It’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and one of the benefits of running this blog has been meeting some fantastically faithful Catholics right here in Des Moines, Iowa, USA. One such person is Bryan Gonzalez, Director of Development for the Monastery of San Benedetto in Norcia, Italy. As long as Bryan has an Internet connection, he can work from anywhere in the world. And yes, he lives right here in Des Moines which affords him the luxury of living in one of the most family friendly places in the world.
But back to the monastery . . . we tend to think of monasteries being isolated, set apart, no? Although Norcia is small, about 5,000 citizens, the monastery sits at the center of this busy town. The monks call themselves a bit of an “urban monastery” — sure, not quite like a monastery in the middle of New York City or downtown Chicago, but still. Of the many interesting facts about Monastery of San Benedetto, aside from being the birthplace of St. Benedict of Nursia, is the monks who live there run a fully functional, self-contained, commercial brewery to sustain it. What better time to spotlight the work of these good Benedictine monks than today, August 2, International Beer Day?
Brewing has a long tradition in monastic life, popularized by medieval German and Belgian monks who used it as a nutritional supplement during the long months of winter fasting. The boom in small, high quality microbreweries which hit America in the early 1990s (and is still growing) has hit Italy only in the last five years. The monks of Norcia have decided to get in on the early side of the craze. Seems a natural fit for the city, which is known throughout the world for its outstanding culinary tradition. The brewery was made possible by generous gifts from six families, five American and one Umbrian, who realized that if the monks could start and run their own business, they would be in good shape to survive the ups and downs of the global financial markets. A famous Belgian brewer helped formulate their recipe and get the monks started on the brewing path.
Just a bunch of drunken monks?
Since the opening of the brewery on August 15, 2012, Father Cassian, the founder of the community, has been cautious that the brewery endeavor not take over the monastery. He has said that he doesn’t want the “tail to wag the dog;” in other words, they don’t want to be a brewery that prays every so often, but rather, a monastery that brews beer. Hence the small production — only 700 bottles made with each batch, allowing the monks to focus on the smallest details of color, flavor, and depth. Brother Francis (from Dallas, Texas) is the brew master and he’s assisted by Brother Mariano (from La Spezia, Italy). On brew days, the monks start at 4:00 AM and brew until late at night, around 11:00 PM, breaking only for prayers and meals. The community consists of seventeen monks with four more to join in September. Of these there are 11 Americans, 1 Brazilian, 2 Italians, 2 Indonesians, and 1 German. Each has had a chance to bottle, label, pack, move, sell, or make the beer, to say nothing of tasting it.
The beer is called Birra Nursia and its motto, Ut Laetifect Cor, comes from Psalm 104:15, describing a gift of God to gladden men’s hearts. In addition to bringing new, much needed income to the monastery, the brewery has also brought many new challenges. A rather delicate balance must be achieved of managing a beer which caught immediate fame and appreciation with a rather small production facility. Requests for the beer far outnumber the quantities presently produced. The monks must often leave customers waiting for a week or more before filling orders.
Plus bibo, plus sitio — the more I drink, the more I thirst. Those are the words of Peter in Pope Gregory I’s Dialogues as he thirsts for more miracle stories about St. Benedict. We were recently invited to a Birra Nursia tasting, and we absolutely agree with Peter’s words. The more Joel drank, the more he thirsted.
You may be wondering how to get your hands on a bottle and taste the stuff yourself.
Well, grab your passport because your best shot to taste the beer is in Norcia. Currently it’s only sold at the monastery gift shop or in select Norcia restaurants and pubs. Or, if you are a cardinal, as in one who helped elect Pope Francis, you may have been treated to a taste during a papal conclave beer break. Otherwise, maybe you’ll one day be lucky enough to attend a beer tasting in the United States (but even that’s a bit of an inside gig). Yet another reason to move to Des Moines and befriend Bryan Gonzalez.
Call us two lucky ones because we have tasted it. And now we can’t wait for that pilgrimage to Italy following Joel’s diaconate ordination when we’ll make a special stop in Norcia. Who’s ready to travel with us? (For real, people, for real!)
“May our beer gladden men’s hearts, and our prayers bring them closer to God.”