On the South African veldt, many years ago, I recall being rather intimidated by a tour group of Afrikaners of which we were accidentally (I think) a part. Though they were kind to us, these folk are religious and conservative, sometimes to extremes, and I was just a little apprehensive that my California and Davis origins might peep out.
But not to worry. As the sun set, the group broke out large thermos flasks full of highly alcoholic and delicious “sundowners,” which they shared. They explained that God did not make alcohol just for bad people.
In fact there is a long-standing relationship between alcoholic beverages and religion that goes back to pre-Christian times. It is no small thing that Christ’s first miracle was to covert water to wine at the wedding at Canaan and, of course, at the Roman Catholic Mass transubstantiation assures that wine changes into the blood of Jesus; in Anglican churches (thankfully) the wine is taken as a symbol of the blood that Christ shed upon cross, but at least we get to drink it.
There are some famous beers called Trappist beers that are made in only six monasteries; five of these are in Belgium and one in the Netherlands. They have beautiful names such as the one that makes the quite widely available beer called Chimay: it’s named Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Scourmont and is near the town of Forges.
Trappist beers may only be labeled as such if they are actually made at a Trappist monastery; the five other brewing monasteries are at Orval, Rochefort, Koenigshoeven in the Netherlands, Westmalle and Westleteren. For the most part the beers are characterized by their malt flavors and most tend toward sweetness because adding sugar is a typical part of the process; generally these beers are quite high in alcohol and fruity and aromatic, though the bitterness is not dramatic.
The beers are fermented by a top-fermenting ale yeasts and refermented in the bottle to carbonate them. The monks themselves usually take charge of beer-making though a secular brewer might also be employed. But here is the interesting thing: I was at a Trappist brewery many years ago and had a long conversation with the brewer who was a monk; I crassly suggested ways he could increase his output because the demand for these beers is high. He told me to think of the brewery as his begging bowl, that is, as a means by which he could fund his monastic vocation; he made only enough beer for that purpose.
There are many other beers, called Abbey beers or something similar, but they are made in commercial breweries; some are brewed in cooperation with monasteries that share in the profits to the benefit of both parties.
I was very intrigued therefore when I ran across information about such a cooperative venture here in Northern California: the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company is making Belgian-style Trappist-style beers at their facility in Chico. This got started when Ken Grossman (owner of Sierra Nevada brewery) became aware of the need and intrigued by the story of the chapter house of the Trappist/Cistercian monks at Vina and their monastery called Abbey of New Clairvaux.
Turns out that in the 1930s William Randolph Hearst dismantled the chapter house of the Abbey of Santa Maria de Ovila, a monastery near Trillo in Spain that was originally built about 1200. Hearst brought the stones on pallets to California to build a cover for his swimming pool (!); however that project got shelved and the stones wound up in a heap in Golden Gate Park.
They found their way eventually to the monks at Vina who set about raising funds to rebuild this venerable structure. They have been remarkably successful; the chapter house, though not finished, now stands again. It is certainly the oldest church in the USA and a great blessing to the Cistercian community of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina. We may donate to the monks’ Sacred Stones project online.
The brewers at Sierra Nevada have, for the most part, focused on their highly successful range of conventional beers; this new series of Abbey beers, made in cooperation with the monks, is something of a new departure for them. They are called Ovila Abbey Ales. Ovila Abbey Quad is “rich, dark and infused with the sweetness of Abbey-grown plums” harvested by the monks. Being a Quad (the name given to the strongest of Abbey beers; weaker ones being called dubbel and tripel) it has an alcohol content of 10.2 percent, which is a level of alcohol normally associated with wines. The other Ovila beer currently available is Abbey Saison presented as a “complex yet rustic farmhouse ale”; it’s seasoned with white pepper and mandarin oranges from the monastery.
When I wrote to Steve Dresler, head brewer at Sierra Nevada, about this project he replied as follows:
“The start of our collaboration with the Abbey of New Clairvaux was particularly special. Ken Grossman, Steve Dresler, Scott Jennings and others from the brewery joined New Clairvaux’s Abbot emeritus Father Thomas Davis on a trip to Belgium. We visited monasteries truly steeped in historic brewing traditions, absorbing the methods and spirit that drive these revered beers. That foundation was paramount for the Ovila series.
“The chapter house has a few strides left before completion, but it’s a wonderful sight even now. The monks of the Abbey have been fundraising for many years, so we’re part of only a fraction of the progress. We’re proud of the beers we’ve made so far, and we hope to design more alongside our great neighbor up the road in Vina.”
Just think, when you buy a bottle or two of these Ovila beers to explore the magic that the brewers of Sierra Nevada have wrought, you will be contributing to the restoration of a piece of history and perhaps tasting a bit of it, too.
— Reach Michael Lewis at firstname.lastname@example.org. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com