Beer is another one of those testimonies to how the Catholic Church built European civilization. It is true that brewing was widely practiced in the ancient world, but the process was very primitive, even as simple as soaking a loaf of bread in water. Modern brewing practices grew up within Benedictine monasteries, where beer provided good sustenance, sanitary drink, and probably some mirth (at least for the pilgrims). The monks even created a special brew to sustain Lenten fasts, the double bock, classically seen in Paulaners Salvator (The Savior; look for St. Francis Paola on the Paulener label).
The French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, so destructive of Catholic culture generally, led to the decline of monastic brewing (and monasteries in general), secularizing the most famous of them. Some remnants remain, as seen in the Belgian Trappist beers (the most famous of which is Chimay) and Weltenburger, the second oldest brewery in the world (c. 1050), still run by Weltenburger Abbey. European founded monasteries in the United States continued the art of brewing, though prohibition brought about the demise of this practice. St. Vincent Archabbey, for instance, had a large and successful brewery founded in 1855.
But what good news, monastic brewing is entering a period of revival in the United States! Several initiatives around the country show that monasteries and independent breweries cooperating with monasteries are reviving interest in abbey style beers. This is a great sign for the renewal of Catholic culture in the United States. It will help bring monastic culture to the culture more broadly and hopefully will spark interest among Catholics in monastic history and its brewing culture.
The first example of an abbey beer, that is, a beer affiliated with an abbey, in the United States in recent times is Abitas Abbey Ale. While not brewed by an abbey directly, Abita donates twenty-five cents to St. Joseph Abbey, St. Benedict, Louisiana, for each bottle of Abbey Ale that it sells. I think that Walker Percy, who is buried on the monastery grounds, would be quite pleased by this arrangement. Not only are devotees commonly rumored to place his favorite drink upon his grave, but his own theory of drinking reveals its sacramental character.
Michael Baruzzini makes this clear in his essay Walker Percy, Bourbon, and the Holy Ghost: It is distinctively personal acts, like having an evening glass of bourbon, that construct a life. It is this aesthetic, this incarnation, simply this way to be, which gives a glass of bourbon its real value. But this incarnation of being extends beyond evening drinks, and informs every action we make in our lives. Enjoying a good beer, or a glass of bourbon as well, I suppose, should advance a deeper appreciation of the joys of life and genuine culture. Abitas Abbey Ale makes a good contribution to this endeavor!
Another abbey ale that exists through a cooperative between an abbey and an independent brewer, is Ovíla, named after a medieval Spanish monastery. The stones from the monasterys chapter house were imported to San Francisco by the media tycoon, William Randolph Hearst, for incorporation into his fantasy palace, Hearst Castle. After sitting unused for decades in a public park, the Abbey of New Clairvaux acquired the ruins and is currently working on their restoration on the abbeys grounds for use as a chapel. In order to fund the project, they partnered with the brewery Sierra Nevada to brew a series of high quality abbey style beers. This is a clear example of the revival of abbey beers and the renewal of Catholic culture!
I think the most exciting example of the revival of monastic brewing can be found at the Abbey of Christ in the Desert in New Mexico. While the abbey initially contracted out their brewing, they now have established a brewery on site and are growing their own local subspecies of hops, neomexicanus. The Abbey Beverage Company, owned and operated by the abbey, oversees production of their abbey style beers: Monks Ale, Wit, Dubbel, and Tripel (the latter two are also distributed in reserve bottles as well). The beers motto, Brewed with Care and Prayer, is a fitting image of Catholic culture in general. In brewing, and other such practices, Catholics fulfill Gods command to subdue the earth, bringing forth its God given potential.
I should also mention by extension the work of the American Benedictine monks in St. Benedicts hometown, Norcia, Italy. The current foundation, the Monastery of San Benedetto, established in 1998 by Fr. Cassian Folsom, O.S.B., began brewing just this year. Their line is called Birra Nursia, although it is not available in the U.S. at this point (I wouldnt complain if someone visiting Italy would like to bring some back for me!). Reestablishing monasticism in St. Benedicts hometown is a sign of the renewal of monasticism currently underway, which is only reinforced by the return to the traditional practice of brewing.
The revival of monastic brewing in the Unites States is just beginning, but I have great hope that the beginning made by these four abbey beers will spur more interest. I have heard of other monasteries working toward brewing, and more could be coming. Some monasteries, such as Clear Creek Abbey and St. Gregorys Abbey (which brews mead), both in Oklahoma, brew solely for their own consumption. My students continue to tease me for being a little over anxious in the refectory to pour myself a glass of Clear Creeks Belgian style ale, while on retreat there with them.
The embrace of beer in the Catholic tradition should not lead one to think that it exists for its own sake. Beer is one means by which the fruits of the earth are enjoyed to praise God, to bring cheer into mans heart, and to lead one into genuine fellowship. Chesterton famously and rightly said: We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them. The fact that Benedictines created modern brewing is a good sign that Catholic culture can be most fully appreciated with a view toward the eternal. By focusing on the highest things we can appreciate lesser things better and order them properly toward what is highest. May the revival of monastic brewing in the United States serve as a stimulus toward the revival of a genuine and well-ordered Catholic culture. This culture would be one of holiness and, we should also hope, would be a cause for mirth.