Monks’ brew

One morning in February last year, Ken Grossman, founder and president of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, got a peculiar phone call. On the line was the Abbey of New Clairvaux, a Cistercian monastery 20 miles north of Sierra Nevada’s headquarters in Chico, California.

The monks had an unusual proposition. If Sierra Nevada, America’s second-largest craft brewery, made available its sophisticated beer-making technology and powerful marketing muscle, they would lend the brewer their name and help produce a premium abbey-style ale, a hot commodity in the booming American craft beer market. (Single bottles can command $20 apiece.)

Grossman was familiar with New Clairvaux, and had even visited the monastery once before, to tour its winemaking operation (the monks maintain and harvest 580 acres of English walnut groves, prune trees and vineyards). Sierra Nevada, which in recent years has diversified its catalogue of beers, increasing annual sales to $180m, had already considered brewing an abbey-style ale. Grossman didn’t hesitate to sign on.

The monks saw the partnership as an extension of their tradition. For 1,000 years, Cistercians have used manual labour as a form of prayer. “One of the characteristics of our order is livelihood by the work of our hands,” says Father Paul Mark Schwan. “Historically that was agriculture and animal husbandry.” And now it is beer, too.

But there was another motive for the deal. The monks needed funds to restore an architectural relic – one with a truly bizarre provenance. Stone by stone, they are rebuilding a 12th-century Spanish chapter house that found its way to California via the estate of William Randolph Hearst.

The restoration has already been helped by a $100,000 donation made by Sierra Nevada. And over the course of this year, three beers will be produced with New Clairvaux under a new label, called Ovila. The Dubbel, a classic brown abbey ale, was released in February. The Saison, a French farmhouse ale, will come out in July. And a full-bodied Quad will debut in November.

In recent months, the monks have worked with Sierra Nevada’s brewers to perfect the Dubbel. The result, according to Sierra Nevada spokesman Bill Manley, is a beer with “burnt sugar flavour, some raisin and dark fruit, a bit of spice like clove, and some black pepper”. Father Thomas Xavier Davis, the abbot of New Clairvaux, spent several days in January tasting different prototypes of the Dubbel. “He’s been comparing them to other Belgian beers … making sure the Ovila is up to the quality they expect,” says Manley.

Sierra recently imported several tons of Belgian malts and candi sugar, and is experimenting with different recipes. Grossman says he only intends to produce 1,000 barrels or so of each new brew, a drop in the bucket for Sierra Nevada, which is on track to brew 780,000 barrels this year.

So far, so straightforward, but this project has not been without controversy. Brewed for more than 1,000 years in the monasteries of Europe, abbey ales are revered by beer fans around the world. Floral and highly alcoholic, their limited production and exotic recipes make them scarce commodities that command premium prices.

Abbey ales are commonly referred to as “Trappist” beers because some of the best such ales are produced by Trappist monks in Europe. But it is wrong to call all abbey ales “Trappist”, which is a trademark closely guarded by The International Trappist Association, a group based in Belgium that aggressively pursues infringers.

So when news of the collaboration emerged last summer, Sierra Nevada got a prompt call from the ITA. “Some articles about a possible agreement between New Clairvaux and Sierra Nevada falsely quoted a beer of ‘Trappist style’ to be brewed at Sierra Nevada with ‘Trappist yeast’,” says François de Harenne, spokesman for the ITA. “Both these expressions do not mean anything.”

Over the following weeks, the ITA worked with Sierra Nevada and New Clairvaux, and a détente was reached. “The message is very well understood by both of them,” says de Harenne. “You won’t see any Trappist mention on beers coming from Sierra Nevada brewery.”

On a tour of Sierra Nevada’s state-of-the-art brewing facilities, Manley routinely refers to the company’s “Trappist beer”, correcting himself after each slip. “It’s still a little bit of a sensitive subject,” concedes Grossman.

Observers and insiders alike also question how long a for-profit company and a religious order can stay on the same page. “The monastery is a self-enclosed entity that has traditionally done all the work themselves,” says Jeffrey Burns, director of the American Academy of Franciscan History. “It’s pretty unusual to have a monastery and an outside agency doing a collaboration like this.”

Some of New Clairvaux’s own monks, too, express discomfort. “I’m concerned about what it will turn into,” says Brother John, a longtime resident. “I don’t know if our lads are up to it. We’re strictly country boys.”

For now, however, the monks and brewers are forging ahead. In November, a delegation from New Clairvaux and Sierra Nevada travelled to Belgium together. They made pilgrimages to a dozen breweries, including several Trappist monasteries. They took part in many rounds of beer tasting at the local pubs. “Father Davis can keep up with us young guys,” says Manley. And they paid a cordial visit to the ITA. “We’re on good terms with them now,” he says.

Sales of the beers should give New Clairvaux the money it needs to finish restoring the Spanish chapter house that tycoon William Randolph Hearst abandoned decades ago. It will also give Sierra Nevada, a new kind of Californian economic powerhouse, yet more leverage in the multibillion dollar craft beer market.

And though the partnership is intended to be a one-off, sales may determine the future of Sierra Nevada’s abbey-style ales. “We may put out a year-round product in the future,” says Grossman. “But we wanted to start slow.”

David Gelles is the FT’s US media and marketing correspondent

A whole new chapter

First built in 1190 near the village of Trillo, Spain, the chapter house of Santa Maria de Ovila was bought by the newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in 1931 and shipped to California. The Great Depression had just begun, and European countries were happy to sell off old monasteries. Hearst bought nine monastery buildings; the Ovila chapter house (originally used for gatherings) was to be installed at his compound on Lake Shasta in northern California.

But Hearst’s finances fell into disarray and to annul a debt of $25,000 he owed to the city of San Francisco, he offered the deconstructed chapter house. Though the intention was to restore the building, the ruins wound up scattered in Golden Gate Park. Many of the stones were used as benches, to line artificial lakes and even as vehicle barriers.

In 1955, Father Thomas Xavier Davis, on his way to begin a life of monasticism at New Clairvaux, happened to be passing through Golden Gate Park and came across the ruins. “I had enough education to know that Cistercian monasteries were architectural gems,” he says, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “I made a mental note that it would be nice to have this monastery here.”

When Father Thomas became abbot in 1970, he decided “to follow this dream a little more aggressively”, and in 1989, after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck San Francisco, he had his opportunity. City officials acknowledged they would never restore the building and gave the stones to New Clairvaux. “They’ve made it back to a Cistercian site,” Father Thomas says.

Much of the construction has been completed, overseen by a stonemason from Germany. “Apart from the forklifts and the power tools, nothing has changed,” says Father Paul Mark, touring the site. “We want to build this so it can stand up for a thousand years.”

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