A group of Italy-based monks pray and work at their monastery at St. Benedict’s birthplace. Now the fruits of their labors – Belgian-style beers – are coming to America.
“We never expected people to appreciate it and enjoy it as much as they have,” Father Benedict Nivakoff, the sub-prior of the Monastery of Saint Benedict at Norcia, told CNA.
“A brewer has to have always a little bit of hope. It’s not just for his enjoyment, but to share with others. God does things that we don’t always expect with what we make.”
Under the name Birra Nursia, the monastery brews and markets a Belgian Blond Ale and a Belgian Dark Strong Ale.
The monks’ beers are selling fast, but they’re part of a long timeline. The Monastery of St. Benedict builds on the saint’s 1,500-old legacy. It is near the ruins of the house where St. Benedict and his sister St. Scholastica lived in the Italian region of Umbria.
Above the entrance to the monks’ brewery is a fresco of the Virgin Mary upon grains of barley.
Fr. Benedict reflected on how Jesus Christ’s first miracle was at the wedding at Cana – at the urging of his mother Mary, he turned water into wine.
“Doing something so unnecessary, changing water into wine. And not just any wine, but the best wine,” he said. “That’s what the steward said: the best for last.”
For these Benedictines, brewing beer is like making wine.
“It is a drink which isn’t really necessary, but it brings a bit of joy to the hearts of those who drink it,” the monk said. “We take as our motto a line from Psalm 106: ‘ut laetificat cor,’ that the heart might be gladdened.”
“When we take something that has those qualities of good ingredients, made in a prayerful way, and drink with friends and family, it’s a chance to step back from the ordinary cares of the day, all the anxieties, and spend a little time thinking about less urgent things, and more leisurely, things.”
This contemplation can even include God. The monks have integrated their brewing practices into Benedictine spirituality, whose famous motto is “Ora et Labora” – “Pray and work.”
“In general, St. Benedict asked the monks to do everything that they do for God,” Fr. Benedict said. “Whether that’s cleaning the house, replacing the roof or producing beer. He says everything should be treated like the sacred vessels of the altar.”
“When we make something we try to make it of the highest quality possible,” he said. “Something that is not only high quality and pleasurable to the taste, but also made well. Prayed over. For us, all of our work is part of our prayer.”
St. Benedict asked his monks to live by their own labor, to work and to sell the things they make.
“This is a chance to really live up to his call,” Fr. Benedict said.
The monastery’s brewery has a capacity of 10 barrels. Each batch can produce 3,000 0.75 liter bottles. The beer is available in single 0.75 liter bottles, six-packs of the bottles and in cases of 12.
On. Jan. 21, for the first time, the monks began accepting Birra Nursia pre-orders from the U.S. for delivery in March.
“The beers needless to say are excellent,” Fr. Benedict said. He recommended the blond beer, which contains about six percent alcohol, for warm summer afternoons. The dark beer, which is about ten percent alcohol, is “perfect for winters like we are having right now.”
All the monks contribute to the brewery’s work. Some gather raw materials, assist in the brewery, or bottle the beer. Others help evaluate the beer’s taste or work in sales.
“We started the brewery thinking that no one would be interested,” Fr. Benedict said. “Italy’s a wine culture. We didn’t expect anybody to like our beer, let alone buy us out.”
Their beer sales began three years ago. “We’ve sold out our inventory pretty much since day one. We had to expand our plant after a year.”
Fr. Benedict said that beer is “an age-old monastic product.” The tradition began several centuries ago. The monasteries tried to develop a drink that would supplement the monks’ Lenten fasts, when they eat only one meal a day.
“Beer was already in the culture and they perfected it, so that it would be strong enough in nutrients to keep the monks well-fed, but not too strong in alcohol that they would be drunk all the time,” Fr. Benedict said.
The monks have a full schedule. They rise at about 3:30 in the morning. Their first prayers are fifteen minutes later and continue throughout the day. Brewing is only one part of their manual labor.
Other work includes music. In June 2015 the monastery released a music album “Benedicta: Marian Chant from Norcia,” through the label De Montfort Music.
The monastery itself was founded in the year 2000 and its monks are mostly American. Two of the monastery’s brewers are from Texas, while another is from South Carolina.
“For us it’s a great pleasure to send those beers back to the United States,” said Fr. Benedict, who is from New Canaan, Conn. “Our friends and family, we left them behind. They’d like to see more of us, which we can’t really do. Here’s a chance for them to get closer to us with something that we make.”
He said the beers are a way for all people to help the spiritual life of St. Benedict at his birthplace. The monastery will only be able to fill a limited number of orders per month due to their prayer schedule and their other work at the monastery.
The brewery also offers a one-year subscription to the Brewmonks’ Club. Subscribers pledge to buy a six-pack or case of bottles every month. They receive other benefits, including a biannual newsletter that promises insights about monastic brewing.