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Monasteries support their mission one cup at a time
St. Arnulf of Metz, the seventh-century Frankish bishop of Metz, allegedly developed a filtration process for beer, and his connection to the brew didn’t end when he died. According to legend, when parishioners went to recover his remains, they had little left to drink until one of them prayed, “By his powerful intercession the Blessed Arnold will bring us what we lack.”
Immediately, the vessel containing the last of their beer miraculously filled up with enough to quench their thirst — then and for the rest of their journey. Arnulf of Metz became the patron saint of brewers.
People drank beer in the Middle Ages to avoid pathogens in contaminated water, or they added beer to kill the germs. St. Arnold of Soissons (1040-87), one time a bishop and then abbot of a monastery with a brewery, advised people to drink beer, not water, during a plague. That saved lives, but it was science, not a miracle. Nevertheless, he became the patron saint of hop pickers and Belgian brewers.
Early monasteries brewed beer for their own consumption, for guests and for the poor. The ingredients provided nutrients and some brews had very low alcohol content. Breweries also were sources of income that fit into a monastic balance of liturgy, prayer and labor that supported the communities and benefitted works of charity.
That’s still true today.
Brewing up success
St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, has been selling their Trappist-brand jams and jellies for decades. In 2000, the monks began looking for something less time and labor intensive and that would bring in more income.
Monastery beer looked like a promising option.
“Belgian brothers have been doing it for centuries, and if monks succeeded in doing it that long, there must be something compatible about the process of making beer and monastic life,” said Father Isaac Keeley, director of Spencer Brewery, which opened in 2014 after 10 years of research and strategic studies.
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Spencer Brewing is the only American member of the International Trappist Association.
“Under ITA guidelines, you have to have a community of Trappist monks who own and operate their own brewery that’s located inside the monastery and is not open to the public,” he said. “And the revenues can only be used to support the nonprofit monastery and its charitable outreaches that tend to be other nonprofits.”
The community — the Cistercians of the Strict Observance — follows the Rule of St. Benedict on prayer and work, which states that even the smallest of chores glorify God. Their labor in running the brewery not only sustains their life of prayer but also enables them to donate to food banks, a homeless shelter, a soup kitchen, and health and housing nonprofits. It’s also an efficient operation with only two monks needed to run the brewery, compared to 12 in the jelly kitchen.
The beer serves a niche market of consumers who appreciate fine brews that are best enjoyed sipping, like fine wine. Trappist beers are made from vast knowledge handed down through the centuries and are considered to be some of the best in the world.
“What makes it so good is that it undergoes two fermentations,” Father Keeley said. “Almost any beer on the market has a single fermentation. Trappist beer has two fermentations. The second that occurs in the bottle contributes to its distinctive character and complex flavor profile.”
Like the distinction between beer and really good beer, there’s coffee and then there’s really good coffee.
That’s what Brother Bernard Marino, OSB, of Our Lady of Guadalupe Monastery in Silver City, New Mexico, discovered when he visited a Benedictine monastery in Brazil.
“They’re surrounded by coffee plantations, and one of the brothers was a high-end coffee dealer and had direct trade with the plantations,” he said. “They asked me if I wanted to roast beans on their stove, and when I tasted the coffee, it was really, really good. It didn’t give me anxiety, and it didn’t keep me up when I drank it late.”
Brother Bernard, who had been an architect in his secular life, had gone there to help with designing a chapel, but his experience with the coffee would have an impact on his community. He told Father Cyprian Rodriguez, founder of the monastery, “They have amazing coffee here, and I think we should think about importing it and selling it. We could support both monasteries.”
Brother Bernard had joined the fledgling monastery in 1993 when there was only Father Cyprian and another monk. They lived in used trailers while they relied on donations to build in the Pinos Altos range of the Rocky Mountains. The now 40 members support about 10 sisters in a nearby convent.
The monks had tried different ways to be self-sufficient, mostly farm related with livestock. Selling coffee was a new idea that worked for them.
Brother Bernard trained for six months under an experienced coffee roaster who taught him the nuances of different coffee profiles, and how to get the best from roasting beans in the 7,000-foot altitude.
They called it Abbey Roast. In 2013, someone asked if they could sell it under an additional label to raise funds for a crisis pregnancy center in Mexico City.
Brother Bernard was active in the pro-life movement before he became monk, all the way back to his childhood when his mother took him to the March For Life. He’s passionate about the cause, so Café 4 Life easily fell into place. It’s the same coffee in its own packaging, and a generous portion of those sales is donated to pro-life organizations worldwide.
It’s been sold by parishes, Catholic schools and organizations to support pro-life activities. And that’s not all. There are plans to eventually open coffee shops that would be staffed by mothers with babies and young children who would be cared for in an on-site nursery.
“We have to help these women,” Brother Bernard said. “We are trying to do our part in this fight for life.”
Business is brisk for both Café 4 Life and Abbey Roast. The monks ship out 50 to 70 orders a day. During the Christmas season, they import enough cargo containers of beans from Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya and Papua New Guinea to fill thousands of orders. They’d like to eventually get their products into distribution centers and supermarkets.
That would have pleased 16th-century Pope Clement VIII who, having heard about the “bitter invention of Satan,” wanted to try it himself to see why it was so evil. Back then, many Church officials condemned coffee because of its Islamic origins.
According to legend, after the pope sipped a cup of the brew, he declared, “This Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.”
It would be better, he said, to get one over on the devil. So he blessed the coffee beans.
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.