By Brian Nixon, Special to ASSIST News Service
ALBUQUERQUE, NEW MEXICO (ANS – October 1, 2017) — As a student and teacher of church history, I’m always on the lookout for new information that would enliven my understanding of the church. When my oldest son, Isaiah (whose doing graduate work at UNM), told me about a lecture the geography department at the University of New Mexico was conducting on The History of Benedictine Brewing, my interest was perked.
The lecture was delivered by Berkeley Merchant (MA, Harvard), brewer and chemist at Abbey Brewing Company, part of the outreach ministry of Christ in the Desert Monastery, located north of Abiquiu, New Mexico . After 30 years in Portland, Oregon, Brother Barnabas (as he’s known at the monastery) moved to New Mexico with his wife. And after taking orders as an oblate, Berkeley began his work with New Mexico’s most popular monastery .
Berkeley began his lecture by answering three questions he receives regularly. One: is the ale brewed at the monastery in Abiquiu? Answer: yes, and no. In addition to Christ in the Desert, some of the ale is brewed in Moriarty, New Mexico. Two, why does an Abbey need to make ale? Answer: monks need to make a living; work is part of the Benedictine tradition: work, study and pray. Three, what is an oblate? This is a person who takes the vows of the community, but is not bound to certain vows within the community, such as celibacy.
After answering the three introductory questions, Berkeley began with “Beer Basics,” discussing the natural ingredients (barley, water, yeast, and other natural ingredients), the types of beer (lagers or ale), and the major steps of brewing (malting of barley, mashing, boiling, fermentation, filtering, ageing, carbonation, and packaging).
Of unique interest to me, Berkeley discussed the type of hops used at the Abbey: Neomexicanus. These hops are unique to the Southwest, grown primarily in the Northern New Mexico Mountains. The monks worked along side the indigenous Taos Pueblo to study extracts harvested from the Taos Mountains, ten thousand feet about sea level. Some refer to the hops as Holy Hops . Berkeley mentioned the hops have a biological connection to Mongolia and Siberia. And some speculate that the hops may have been brought over by the first Native inhabitants of New Mexico, who have a genetic connection to Mongolia .
Berkeley turned his attention to the history of brewing. And after discussing Sumerian, Egyptian, and Old Testament connections, he focused in on brewing in the Benedictine tradition.
As one can infer from the name—Benedictine, the Christian order was founded by Benedict of Nursia (480-547). Born in Nursia, Italy to Romans parents, Benedict went on to form twelve Christian communities, the most famous being Monte Cassino.
Benedict is the father of western monasticism and the author of the Rule of St. Benedict, the primary text used for monastic living across the world. In addition to a scriptorium (where ancient texts were copied), the monasteries integrated various forms of work, including brewing. Work was important to St. Benedict, saying, “Idleness is the enemy of the soul; and therefore the brethren ought to be employed in manual labor at certain times, at others, in devout reading” . For Benedict, work and prayer were interchangeable. According to Berkeley, Benedict brought dignity to work. Prior to Benedict, lower class citizens did the work, but Benedict encouraged all Christians to work for God’s glory.
Benedict also stressed hospitality: “All guest are to be welcomed as Christ; proper honor is given to all.” Because water was not safe to drink, beer or wine was given to guests as safe, healthy alternatives. Because the Benedicts stressed peace, humility, and hospitality, the monasteries expanded throughout Europe as examples of Christian virtue.
St. Gall (550-646), an Irish monk and disciple of St. Columbus, and later missionary to Switzerland, continued with the brewing tradition established by Benedict, including breweries as part of the architectural renderings for monastic buildings .
By the time of Charlemagne’s reign (742-814), Benedictine monasteries — and brewing — were a staple of the European landscape. Charlemagne is attributed to making beer an official drink of his kingdom. Governors of the various estates in Charlemagne’s empire were directed on how to make beer, bringing samples to the courts to ensure they were of good quality. Likewise, the estates were required to submit an annual report with a list of beers brewed. Because of the importance of brewing, cleanliness became an important facet of brewers; ensuring foreign properties were not mixed with the ingredients.
After Charlemagne, his son, Louis the Pious (778-840), made brewing an imperial institution, making monasteries the largest conduit of healthy ales in the Middle Ages. Thereafter, Benedictines and Trappists (a reformed Benedictine order) continued with the tradition of brewing, leading to several Abbey-breweries in the world today .
Regardless of one’s opinion concerning beer and the Christian faith, the fact is that brewing was considered an important ministry within the Church — even among Protestants. Guinness Beer was founded by the devout, Arthur Guinness, follower of John Wesley. Guinness wanted to create a drink that was a healthy alternative to the alcoholic beverages ravaging the British Isles during his day. And as Stephen Mansfield reminds us in his book God and Guinness, “Arthur Guinness began to think differently about how to use his wealth. He started the first Sunday schools in Ireland and founded hospitals for the poor; he positioned his company to transform lives” . Even John Wesley, himself, touted the health benefits of beer .
And though I don’t condone drinking alcohol beyond its heath benefits (see I Timothy 5:23), I am thankful that men and women throughout the centuries have attempted to find a healthy drink for hospitality and ministry, something, as the Abbey Brewing Company uses as its motto, done with “care and prayer.”
2) For many, Christ in the Desert is known as one of the final places famed monk, writer, and poet, Thomas Merton traveled to before his death in 1968, calling it the “the best monastic building in the country.” Merton visited Christ in the Desert in May 1968. He died a few months later in Bangkok, Thailand on December 10th. Christ in the Desert is also known as the church famed artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, would attend for Christmas and Easter services, asking people who were traveling to the monastery to “say hello to the brothers for me.”
Photo captions: 1) Christ in the Desert. 2) Berkley Merchant (right) brewing with Brother Bernard (left). 3) St. Gall of Ireland. 4) Arthur Guinness. 5) Brian Nixon.
About the writer: Brian Nixon is a writer, musician, artist, and minister. He’s a graduate of California State University, Stanislaus (BA), Veritas Evangelical Seminary (MA), and is a Fellow at Oxford Graduate School (D.Phil.). To learn more, click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brian_Nixon
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