Monastic Brewing Comes to Oregon: Mt Angel's Benedictine Brewery

When I first visited Mount Angel Abbey last summer, the monks had already been considering a new brewery for a year.  In the beer world that looks like glacial pace, but Mount Angel is a Benedictine abbey, an order that date back nearly 1500 years.  Throughout the centuries, monks have survived wars, plagues, financial collapses, and they didn't do it by acting hastily.  When the Oregon monks began considering a source of revenue to replace the old press they once ran, they wanted to give it a full vetting.

The Benedictine monks, like the Trappists, trace their origins back to the Rule of St. Benedict in 529.  (The Cistercian and Trappist orders were formed by monks who had stricter readings of Benedict's rules.)  The Rule was actually a set of guidelines drawn up to govern monastic life.  Among the larger effects, it exhorted monasteries to be self-sufficient and monks to be industrious (and cheery). Furthermore, it encouraged an outward focus of welcoming guests.  They had to produce their own food and beverage and offer it to guests who visited.  In the monastic boom that developed particularly under Charlemagne, monasteries took up brewing and at one point there were six hundred making beer across Europe.  Beer-making is a very old monastic art.

After a long period of deliberation, the monks at Mt Angel agreed unanimously to join this old tradition.  It's an especially good fit for the abbey, which owns land on which hops are now grown commercially.  They're still some ways from having actual beer, but they've gone through the decision-making and permitting process and are now ready to start assembling the brewery.

In the nearly two years of deliberation to date, they've spoken to a number of people in the Oregon beer industry for guidance.  They invited Stan Hieronymus and me to the abbey.  (I had hoped Stan, who literally wrote the book on monastic brewing, would get to break the news, but he's swamped in Philadelphia--that's him second from right in the upper photo.)  The monks have sampled lots of beer.  When Stan and I were there, we got to sit in on a meeting where they considered how a "brand" would work, and how a beer might help communicate their mission.  I haven't been privy to most of the conversations, so I assume a lot more than that has happened as well.

Since they haven't built the brewery yet, questions about the beer are still preliminary and provisional, although the current thinking runs like this:
  • They were originally considering a 15-barrel brewery, but are leaning instead toward a smaller five-barrel system.
  • The beer is liable to be at least informed by the Belgian tradition, but "tailored toward Oregon" in the words of Chris Jones, the Director of Enterprises of the abbey.  Jones, who's not a monk, has spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to be a monastery brewery in Oregon.  He and the monks believe the beer should reflect both the monastic tradition--strongest in Belgium--as well as the Oregon brewing tradition (and I think "Oregon" can be read at least shorthand for "hoppier than Chimay").
  • They will have a standard stable of beers--perhaps starting with a dark and light one to begin with--and have some seasonals as well.  They will begin the process of recipe development soon, and the monks will guide selection.  In the meeting I sat in on, all the monks expressed a strong desire to have the beer be exceptional--it's a kind of ambassador to the world.
  • The brewery will go in a building known at the abbey (for reasons no one knows) as "the Fort."  There will be a tasting room; at least in the short term, Mt Angel is planning to go with the Westvleteren model of selling beer only at the abbey.  This is another reason it needs to be a beer Oregonians will like.
  • Monks may or may not brew the beer themselves, though there's at least one monk who has homebrewing experience.  
  • Don't expect beer for a year, maybe more.  (Unlike a commercial enterprise, this isn't the only activity on the monks' plate.  Mt Angel is, in addition to a monastery, a seminary.)  All in good time.
 I hope to have much more for you as this all develops.  Tomorrow the abbey is hosting the 7th Annual Festival of Arts and Wine, where they will go public with this news.  The monks will be auctioning the first tangible item from the enterprise--a sweatshirt with the brewery logo.  If you happen to be in the neighborhood, stop by and congratulate them.  Folks at the abbey are happy to answer questions and if you aren't in Mt Angel tomorrow, you can send inquiries to benedictine.brewery(at)mtangel.edu. 

There aren't very many monastic breweries in the world.  For the past year or so, I've been really excited by the prospect that Mt Angel might become the newest. It will be a bit more time before we get to go buy our first crates, but we can move it from the "prospective" column to "actively happening."  Very cool news. 

"The Fort" at Mt Angel Abbey.  Perhaps in a couple years
they'll call it "the brewery."