Benedictine Brewery: Community supports heritage-driven project

December 2017 Posted in Community, Food & Drink
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The brewery is being built on the west side of the Abbey hill on Humpert Lane. Brenna Wiegand

By Brenna Wiegand

One hundred volunteers – the majority monks and seminarians – gathered Nov. 11 on a gentle slope below Mount Angel Abbey to raise the frame for the Abbey’s new brewery and tap room.

Benedictine Brewery is expected to bring a much-needed revenue stream and a way to share Abbey life with others. It also restores a 1,500-year-old monastic tradition of beer brewing rarely seen in the States.

“This was an area we’ve been wanting to get into for a long time; European monks have been brewing beer for well over 1,000 years,” Father Martin Grassel, Abbey Procurator and brew master said. “The oldest continuously operating brewery in the world is a Benedictine brewery in Europe coming up on 1,000 years. I believe the oldest existing plan for a brewery is from a monastery back in the first millennium.”

In the Middle Ages, Benedictine monasteries supplied beer to the locals because you couldn’t drink the water and breweries became part of the character of European monasteries.

“The Pacific Northwest is just a great brewing region and Mount Angel has a Bavarian heritage; and the town has German origins,” Grassel said. “It’s all very Germanic and we just feel like it’s part of our own heritage to be in the
beer business.”

Another thing handed down from  ancient monasteries is the spirit of self-sufficiency.

“Monasteries should be as self-supporting as possible,” Grassel said. “It’s like a little town.”

“If we didn’t think it was going to make some money we wouldn’t be doing it because I don’t want another operation you have to raise money for,” Grassel said. “Libraries and schools don’t make money and we expect the brewery to help support us or at least break even.”

The entire project is already a lesson in self-sufficiency. Not only is the beer made with their own hands, well water and hops; almost the entire 3,000-square-foot structure will be constructed of Douglas Fir trees planted by Mount Angel monks more than 100 years ago. Shortly after coming to America the Swiss monks purchased 600 acres of farmland in the Cascade foothills, raising crops and animals for themselves and to sell among many other enterprises. Today 300 acres are in hops.

Long before the trees were harvested, Abbey supporter John Gooley was in action, calling contacts made in his 42-year career with Withers Lumber.

“The trees were 200 feet tall and there were no limbs for the first 160 feet, so we got a lot of clear wood,” he said. Hull-Oakes Lumber Co. in Monroe, Ore., cut the entire order in exchange for one of the eight truckloads harvested and a few bottles of Black Habit beer. Gooley took a few bottles to Freres Lumber and they transported a semi-load of wood.

He got good mileage out of the case of beer issued him by the monks. Universal Forest Products, New Energy Works Timber Frame Homes and others got involved. The timber was harvested, cut, dried, milled tongue-in-groove and otherwise prepared for a seamless, no-hammer, no-saw construction, saving the Abbey as much as $100,000.

“It was really awesome,” Gooley said. “We ended up with about 26,000 board feet of lumber; there were even logs left over so we cut all of their siding, too.”

The Abbey has long enjoyed a warm relationship with the town nestled below.

“The town gets some of its identity from us,” Grassel said. “In the 1880s it was called Fillmore and they changed it to Mount Angel because of the Abbey.

“We’ll bring people to our town and the town will benefit and the brewery won’t succeed without the town,” Grassel said. “We aren’t part of a vacuum; we are something bigger than ourselves.”

Grassel began hobby brewing at the monastery five years ago. For the past couple years, he has produced for sale a dark beer, Black Habit, and Saint Benedict, a pale ale, using the facilities at Seven Brides Brewing in Silverton.

The Abbey’s own custom-made, five-barrel brewing system has waited in the wings the past two years but is expected to make its debut this spring. They still need to install the siding and roof; finish the tap room and restrooms, install the brewery equipment, fixtures and furniture.

Construction will wrap up in March or April, at which time the Benedictines will commence brewing at their own facility and expanding their commercial repertoire.

Running the show is Grassel and Father Jacob Stronach, who also interns at Seven Brides. Fellow monks will share the work and, for the times monks aren’t available, the brewers hope to hire a few employees in the taproom.

The taproom opens another avenue where the monks can exercise their credo of hospitality. Along those lines the Abbey is also expanding its retreat house – a bigger project than the brewery. Year-round retreats are open to the public and guests are always welcome to Sunday Mass.

The Abbey includes a large seminary and a library whose architecture attracts people from around the world. There’s a museum, gift shop, bookstore and coffee shop. But mostly…

“People just like to come and experience the peace of the Abbey; the peace of the hilltop,” Grassel said. “We hope people come to our taproom to seek and enjoy good beer, but we also want them to experience something of who we are; something of the mystery of what we contemplate daily.

“Everybody’s got a brand; everybody’s got a unique character and our character has to be consistent with who we are as monks.”

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