Monastic Beer: Birra Nursia rebuilds after the earthquake
After the earthquakes of 2016, the Benedictines of Norcia turn to beer for their monastery’s salvation—yet again.
Rain pings off the metal roof of a pre-fab trailer deep in the Sibylline mountains of Umbria. This temporary shelter is the new sales point for Birra Nursia, and I’m inside with one of its brewers, a 33-year-old expatriate from Fredericksburg, Texas. Unlike the hipster brewers of America, his long beard is accompanied by a hooded black robe that identifies him as a Benedictine monk. “I never, ever expected to be a monk,” the bespectacled brewer confesses, who now goes by the name of Father Martin. But life can take unexpected turns—as the monks of Norcia well know.
First came the unanticipated revival of the monastery itself. Norcia is the birthplace of Saint Benedict (b. 480), founder of the Benedictine Order and, many would say, of Western monasticism. For a thousand years, its monastery had a ceaseless flow of pilgrims. But Napoleon Bonaparte put an end to all that when he shut down the monasteries. Norcia was devoid of monks for two centuries, until a stroke of luck. Father Cassian Folsom, an American monk from Indiana who taught at Benedictine University in Rome, felt a call to rekindle a monastery and realize a vision of monastic life in the traditional mold, following the Rule of Saint Benedict. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Spoleto–Norcia was looking to repopulate the abandoned monastery. “At one of these big abbot/bishop conferences, another abbot heard this conversation and said Ah hah!” Father Martin recounts. “He put the two together.” In 2000, the Monastery of San Benedetto in Norcia was reborn.
Each monk has his own tale to tell about how he came to this remote corner of Umbria and made the lifetime commitment. Ten of the 14 monks are Americans. Recounting his own circuitous route, Father Martin Bernhard says, “it was pretty scary, because it means you have to leave America, leave your family, leave the parish life and the friends you love.” Before taking that step, he’d been following the well-worn path to priesthood. But then studies in Rome led to retreats in Norcia. “Even after several visits, I never thought I’d become a monk. It just wasn’t for me,” he recalls thinking. “But something became more and more attractive about that life of abandonment, of giving more.” He finally succumbed. “When I give myself, I go all in.”
Prayer and work
St. Benedict’s dictum was Ora et labora—prayer and work—for “idleness is the enemy of the soul,” the saint wrote. Manual labor and self-sufficiency have remained tenets of the religious order since the sixth century. “Monks truly live by the work of their hands,” Father Martin avows, noting “there’s a practical and a spiritual element.” In this case, the practical side was the structural work needed on Norcia’s basilica and monastery after two centuries of neglect. But how to pay?
That’s where beer comes in. Beer has been part of the monastic tradition since medieval times, especially in northern Europe. (Mediterranean monasteries favored the wine grape instead.) Both were safer to drink than untreated water and provided nourishment during periods of fasting. Today the tradition continues most notably with the Trappists, an off-shoot of the Benedictines. There are currently 11 certified Trappist breweries, the majority in Belgium, including Orval, Westmalle, Rochefort, and the giant Chimay. (The newest is Italy’s sole Trappist brewery, Tre Fontane in Rome.)
For the Benedictines of Norcia, wine was out of the question. They had neither the space for a cantina, nor the manpower, nor land for vineyards, owning just a small property that Father Cassian had bought beside an abandoned Franciscan convent outside of town. “We couldn’t have vineyards and wine, but we could do a brewery,” Father Martin says.
Two of the monks had been homebrewers. To learn the ropes on a larger scale, they traveled north to visit the Trappists. “Then we brought a brewer down from Belgium”—Marc Knops, a lay brewmaster who’d worked with Achel brewery. “He brewed with me, another brother, and Brother Augustine [Wilmeth], who’s the main brewer now,” Father Martin says. “He advised us on equipment and brewed with us, side by side, for a few brews.”
They chose two Belgian beer styles. “The Trappist Cistercians were noted for their simplicity,” he explains. “That flows over into the beer. They might have a Blonde and a Dark, or a Dubbel and a Trippel. They always kept their beer recipes straightforward in terms of categories. We saw that as compatible, the simplicity. Noble, good beer. Two kinds.”
Birra Nursia (which borrows the Latin name for Norcia) makes Bionda, a Belgian Pale Ale—golden in color, with notes of lemon zest, spice, and yeast—as well as Extra, a Belgian Strong Dark Ale that’s walnut-brown with caramel-malt aromas, dried dark fruit and caramelized-sugar flavors, and a roasted, nutty finish.
