It's April 1st: have you been punk'd?
In 2010, while under the spell of a pranky spirit, I re-printed a hoax about a faux Trappist brewery monastery operating in Stuttgart, Arkansas. Jim Dorsch, a Northern Virginia beer writer, was the original creator of this tomfoolery, perpetrating it in the mid 1990s.
Then, it fooled many. My re-do fooled some.
But —and this is not an April Fools' prank— now, in 2012, there is indeed a brewing monastery in the United States.
Here's the true story of the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, a Roman Catholic Benedictine order in New Mexico, and the only brewery monastery in the U.S.
And, that's NOT bearing false witness.
The Monastery of Christ in the Desert
America's Monastery Brewery
© Steve Frank & Arnold Meltzer
There is only one brewing monastery in the United States, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, which sits in an extremely remote canyon in northern New Mexico. The Monastery, a Benedictine order with about 40 brothers, lies 13 miles up a dirt Forest Service road, on an almost 300 acre monastic setting in the Chama Federal Wilderness Area that is perfect for solitude and quiet. Far removed from civilization and power lines, electric power for the adobe and straw buildings is obtained from the largest privately owned photovoltaic array in New Mexico.
The monks, aged from their 20s to their 90s, come from five continents. Gregorian chants sung by the monks resonate through the monastery and across the canyon. The chants have been captured by Sony, with a CD scheduled for release on
February 28, 2012April 24th. Unlike many similar communities, there is a waiting list to join this vibrant community. The number of rooms in the monastery is the limiting factor on the number of monks that can stay there.
The motto of the Benedictine order is "ora et labora", a Latin phrase that translates to "prayer and work". In the Sixth Century, St. Benedict decreed that every monastery be self sufficient. Brother Leisy, the Monastery’s cellarer and business manager, says "We don’t receive a paycheck from the Vatican. We’re completely on our own, sink or swim." Following the Rule of Saint Benedict, the focus of the work is "to bring everything to perfection for the glory of God". Keeping prayer and work in balance, the brothers make beer, candles, soap, lotions, religious wood carvings, weavings, and pottery. All are used to support the monastery and its charitable works. Several Benedictine monasteries in Germany also brew beer, including Andechs, Weltenberg, and Ettal.
The Monastery, founded in 1964, started brewing in 2005 in partnership with the Benedictine Abbey, Our Lady of Guadalupe, in Pecos, NM, but have since acquired Our Lady of Guadalupe’s share. Brad Kraus, a professional brewer for Sierra Blanca Brewing in Moriarty, helps the Monastery develop the recipes and remains the head brewer. Most beer is brewed and packaged at Sierra Blanca under a special agreement with the Monastery. Several brewers-in-training brothers venture to the Sierra Blanca Brewery, two or three times each month, to help with the brewing and bottling, using ingredients supplied by the Monastery and equipment owned by the Monastery.
Abbey Beverage Company, a for-profit business, of which the Monastery owns 84 percent, was created to preserve both the Monastery’s not-for-profit status and to insure that all taxes are paid by the brewery. It is under the Abbey Beverage name that the Monastery’s beers are brewed. Abbey Beverage is operated by General Manager Berkeley Merchant, an oblate (lay member) of the monastic community. Brother Christian Leisy has the final word about the beers and the marketing of the beers.
A dedicated brewery building on the Monastery grounds, with a half-barrel brewing system, was completed in March 2011, and is designed for expansion to a 5 to 7 barrel system. It is used to develop new styles of beer and produce specialty and seasonal beers. New beers will be developed "with care and prayer", the slogan noted on the bottle labels. The capacity will be expanded as more monks are trained and more hops from the Monastery’s hop yard become available. A tasting room is planned for Spring, 2012.
The Monastery’s beers are distributed in seven states including eastern Pennsylvania. Agreement was recently reach to distribute the beers in western Pennsylvania through Vicenie Distributing and negotiations are underway to bring the beers to Maryland and Washington, DC. Internet sales are available to customers in other states, where legal, by contacting
Monk’s Ale, a Belgian-style single ale, also called an enkel, is the first beer the brewery made. The single style is the table beer normally consumed by the Trappist monastery brothers in Belgium and the Netherlands. The brewery’s yeast originated at the Orval Monastery in Belgium. This 5.2 percent ABV, copper-colored ale uses three varieties of European hops Hallertau, Saaz and Fuggles and malt from Belgium and North America.
In October 2010 the monastery started brewing a Belgian Wit beer appropriately called Monk’s Wit. This cloudy, pale white, 5.1 percent ABV beer is made with Saaz and Fuggle hops, Indian coriander, Spanish sweet orange peel and Belgian malt, as well as unmalted wheats and oats. The first batch of a Tripel was brewed in late December 2011 and with limited availability in early 2012. It uses five hybrids of native New Mexican hops. The monastery plans to introduce a new variety every 2 to 3 years.
The Tripel uses organic, native hops grown on the Monastery grounds. The first hop plants were experimentally planted by the black robed monks in 2010, using five varieties of hops on a one-quarter acre plot. Working with a local plant geneticist to determine which varieties will grow at the monastery’s 6500 foot level, an additional six varieties were planted in 2011. The hop yard can be expanded to five acres. Because of the limited amount of the NM hops currently available, the monastery will only produce 40 barrels of the Tripel which will be marketed only in the Philadelphia area.
The Monastery’s brewing is slowly growing which is how the brothers like it. In the first year of operation they brewed 127 barrels of beer. In 2010 production reached 460 barrels, and for 2011 they expect to make about 1,000 barrels of bottled and draft beer. Following monastic tradition, including those of the brewing monasteries of Belgium, the brothers only wish to grow the brewing sufficiently to help maintain the monastery and support its charitable works. Merchant relates that "We will only grow the brewery to a certain size, and once we achieve that goal we will not grow any further."
Steve Frank (standing, right, in the photo below) and Arnold Meltzer (seated, left) write under the joint pseudonym The Brews Brothers. I've reprinted this article with their express permission.
- The Mid-Atlantic Brewing News published an edited version of the Frank & Metzger story as Pray, Work, Brew in the February/March 2012 edition [Vol. 14, No.1].
- The famed monastery breweries of Belgium (six) and the Netherlands (one) belong to the Trappist order of contemplative monks, which began as a reformist off-shoot of the Benedictine order, but became wholly separate.