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'Prayer and care' go into abbey's creation of beers

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, May 1, 2012, 1:26 p.m.

At bottle shops and pubs throughout the region, two new "abbey" beers -- Monks' Ale and Monks' Wit -- have made a splash. Benedictine monks at the New Mexico-based Monastery of Christ in the Desert brew the beers through their affiliated Abbey Beverage Co.

While Abbey Beverage began only in 2005, Benedictine monks have long brewed beer. In the Middle Ages, northern European monasteries commonly used local grains to produce craft beers as mealtime beverages replacing unsanitary water. The tradition revered beer as "liquid bread," a sustaining staple for the hard working monks guided by the credo of "prayer and work. The beers eventually sold throughout Europe, helping abbeys make ends meet.

(In Western Pennsylvania, German Benedictine monk Boniface Wimmer founded St. Vincent Monastery that produced popular beers in the 19th century. Prohibition rudely interrupted brewing, and eventually a fire destroyed the brewery.)

At Monastery of Christ in the Desert, Brother Christian Leisy says brewing again arose out of necessity.

"We don't receive a monthly paycheck from the Vatican for being nice monks in the desert," he says. Brewing provides supplemental income to sustain the monastery's growth and spiritual endeavors.

The idea to brew beer grew, in part, from Brother Christian's visits in the 1980s to Belgian abbeys. Monks there still successfully brew traditional beers. And as American demand for quality, domestic craft beers exploded, why not brew authentic abbey style beers here at home?

"Just because we're monks doesn't mean people will drink the beers unless they taste good," Leisy says. "So quality has been our goal from the start."

The monks enlisted brewmaster Brad Kraus, a 30-year craft brewing veteran, who developed the original recipes. To handle marketing, sales and administration, they designated Berkeley Merchant, a retired businessman and monastery oblate -- or lay brother -- who fully appreciates the Benedictine philosophy.

"The monks live according to the Rule of St. Benedict that, in part, says everything the brothers undertake should be brought to perfection for the glory of God," Merchant says. "We take that as an admonition to make great beer."

The Monastery's location -- 13 miles down an unpaved road in a Federal wilderness area in the high altitude of northern New Mexico -- presented a challenge. Brewing commercially on-site proved impractical. Instead, the monks work with a nearby commercial brewery in Moriarty.

"The monks come down and assist all the time in all areas of production," Merchant says.

The first brew, Monks' Ale, represents a Belgian-style enkel, a malt-laden, well-balanced amber ale with relatively modest 5-percent alcohol by volume. European monks, accordingly to Merchant, drank this style of beer in moderation on a daily basis.

At Monastery of Christ in the Desert, monks enjoy the brew on feast days and celebrations. But outside the monastery, the brew rapidly attracted a loyal following in nine states.

"With its European hops and malts and Orval monastery yeast, it has classic Belgian fruitiness," says Vecenie Distributing's Tony "Beerman" Knipling who sells the beer in Western Pennsylvania. "But with the modest alcohol you can drink a few as a session beer while watching the game."

While visiting Pittsburgh recently for Craft Beer Week, Leisy, who wears the monk's classic robe, observed the locals' special enthusiasm for the beer.

"People on the street and parking garage saw my black robe and asked whether I was with the abbey that brews beer," he says.

The success led to a second brew, Monks' Wit, a Belgian-style wheat beer. Forty percent of the grains entail wheat and oats, so in the glass, the beer displays classic white haziness.

The addition of coriander, sweet and bitter orange peels and other "secret spices" gives Monks' Wit the trademark fruity aromas and freshness so highly prized by wheat beer aficionados. It makes a perfect choice with warm weather's approach.

At the monastery, the monks have established a small "pilot" brewery and planted native New Mexico hops. This allows the brothers to experiment by incorporating the local hops into small batch, seasonal specialty brews that eventually may go into distribution.

With the monks seeking slow, steady and sustainable growth while making beer with "prayer and care," the future of brewing in the New Mexico desert appears bright.

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