Workers fasten timbers raised by volunteers Nov. 11 for a brewery and taproom at Mount Angel Abbey. Wood came from abbey-owned land. Volunteers helped raise the timbers. (Steve Ritchie/Catholic Sentinel)
Workers fasten timbers raised by volunteers Nov. 11 for a brewery and taproom at Mount Angel Abbey. Wood came from abbey-owned land. Volunteers helped raise the timbers. (Steve Ritchie/Catholic Sentinel)

 

MOUNT ANGEL — The Benedictine Brewery and Taproom took a giant step closer to becoming a reality here on Nov. 10, as more than 50 Benedictine monks, seminarians and community volunteers joined a construction crew in an old-fashioned timber-raising party.

After months of planning for the new brewery, which will be operated by the Benedictine community on the south end of its property, the walls and rafters for the building were hoisted up in short order by volunteers using ropes and pikes. Professional workers were on hand to secure the structure. The 25,000 board feet of lumber for the building, including its massive beams, came from the abbey's land high in the hills above Scotts Mills.

Just before noon, all work paused, and the entire group gathered among the framework. For more than 1,500 years, Benedictines have prayed together five times a day, and this Saturday was no exception. The future brewery site became a place of worship, as monks led the noon prayers and the singing of the psalms.

Benedictine Father Martin Grassel traces the genesis of the Benedictine Brewery and Taproom back about five years. As procurator, Father Martin is responsible for the financial health of the abbey, and his long range income and expense projections concerned him. He realized that more revenue sources would be needed to keep up with increasing expenses.

“Expenses grow naturally, like leaves,” Father Martin said. “And revenue streams don't — you have to work at building those.”

At a monastic meeting called a chapter, he presented fellow monks with ideas for new sources of revenue. The last item on his list was a brewery, and, to his surprise, that was the one the monks got excited about and voted to pursue.

There is a long history of monks brewing beer in Europe. The oldest continuously operating brewery in the world is a German monastery — Weihenstephan Abbey.

“They are coming up on their 1,000-year anniversary,” Father Martin said. “So congratulations to them. I hope we're around 1,000 years from now.”

Monasteries have been brewing since at least the eighth century. The water in Europe wasn’t safe to drink back then, but beer or wine worked.

Father Martin not only came up with the idea for a brewery, but also started brewing as a hobby. He said one of the abbey employees asked if he would be interested in brewing equipment they were looking to give away. He at first said no, but the notion stuck.

“I just could not make that thought die,” he said. “It was like when I began thinking about becoming a priest (he was a software engineer at the time). Eventually, I asked her if she still had the equipment and she did. So I just started making beer from there.”

He’s been at it for about five years and other monks have joined in. Benedictine Father Jacob Stronach has taken on the task with an eye to eventually becoming the lead brewer. Brother Martin enjoys it so much he plans to keep brewing.

Currently, the Mount Angel Benedictine beer is brewed at nearby Seven Brides Brewery in Silverton, and sold at the seminary bookstore. While the abbey has 15 or so recipes, production is focused on two of the beers, St. Benedict's (a farmhouse ale) and Black Habit (a dark ale).

Chris Jones, director of enterprises for the abbey, is the project manager for the new brewery building. He is looking forward to the day when beer will be produced in the new facility, and visitors can stop by the taproom to sample and purchase different brews. There will be seating for 40-45 guests, who will have a good view of hop fields to the west and the Benedictine Sisters' monastery a half-mile away.

“We should be brewing (here) by late April or early May,” Jones predicted. “We just do a limited amount right now, but we'll be able to dramatically increase production.”

Don Williams, who was observing at the timber raising, writes about beer on his “Beer Chaser” blog and says he is a fan of what the monks are doing.

"I think Black Habit is an outstanding beer and there's a lot of (potential) new releases, some with interesting names. Guilty Thoughts is one that Fr. Martin has come out with."

The Benedictine bottles have a pleasing, eye-catching design. But the process of developing the branding went beyond design and marketing, and changed the whole focus of the project from simply generating income to something much bigger.

“Our consultants — Brand Navigation from Bend — spent a few days with us and asked lots of questions about our values, our mission, our way of life,” Father Martin said. “This helped the project become as much about promoting who we are to the world and offering people the message of the gospel, as it is about making money for us. This is now a project with two purposes. That makes the taproom all the more important for the project."