Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Donations from brewery help to rebuild Trappist monastery in California

Do not drink wine nor strong drink, thou, nor thy sons with thee, when ye go into the tabernacle of the congregation, lest ye die: it shall be a statute for ever throughout your generations: Leviticus 10:9

Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging: and whosoever is deceived thereby is not wise. Proverbs 20:1

As reported by Lessley Anderson of the San Francisco Chronicle, December 22, 2012:

Vina, Tehama County - At this time of year, it's worth thinking of the Trappists. A strict order of Roman Catholics, they follow the rule of their patron St. Benedict, who believed the cloisters should be self-sufficient through their own industry - which, traditionally, includes making beer and wine.

That's what brought Scott Jennings, head brewer for research and development at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., to venture to Belgium. A trim, redheaded former ski bum who grins easily and thinks a lot of things are "rad," Jennings turns very serious when he talks about this research trip.

"We were at Orval, and we were walking through this monastery. These beautiful springs were coming out of the ground, the monks are there, and you could feel the history. I've never been so inspired in my entire life."

The Orval monastery is one of the six Trappist abbeys in Belgium famous for its beer. Like other Trappist monasteries, they sell beer to a public that can't get enough. Westvleteran XII, for instance, considered by some to be the best beer in the world, was until this December only available for purchase at the St. Sixtus Abbey itself.

Jennings' trip led to one of Sierra Nevada's most unusual projects: the Ovila Abbey beers, an effort to match the free spirit of California craft brewing with the solemnity of the Trappists.

Up the highway from Sierra Nevada's headquarters in Chico is the Abbey of New Clairvaux - a Cistercian, or Trappist, monastery located in the hamlet of Vina. In the 1990s, the abbot approached Sierra Nevada for donations to help rebuild a 16th century monastery on its grounds.

Quirky history

The project had an unusual history. The ruined monastery, called the Santa Maria de Ovila, was a Trappist abbey originally located in Spain and purchased by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in the 1930s. (The Chronicle is owned by the Hearst Corp.)

Hearst shipped it back in parts to the United States to use in a grand estate that he hoped would rival San Simeon, but the stones were never used. In 1994, the Abbey of New Clairvaux obtained the ruins and began raising money for its restoration.

Sierra Nevada founder and owner Ken Grossman suggested that the monks and the brewery do a beer project together and donate a portion of proceeds to the building project. New Clairvaux already produced well-regarded wines from its vineyards.

To prepare for the project, Jennings and Sierra Nevada's head brewer, Steve Dresler, went to five Belgian monasteries with New Clairvaux's then-abbott, Father Thomas X. Davis. The monk helped secure entry to the monasteries, access that ordinary beer tourists don't get.

"While we're geeking out on beer, taking pictures of the lauter tuns, Father Thomas would go off for meetings and prayer. For him it was a spiritual trip," Dresler says. "But I guess for us it was, too."

When they returned, Jennings and Dresler created four new beers in classic Belgian styles - a dubbel, saison, quad and golden ale. Because of the number of controls and equipment needed for brewing, Sierra Nevada ended up brewing the beer itself, with the monks giving their blessings rather than chipping in. Sierra Nevada called the beers Ovila in homage to the once-ruined monastery.

Sierra Nevada is traditionally known for hop-forward flavor, and these less hoppy, yeast-driven styles proved challenging.

The brewers spent a lot of time on the saison, for instance, a style characterized by aromatic, spicy yeast, trying to find just the right culture. They finally found it in an unlikely spot: a bottle of homebrew from a friend who had cultured his yeast from a small Belgian farmhouse beer whose yeast strain isn't available to commercial brewers.

The Ovila Saison is earthy, spicy and extremely dry. The other beers, too, are rich in body, with layers of aroma and flavor but with a very dry finish that keeps them from being cloying.

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