UPDATE: Two months after this story was published, another earthquake struck Italy and destroyed the basilica of St. Benedict, according to NPR.
When a powerful earthquake jolted central Italy in the middle of the night this week, the monks of Norcia were already heading to morning prayer. The makers of Birra Nursia monastic beers were among the fortunate who were able to take shelter, while the trembling leveled nearby towns killing hundreds of people.
For these monks, who have worked for over a decade to restore an ancient basilica on the birthplace of St. Benedict, the seismic event has made their task Sisyphean. Remarkably, the modest brew house, which the monks installed in recent years as a tool for building community and financing restorations to the monastery, remains intact. Perhaps it was divine providence, as a spokesman for the monastery suggests, or the brothers’ dedication to produce authentic monastic beer within the walls of the Monastero di San Benedetto (thereby landing the brew house in a safe, subterraneous part of the structure instead of an exterior structure), that saved it.
Many in the region survive throughout the year on revenue from summer tourism, now indefinitely interrupted. With their brew house largely undisturbed, the monks will be able to return to operations after inspections. Little did they know that when they made the decision to distribute Birra Nursia outside the region and abroad, the monks were securing a steadfast market for their beer that has now helped ensure their survival.
One reason the monks of Norcia entered the American beer market is because they, too, are American. Gone to Italy to inhabit and restore an ancient monastery, the monks took up the classic work of brewing and began sending it home in early 2016. “It’s a bit of a circuitous path,” said Father Benedict Nivakoff, O.S.B., in an interview this summer. For them, it’s not just beer but a bridge to building community—their familial past, their expat present, and their evangelical future.
Norcia is different from other medieval walled cities in Italy. It is the birthplace of St. Benedict and his twin sister, St. Scholastica, born in 480. Since the 8th century, worshipers have made pilgrimage to the holy site. When Napoleon exiled monks 200 years ago, the monastery at Norcia lay abandoned, uninhabited until its townspeople petitioned for monks to return and help breathe new life into area. Led by founding prior, Father Cassian Folsom, O.S.B., the Americans showed up in 2000.
When they first arrived, the monks relied heavily on donations from Catholic Americans to rebuild. There was no budget for luxuries, says Fr. Benedict. “Several of us liked good beer but we couldn’t really afford it. Good beer in Italy was expensive and we were poor—we still are but less so.” So they enlisted the help of Brother Francis Davoren who had experience homebrewing from his life in Texas. And so from within and outside the monastery walls, the idea of a brewery circulated.
Brewing would help them fulfill The Rule of Saint Benedict by working to support themselves. “With the idea of a brewery budding in Fr. Cassian, on a whim I suggested the book Brew Like a Monk by Stan Hieronymus. Fr. Cassian read it,” says Br. Francis, and they committed to the idea. The monks visited the Trappist breweries in Belgium, absorbing the wide range of operations from Westvleteren to Chimay.
“In the end we are all monks and so there was a certain unity there even if we are in technically different Orders, we still follow the same monastic Rule of Saint Benedict,” says Br. Francis. It wasn’t just about brewing, but incorporating the practice into monastic life. The monks of Norcia meet for prayer seven times a day. “To see them balancing their work with their life was a good model for how we should move forward with our project,” says Br. Francis. Even monks strive for work-life balance.
In order to start brewing at home, the monks enlisted professional help. Through Hieronymus’ book they found Belgian brewmaster Marc Knops, a layman who has worked for years with Achel Brouwerij. “Marc helped us with selecting equipment, formulating our recipes, and teaching me how to use the equipment,” says Br. Francis. Newly titled “Brewmaster,” Br. Francis began working off a 12-hectoliter system brewing approximately 12-15,000 bottles per month (roughly 1,000 barrels per year).
Once the brewery came online in 2012, the monks courted local drinkers. “There is basically no brewing tradition in Italy,” says Fr. Benedict, “Over the last five years what happened in the U.S. maybe 20 years ago has started in Italy.” Italian palates are less experienced with the spectrum of styles popular in the U.S. Deciding what to brew meant carefully navigating Italian culinary expectations. Blonde ale and Belgian strong ale fit the bill—the monks like them and they’re salable. Fr. Benedict explains: “The blonde beer kind of mimics champagne and those aperitivo drinks that people drink before the meal with the antipasto and the primo; the dark beer sort of mimics red wine—something they could pair with meat and desserts.” Beer, like wine, must find its place at the dining table in Italy.
Born and raised in the U.S., many of the monks of Norcia witnessed firsthand the growing beer market. They knew all along that exporting Birra Nursia could be a valuable venture. In 2015 they secured a distributor, Holiday Wine Cellars, who they were confident could manage their product with care. As of 2016, you can visit the Birra Nursia website, immerse yourself in a moment of monastic life with a video of the brewing operation, and purchase beer (depending on your state). Birra Nursia is also available at Mario Batali’s restaurants in New York. The monks export 40 percent of their beer to America.
It’s not a commercial transaction central to the monk’s endeavor—far from it. Beer provides a powerful tool for connecting with others and bridging divides. For those resistant to evangelization, offering a beer is a way to engage with them: tensions ease, conversations thrive and friendships grow. For loved ones far away, the holy men feel connected despite the ocean between them. By exporting Birra Nursia to the U.S., that connection becomes tangible. “Our friends, our family, are going to get something American-made in Italy, which we think has a great value,” says Fr. Benedict. It has the added effect now, of drawing attention and support for those in need.
As the dust settles over Umbria and the townspeople survey the damage to their homes, businesses and families, Norcia and neighboring towns will have the spiritual leadership and stability of the monks as they work to mend cracks in their structures and their lives. For now the bell tower is silent. But soon the ethereal sounds of the Marian chants from these American monks brewing in Italy will enrich the palazzo again.
Since they began brewing, every bottle of Birra Nursia has read, “Ut laetificet cor.” The brewery’s motto is a reflection of spiritual healing: “May your hearts be gladdened with friends and family.”
Erika Bolden is a freelance writer based in Southern California. Read more at erikabolden.com.
NOTE: If you would like to help the Norcia monastic community rebuild, please consider buying beer. You can also donate directly to the monastery to help with repairs. Stay apprised of the situation here.