1900s at Saint Vincent in Latrobe, the first Benedictine monastery — and thus Benedictine brewery — in America.
The New Mexican Benedictines started making and selling beer in their state in 2005 in partnership with the Monastery of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Pecos, where it built a small brewery. Christ in the Desert bought that monastery last year and has been expanding the business, called the Abbey Beverage Co. Monks now control 84 percent of the operation.
The beer continues to be brewed at Sierra Blanca Brewing Co. outside Albuquerque, with hands-on involvement from the monks, who own some of the brewing equipment.
Meanwhile, they’ve built a new small brewery at the monastery and are just waiting for federal approval to operate it, too. They’ve used it to brew test batches of new brews including the Tripel, which is made with the native neomexicanus variety of hops they grow.
Eventually, they’ll close the Pecos brewery and increase to a five- to seven-barrel system. Most of the bottled and draft beers will continue to be made at Sierra Blanca, with the monks opening a tasting room at the monastery later this year.
After all, it is monastic tradition to let guests share in their Benedictine way of life, which, as noted on their newsletter, includes loving one another, prayer and manual labor.
The 40 monks who live in this spectacular setting along the Chama River don’t just make beer, but soap, lotions, candles, pottery and artwork along with other ventures.
But it’s the beer that causes the biggest buzz. The ale is described as a Belgian-style Abbey ale, “a single, the type of beer the monks would drink on a daily basis” (5.1 percent alcohol by volume). Abbey Beverage Co. notes, “Our yeast was originally from the brewery of the Belgian Trappist Abbaye de Notre-Dame d’Orval.”
The Wit, or wheat ale, also is Belgian-style and 5.1 percent alcohol. Both are in bottles and on draft.
Pennsylvania is getting the entire first 20-barrel batch of the Tripel, on draft only.
Eastern Pennsylvanians have been able to buy Monks’ since 2010, as this was the first state outside of New Mexico where the beer was shipped.
Monks’ beers now are available in eight states and the monks hope to gradually expand that. Helping to make and market beer “is a work that suits our life well,” noted an update in their Advent/Christmas 2011 newsletter. “As one of the patrons of beer, Saint Arnold (580-640) expressed it:
‘From man’s work and God’s goodness, beer came into the world.’ ”
Berkeley Merchant, the general manager of Abbey Beverages, reminds us of the Benedictine Latin motto, “Ora et labora” — pray and work. These sometime overlap.
“They do drink their own beer,” Mr. Merchant says over the phone from Santa Fe. “They tend to drink it, like all things, in moderation” — on major holidays and feast days. Other American monasteries might have different “house rules.”
Mr. Merchant doesn’t live at the monastery, but is an oblate — someone who’s vowed to lead a life of prayer and good. He came to New Mexico and the monks after decades in Portland doing tech startups and drinking a lot of good craft beer.
He lived in Bethel Park and Irwin for three years while growing up in the 1960s, when his father was an army officer who worked in air defense here when the region had Nike missile sites.
Vecenie Distributing in Millvale, which is distributing Monks’ brews in this region, plans to bring Mr. Merchant and one of the Benedictine brothers in for Pittsburgh Craft Beer Week in April. The beer should be available at area distributors and watering holes next week.
While Christ in the Desert appears to be the only American monastery making beer, it might not be for long.
Monks around the country support themselves by making everything from preserves and fruitcake (in Michigan) to caskets and burial urns (in Chicago). Later this month, Sony is releasing three CDs of Gregorian chants done by the Christ in the Desert monks.
Mr. Merchant says they’ve received inquiries about brewing from at least two monasteries, both on the East Coast, which he says they would welcome. “It would lend legitimacy to what we’re doing.”
Meanwhile, one other monkish brew already has popped up. California’s Sierra Nevada Brewing has been collaborating with Trappist monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in nearby Vina, Calif., to release three “Ovila Abbey Ales,” the most recent being a Quad (released in Nov. 2011 in 750-milliliter, corked bottles).
To be released nationwide again in March is the Dubbel (375-milliliter, corked bottles), followed in June by the Golden Abbey Ale (750-milliliter, corked bottles) and in November by the Quad.
Part of the proceeds are being used to rebuild the medieval Spanish stone chapter house of those monks, who also have their own winery (
Pennsylvania doesn’t have a monastery brewery now, but the newly opened All Saints Brewing Co. in Hempfield, Westmoreland County (, took inspiration for its name from nearby Saint Vincent, an archabbey founded in 1846 by Boniface Wimmer of Bavaria that includes a monastery, seminary and college.
Saint Vincent archabbey and seminary spokeswoman Kim Metzgar says a brewery started there by 1855 and was so successful, despite the strong temperance sentiment in the Pittsburgh Diocese and elsewhere, that it was expanded into a two-story brick building in 1868.
It closed with Prohibition in 1919. Ms. Metzgar says the building was used for storage until a 1926 fire destroyed all but the brick shell and cellars, and the site was reclaimed in the 1990s.
“There has been talk off and on about brewing beer here again; however, no plans of any kind are presently in formation for such an endeavor,” she added.
Still, who knows.
All Saints’ co-owner and head brewer Jeff Guidos, who’s a Saint Vincent graduate, says, “I would really like to do a collaboration brew with someone from the monastery.”
For more information on the new monastery brewery, visit
For more on the Ovila beers, visit
Bob Batz Jr.: or 412-263-1930 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 412-263-1930 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.

First published on February 16, 2012 at 12:00 am

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