For centuries, beer (cerevisia) has guided the daily operations of Benedictine monks all over the world as much as their other unofficial watchwords, prayer (ora) and work (labora). Renowned for their brewing prowess from Belgium to Germany, from the Czech Republic to Italy, the Benedictine monks at Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, New Mexico, are trying to add to this legacy stateside through Abbey Beverage Company—the only monastic brewery in the United States. While Old World brewing traditions have inspired plenty of American craft breweries, Abbey Beverage Company is a living testament to the ancient craft of brewing beer for spiritual and financial sustenance.
Monastic breweries generally conjure Europeanized images of cobblestone roads, massive blocks of granite, and secluded mystery, but tucked away in northwest New Mexico’s Chama Canyon, red adobe structures litter the ground of which they are made of like an open secret waiting to be discovered. Born out of a former Polish monk’s love for beer and to support the monastery’s financial independence, Abbey Beverage Company started brewing in 2005 and currently offers their Monks’ Ale and Monks’ Wit in nine states, including Colorado, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
Despite their initial focus on Belgian beers, Abbey Beverage Company seeks to draw from its eclectic order of monks, who hail from five different continents, to craft other European-inspired monastic brews as they slowly expand their 1/2-barrel brewing system to seven barrels. Growth is the name of the game across the country’s craft beer landscape, but in New Mexico’s desert, Abbey Beverage Company’s productivity relies on the sweat of their monks’ brows and solar energy as the monastery is completely off the grid and self-sustainable.
Physically involved in all aspects of the brewing process, the monks of Abbey Beverage Company make the meaning of craft beer palpable beyond your palate. Protected by trombe walls that selectively conduct heat as temperatures dip and powered by solar panels, the brewery is fully integrated into its natural environment. Spent grain from the mash is composted and used to fertilize the monastery’s hop yard, while the waste water from the brewery replenishes the verdant grounds.
In addition to brewing, the monks package and ship their libations through another one of their business ventures. From farm to fermentor to freight, the monks have several sets of hands involved in each aspect of beer production, befitting their Benedictine tradition. Similar to other craft breweries’ projects to establish closed-loop, environmentally friendly brewing systems, the intimacy between the monks, their natural surroundings, and the fact that they literally live where they work uniquely highlight the time, dedication and care that go into their craft beers.
Naturally, the monks’ hard work deserves ample reward, and aside from regular quality control samples during the brewing process, monastery house rules permit moderate consumption of the monks’ beers on feast days, holidays, and other special occasions. The long-wielded licensing process to establish a tasting room on monastery grounds is in progress and the monks hope to share the fermented fruits of their labor with patrons beginning in the summer of 2012.
Although their religious devotion colors every aspect of their daily operations, The Monastery of Christ in the Desert welcomes any and all visitors regardless of faith. In fact, the Benedictine tradition demands that the monastery guarantees safety, sustenance, and a place to sleep to anyone in need. While you probably shouldn’t count on your GPS to guide you to Abbey Beverage Company, you can be rest assured once you get there that the monks will pray, work and brew for your gustatory enjoyment according to the principles of Saint Benedict as the nation’s only monastic brewery.
Foreign yet approachable, like any good German beer, Kay Witkiewicz, the current Craft Beer Program intern for the Brewers Association, is as avid a homebrewer as he is a beer writer. Expanding his kowledge of beer one sentence, one sip, and one stir of the mash at a time, he hopes to one day open a brewpub, following the seasonal brewing practices of old.