words by Carol King
Carol King reports on how Benedictine monks in Norcia have revived the art of beer making.
Monks have always drunk beer and many popular craft beers come from monasteries experienced in the art of beer making. In keeping with this tradition, the monks at the Monastero di San Benedetto (Monastery of St Benedict) in Norcia, Umbria, opened the Birra Nursia brewery.
The beer is so popular that the 3,000 bottles produced to launch the brewery sold out in a few days. Even Pope Benedict XVI has had a bottle, when the monastery’s founder, Friar Cassian Folsom, gave him one during a papal audience.
Norcia is the birthplace of St Benedict and the beer-making activities of the monastery’s Benedictine monks see them following an ancient monastic tradition. For the monks of Norcia, beer has always been a beverage reserved for special occasions, such as Sundays and feast days. The Birra Nursia brewery was conceived with the hope of sharing with others the joy arising from the monks’ labours. The brewery’s motto is taken from the Biblical Psalms: ‘ut laetificet cor’ (that the heart might be gladdened).
At various times a barnyard, repair shop and granary, the brewery carries with it hundreds of years of history. It lies within the walls of the monastery that date back a millennium and its entrance is crowned with a fresco of the Virgin Mary upon grains of barley. The monks make 700 bottles in each batch in order to ensure the beer is of a high quality. Locals in Norcia have helped in the construction of the brewery and the community has a role in the brewing process, although the most important aspects are reserved for four monks.
The master brewer, Brother Francis Davoren is from Dallas, Texas, and is assisted by Brother Massimiliano Silvati from La Spezia, Liguria. Most of the monastery’s monks are American because in 1998 a group of monks arrived in Rome from the USA. A community without a home, they moved to Norcia in 2000, so breathing new life into the ancient monastery that had been closed since 1810. The monks decided that a beer created according to the Belgian monastic tradition would best complement Norcia’s style and atmosphere. The malt comes from monasteries in Belgium and Germany, but the process – from the grinding of the grain to the bottling and labelling – is carried out in Umbria’s Valnerina valley.
They developed two kinds of beer: a blond beer that is light and buoyant, suitable as an aperitif or as an accompaniment to appetisers and first courses; and another ‘extra’ beer with a deep, rich flavour that is excellent enjoyed on its own or with savoury meats such as wild boar and lamb, or fresh or aged cheeses.
The beer is sold at the monastery gift shop, Corvus et Columba (The Raven and the Dove – a raven is the symbol of St Benedict and a dove the symbol of St Scholastica), immediately adjacent to Piazza San Benedetto. The beer is also available in local bars and restaurants. An image of the rose window in Norcia’s Basilica of St Benedict graces every bottle as a sign of the monks’ respect for the saint’s birthplace.
Any revenue produced supports the work of prayer and witness of God, which is the monk’s duty. This includes giving a warm welcome to pilgrims and poors, who are sure of finding hospitality at the monks’ door, as well as contributions to the cultural and spiritual growth of the town.
Tours around Birra Nursia will be available once a year, from the 14th to the 15th of August and will include a tasting session of recent brews. No reservation is required for the tour. A small private tasting room is available next to the gift shop for those who wish to order larger quantities.
The Birra Nursia brewery website is at http://birranursia.com/ and the monastery’s is at http://osbnorcia.org/. Birra Nursia beers are available in 33cl and 75cl sizes, costing €8.50 and €3.20 respectively. The larger bottles are available in cases of six and the smaller bottles are available in cases of 12.