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A Centuries-Old Monastic Brewing Tradition Comes to Oregon

February 27, 2019

By Tina Caputo, February 27, 2019

In the Middle Ages, the main brewers of the day were not handlebar-mustachioed hipsters, but monks. According to the Rule of Saint Benedict, established in the 6th Century, monasteries must earn enough money to be self-sufficient, and monks are duty-bound to offer hospitality to visitors in the form of food, drink, and shelter. At the time, water was as likely to kill you as quench your thirst, so beer was in high demand across Europe. Sensing an opportunity to check two of St. Benedict’s boxes, by making money and providing sustenance for thirsty travelers, the monks took up brewing.

As it turned out, they were really good at it. The monks believed that making an inferior product would be an insult to God, so they used the highest quality ingredients, introduced sanitary practices in their breweries, and added hops to their beer as a preservative. Monasteries are now regarded as some of the world’s greatest brewers.

Here in the United States, the monastic brewing tradition has a shorter history. The first to commercially brew beer was Abbey Brewing Company at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico, which introduced its Monk’s Ale in 2005. Spencer Brewery at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, followed with Spencer Trappist Ale in 2014. Benedictine Brewery at Oregon’s Mount Angel Abbey, in the town of Mt. Angel, completed America’s “holy trinity” of brewing in the fall of 2018, with Black Habit.

Like other monasteries, Mount Angel Abbey began brewing as a way to pay expenses and fund charitable works, but it was also a fitting return to the abbey’s roots. Mount Angel was founded in 1882 by Swiss Benedictine monks, and among the facilities catalogued in the original prior’s diary was a brewery. “This is part of our heritage and we’ve always been interested in it,” says Father Martin Grassel, Benedictine Brewery’s head brewer and general manager.

Interest turned to action in 2010, when an employee offered Grassel some used brewing equipment. A month later, he was making his first beer. “I put together a 10-gallon stainless steel system and brewed about 60 batches over the next few years,” says Grassel, who learned the basics through books. “I just fell in love with the process.”

I tried stuff like Budweiser and Coors and I thought, ‘Why would anybody drink this? This is penance.’”

This was a long way to come for a guy who didn’t like beer in college. “I was never really a beer drinker for the first 40 years of my life,” Grassel says. “I tried stuff like Budweiser and Coors and I thought, ‘Why would anybody drink this? This is penance.’”

He eventually found redemption in Deschutes Black Butte Porter, when he tried it at a monastery party in the mid-2000s. “That really opened my eyes to Oregon beer,” he says. “It was here all the time and I didn’t know it.” Grassel began fine tuning his recipes and techniques with the help of local brewers such as Portland’s Upright Brewery. With the approval of Mount Abbey’s monks, he took the operation commercial last year.

Along with the flagship Black Habit dark strong ale, Benedictine makes a farmhouse ale, Belgian tripel, Helles lager, and Cascadian dark IPA. All of the beers are made onsite by the monks—hops are grown on the monastery’s land and water is sourced from the property’s own well. “We really want to be monks brewing beer,” Grassel says, noting that some monastery breweries contract out their production.

By design, Benedictine’s lineup diverges from a strictly Trappist model, which tends to lean toward Belgian beer styles, because Grassel wants its offerings to be inclusive. “Not having something people want is like saying, ‘You’re not welcome here,’” he says, citing the Benedictine rule of hospitality. “That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.”

The brewery also welcomes guests with an onsite taproom. Grassel describes the ambiance of the hillside oasis as “monastic rustic,” with views of the hop fields below. “We want people to have something of a Benedictine experience when they come here,” he says. “It’s not a sports bar.”

With no music or televisions playing, the only sounds are those of visitors’ voices in conversation and the ringing of a bell at opening and closing time. “We use the bell to give a blessing to those who are there,” Grassel says. “And we say a prayer to St. Michael for protection from evil during the night.”

The prayers appear to be working, because the brewery is already selling out of everything it makes. Benedictine’s next challenge will be getting its hands on a couple additional fermenters to increase production. Perhaps spurred by the brewery’s early success, St. Martin’s Abbey in Washington state and St. Meinrad Archabbey in Indiana have reached out to Grassel about launching ventures of their own. He doesn’t see them as competition, but potential collaborators.

“If other monasteries are interested in starting breweries and want to learn how, they could send a monk here and have him live with us,” Grassel says. “Then he could go back home and put his newfound brewing skills to use. I could see that happening in the future.”

In the meantime, America’s three existing monastic brewers offer plenty of options. While Benedictine’s beers are currently available only at the monastery, Abbey Brewing and Spencer Brewery have wider reach. Abbey’s five year-round ales and seasonal brews are sold across New Mexico in bottles and on tap, and the brewery is looking to open a new offsite taproom this year to replace the Albuquerque location that closed in 2018. Spencer’s Trappist ales—along with stout, pilsner, Vienna lager, and IPA—are distributed in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Connecticut, Michigan, and Rhode Island.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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