The French Brews Brothers: Benedictine Monks Bring a Traditional Brewing Practice Back to Life
Between prayer, Gregorian chants, and spiritual contemplation, Benedictine monks of Saint-Wandrille monastery in northern France are now dedicating their spare time to producing France's only monastic beer , bringing an old tradition back to life.
A Popular Beverage in Medieval Monasteries
Monastic breweries were a common practice during the middle ages – a time when monks and nuns were expected to live by their own labor and not accept charity (The Rule of Saint Benedict). However, they not only produced, but also partook in the beverage. In 2013 for example, a team of archaeologists discovered an ancient brew house which was visited daily by monks of the former Bicester Priory in England. The men of God drank beer daily to kill off bacteria, and those who visited this particular brew house would have drunk about 10 pints of beer each week.
A monk with his meal (1908) By Eduard Grützner. ( Public Domain )
While monks led a solitary life of work and prayer, they also believed in hospitality and charity. Monasteries were renowned as places of refuge for travelers seeking a safe, clean place with decent food and drink. The monks grew or traded for their food and made their own drinks, thus beer and wine were readily available at the monasteries. Many monks have traditionally raised funds through brewing and selling beer.
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‘Monk testing wine’ (1886) by Antonio Casanova y Estorach, from the Brooklyn Museum. ( Public Domain )
A Really Good Beer
Located in the heart of Normandy between Le Havre and Rouen, the French monastery started selling a forerunner of their beer in the late summer. They officially launched their new brew in early December. In less than a month the beer has already become a hit - receiving great feedback from craft beer market experts. French beer expert Herve Marziou, who was one of the people who advised the monks to bring this medieval monastery tradition back to life told The Local , “For me it's a major event, one of the most important since I began my career in 1973."
More than 25,000 half-liter (pint) bottles costing 4.50 euros ($4.70) each have already been sold at the abbey's shop, at other monasteries, online, and through specialty stores. As the abbey proudly stated through its official website , “This is the only beer currently produced in France by monks in their own monastery.”
Drawing of a monk brewing beer. ( MicroBus Brewery )
However, this is not the first time a bunch of modern monks have produced beer for sale in a European monastery. The Strahov Monastery in Prague , Czech Republic, has also been selling a popular beer for the past couple of years based on a historic recipe. They named it the “Sv Norbert India Pale Ale” and it is based on a recipe that British soldiers brewed for their travels to India when it was under British rule.
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Creating a Taste and Goals for the Near Future
The new project in the French monastery has been exclusively directed by the monks and they have even been the ones perfecting the tools they need to market the beer: the kind of bottle, labels, and packaging.
After experimenting with a brewing kit they were given by British friends, the French monks formed a committee and decided on the desired taste for their brew; “If the beer has an English taste, it is because the recipe includes four English hops varieties, grown in France – two bitter hops and two aromatic ones," Brother Matthieu explained.
Cloisters and courtyard of the Abbey of St Wandrille in France, where the new beer is being made. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )
At the end of 2015, the monks took out a 750,000-euro ($778875) bank loan to buy the necessary equipment so they could launch their ambitious brewing project, and their current goal is to produce about 80,000 liters of their exclusive beer a year.
Top Image: Three monks drinking beer. (1885) By Eduard Grützner. Source: Public Domain