There's an old saying that "Belgian beers are God's gift to mankind." It's no idle boast. In Europe, especially in Germany and Belgium, beer and religion have been intertwined for centuries -- and not just among the famous Trappists.
Now, a new partnership between Sierra Nevada Brewing and a Northern California Trappist monastery is giving rise to a new abbey ale, one that has been hundreds of years in the making.
More than a thousand years ago, the Catholic Church had embraced beer as a safe, healthy and profitable beverage to serve thirsty pilgrims, as well as the clergy living in their monasteries. Beer was even referred to as "liquid bread" during Lent. By the year 1000, there were as many as 500 monastic breweries across Europe.
The first Trappist order of monks was founded in France in 1098 as the Cistercian Order. But by1664, the order had become too liberal in the eyes of the Abbot of Notre-Dame de la Trappe. So, he created the "Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance," which also took the name Trappist. The COSO continues to this day, with less than 175 monasteries around the world. Because one rule of the order was self-sufficiency, the Trappist monks began building breweries at least as early as 1685.
Seven Trappist breweries
Today, just seven official Trappist breweries remain: six in Belgium and the seventh in the Netherlands. Certified by the International Trappist Association, these are the only breweries allowed to put the "authentic Trappist product" logo on their beers. It's a guarantee that the beer was brewed within the walls of the monastery or in their vicinity. The monastery controls all the decisions about the beer, and the profits must be used to provide for the needs of the community.
The best known -- and most easily found -- hail from Chimay, Orval and Westmalle. Achel, Koningshoeven and Rochefort are also imported to the United States in limited quantity. But Westvleteren can only be bought at the brewery, or at the cafe and visitor's center store across the street from the monastery. You can occasionally find it for sale elsewhere, but those are always gray market goods and very expensive.
But you can't go wrong with a Trappist beer, no matter which monastery you favor. All Trappist beers are very well made, complex and flavorful.
California Trappist beer
Sierra Nevada Brewing is known for its well-balanced Pale Ale and big, hoppy beers like its seasonal Bigfoot Barleywine, Celebration and the new Torpedo IPA. But no matter what type of beer they decide to brew, they tend to go all out. So while Sierra Nevada could make Trappist-style beers inspired by and based on the official ones -- as so many breweries have done quite successfully -- that's just not their style.
Instead, Sierra Nevada Brewing is partnering with a California Trappist monastery, the Abbey of New Clairvaux, one of 17 Cistercian Order monasteries in the United States. It's in Vina, about 20 miles north of Sierra Nevada's brewery in Chico.
It was founded in 1955 on land once owned by Leland Stanford. He bought it in 1881 and named it Vina Ranch, for the wine grapes planted there. Stanford grew 4,000 acres of grapes on the ranch, making it the largest winery and vineyard in the world at that time. It closed after a devastating 1915 fire. In 2000, the monks of New Clairvaux began making wine again.
Beginning next year, the monks will bring back beer, too, although it will not -- at least for now -- be officially sanctioned by the International Trappist Association. For one thing, the beer will be made at Sierra Nevada's brewery, a little too far from the monastery to be considered "in the vicinity."
They'll make limited-edition seasonal beers, which will be called Ovila. The first one will be released in March, and will be a dubbel brewed with Trappist yeast. Then in July, they'll make a saison, they say, to "honor the Monk's dedication to labor in the fields surrounding their abbey." Lastly, a holiday seasonal will come out late in the year and will be a strong quadrupel, "rich with dark fruit flavors and the unique winelike characters of these strong Abbey ales."
According to Bill Manley, of Sierra Nevada Brewing, "This series of three Belgian-style Abbey ales is made in accordance with the centuries-old tradition of the monks. Each beer will only be available for a limited time and will rotate through the seasons."
The monastery will use profits from the beer to fund an amazing project. An early-gothic Cistercian chapter house, the Santa Maria de Ovila, was built in Spain around 1190, and was used by Cistercian monks for almost 800 years. William Randolph Hearst bought it in 1931, and shipped it in pieces to Northern California. The Abbey of New Clairvaux acquired the stones in 1994 and will use the beer profits to begin the painstaking job of rebuilding the 12th century structure stone by stone.