Holy Spirits

Published in Gourmet Live 03.28.12
James Rodewald delivers the gospel on transcendent beers, wines, and liqueurs made by religious orders

If you think politics makes strange bedfellows, consider another odd couple of our day: religion and alcohol. Despite recent antipathies between pulpit and tavern, fermented spirits and spirituality have been intertwined since shortly after hominids straightened their spines—presumably so that they could finally belly up to the bar. And in fact, says Patrick McGovern, Ph.D., scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Laboratory for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages, and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, “fermented beverages are at the center of religions all around the world.”

Brothers’ Brews

As an archaeologist, Dr. McGovern studies 3,000-year-old millet wine and fermented cacao, but most people’s interests lean more toward things we actually can (and want to) imbibe. Trappist ales are the best-known alcoholic beverages made by religious orders, and they’re fantastic. There are currently seven breweries worldwide allowed to use the “Authentic Trappist Product” stamp—Achel, Chimay, La Trappe, Orval, Rochefort, Westvleteren, and Westmalle. (An eighth, Mont des Cats, is now listed on the Web site of the International Trappist Association, but it is not brewed within the walls of the monastery and so is not considered an official Trappist Beer.) And, of course, there are any number of stellar “Abbey” ales in a wide variety of styles and an even wider array of interpretations, many made in America. Though they take their inspiration from Trappist beers, they are not monastery-made.

Soon, however, an American monastery could, at least theoretically, qualify to carry the stamp. Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine abbey located about 75 miles north of Santa Fe, has been brewing and bottling its Monk’s Ale since 2005, and its beers are currently available in nine states, with more in the works. Most of the beers are made at Sierra Blanca Brewing Company, east of Albuquerque, but a new brewery has been built at the monastery, and in keeping with the monastic philosophy of self-reliance, 10 varieties of native hops have been planted in a hop yard on the grounds of the monastery to supply the brewery.

As you might expect from a religious order that’s been around for nearly 1,500 years, these Trappists are in no particular hurry to expand their repertoire of recipes. Those less Zen will just have to find contentment in the two beers currently bottled by the brothers of Christ in the Desert: Monks’ Ale and Monks’ Wit. The ale is relatively light for an abbey ale but not lacking in flavor, with some fruitiness and a bit of spice. The Wit has citrus and coriander notes and probably won’t wow hardcore witbier fanatics, but it serves as a good introduction to the style.

If you happen to be in Albuquerque, visit ABQ Brew Pub, where a special seasonal draft offering from the Benedictines, such as Monks’ Tripel, is occasionally available. And once the monastery’s own tasting room opens up sometime this summer, guests will be able to enjoy a nice glass of beer in one of the most gorgeous settings imaginable (after all, this is the landscape that captivated Georgia O’Keeffe). The abbey also has a guesthouse, where “individuals can find quiet time for prayer, privacy, reading and reflection,” according to its Web site.

Wines to Worship

If the fruits of the vine are more your thing, the vin-astery Monastero Trappiste Nostra Signora di San Giuseppe, in Vitorchiano, Italy, produces the excellent (and well distributed in the United States) Monastero Suore Cistercensi Coenobium and Coenobium Rusticum, white blends made from Malvasia, Verdicchio, Grechetto, and Trebbiano. The Rusticum is fermented on its lees—the dead yeast cells, seeds, stems, and skins that remain after the grapes are pressed—a technique used all over the world to increase a wine’s complexity.

Without question, one of the things that make these wines so good is that the winemaker is one of Italy’s best—the Renaissance man Giampiero Bea, who is also in charge of the winery that bears his father’s name, Antica Azienda Agricola Paolo Bea. The Bea wines are made “naturally,” which is to say with as little intervention as possible. The results can be wild, even funky, and occasionally bizarre, but they are some of the most fascinating and thought-provoking fermented beverages you’ll ever taste. The two white wines Bea oversees for the nuns of Vitorchiano—using grapes grown organically in volcanic soil—are equally full of personality. The Rusticum, in fact, can seem more like a red than a white, since lees fermentation also adds body and texture.

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