Don’t expect any pumpkin ale or double-hopped IPA on the horizon. “Not that we’re opposed to trying other recipes in the future,” Father Martin says, but fads aren’t their thing. “We’re going with things that endure. The monastic spirit is to brew a good beer that people enjoy—and will 50 years from now. Not an apricot ale or a sour beer or something where you don’t have control over your fermentation and might get wild flavors. We’re going for consistency.”
The monks of Norcia handle every task in the brewery, and in that they’re unique. Larger operations, or those with aging monks, might involve the monks in quality control but outsource the actual brewing. (It’s not insignificant that San Benedetto has one of the world’s youngest monastic communities, with an average age of around 32.) Father Martin is financial manager, “but I also mash the grain, boil, transfer, bottle, and package” along with two others. All the monks are involved on bottling day.
The brewery was launched in 2012. By 2016, they were up to 1000 barrels per year—tiny by design, even for monastic breweries, but still commercially viable. They’d landed a U.S. importer: Park Street in Miami, Florida. Things were looking good.
Then on August 24, 2016, disaster struck. A powerful 6.2 earthquake ripped through the Apennine mountains of central Italy, killing nearly 300. Norcia was spared the worst, but ominous cracks in its ancient stone buildings forced the evacuation of many. “People didn’t want to live indoors because the tremors continued, and they were afraid of a bigger one coming. So people were living open air, in cars and tents,” Father Martin recalls. That included half the monks, who pitched a tent on that patch of land that Father Cassian had bought. “Those days are hard to describe,” he continues. “We didn’t have plumbing. We lived in a tent. But we still lived a full monastic life: Get up at 3:30 in the morning to do the liturgy and all that. It was just too rough for some of the older monks, so we had to leave some in town.”
Two months of tremors followed. A big one prompted the monks to evacuate their entire group, cramming everyone into two plastic emergency housing units that had replaced their tent. Two days later, on October 30, “the really big one hit, and it all came down,” says Father Martin: basilica, monastery, everything they’d toiled to restore over the past 16 years. Tremors from that 6.6-magnitude quake were felt from Bolzano to Puglia; its epicenter was Norcia.
Eight months later, the damage still feels fresh. All that remains of the basilica is its façade and rose window; the rest is rubble. Surrounding shops are closed; some now operate outside the city walls, beside the soccer field. Peeking through the window of a butcher shop, one sees plastic water bottles and a stuffed toy cow lying untouched on the dusty floor. Outside, scaffolding props up cracked facades and damaged city gates. Sections of town are barricaded off with Zona Rossa signs. Norcia’s population has shrunk by half, and tourism—vital to the economy—has withered. Visitors that do come have a hard time finding open hotels.
Given the basilica’s historical importance as St. Benedict’s birthplace, the European Union and Italian government have promised funds to rebuild. But no matter what happens, the monks won’t be returning. They were renters, and the archdiocese wants the site back for its parishioners, since so many local churches were lost.
The monks have moved a few kilometers uphill to their piece of land and are starting anew. Monastero di San Benedetto in Monte will be the site of “a big, beautiful monastery and a big beautiful church—bigger than the one in town,” says Father Martin. Next to the sales-office trailer, they’ll build a seismic-resistant brewery.
To finance that, they’ll need to sell a lot of beer. Fortunately, the subterraneous fermenters escaped damage during the quakes, as did the warehouse; both were full of beer, which has since made it out to distributors around the world. Last March, they started brewing small batches again in town.
But beer sales alone won’t do it. “We need donations,” says Father Martin. “And the fact is, we’ll need sponsorship.” One monastic brewery already stepped up. Leffe, Belgian brewers since 1240, made a special batch of 100,000 bottles with a “Leffe per Norcia” label picturing the rose window. Proceeds have underwritten the monk’s new pine-wood chapel that stands between their temporary housing and the old Franciscan church they’ll restore.
But smaller contributions are welcome. The Birra Nursia website can receive orders for beer, for the monks’ CD of Gregorian chants, and outright donations. There’s a Brewmonks’ Club, providing subscriptions to a monthly 6-pack or 12-pack. (Only the large 750ml bottles are available in the U.S.) Stateside orders are fulfilled by Birra Nursia’s exclusive U.S. retailer, Holiday Wine Cellar in California. Though they could use every penny for reconstruction, the monks are donating 15% to charities that help the people of Norcia.
Ut Laetificet Cor says each label: “Let your heart be gladdened.” The line, adapted from Psalm 104, “is talking about wine,” Father Martin admits, “but we’ve taken that and applied it to beer.” Open a bottle with friends, and you’ll find hearts gladdening both at home and in those distant Umbrian hills.
Published in the December 2017 issue of Tastes of Italia.