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By Greg Richardson 'The Strategic Monk' -
While Benedictine monks did not invent beer, they have made significant contributions to how we brew today.
Our best understanding is that brewing began over 5,000 years ago in southern Babylonia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. One of the earliest written systems of law is the Code of Hammurabi, a Babylonian king, which includes regulations of the brewing process. By the time of the Pharaohs, beer was a significant part of Egyptian culture. The people who built the pyramids were paid, in part, with beer.
With the collapse of the Roman Empire, monasteries became places where learning was preserved. The Rule of Benedict describes the welcoming hospitality that monasteries were called to offer, and monks brewed beer as part of that hospitality. Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine nun in the 1100s, wrote a number of books, including a text on natural history. She advocated the use of hops, and first used hops in brewing beer.
Greg Richardson 'Strategic Monk' is a Certified Spiritual Director and a lay Oblate connected to New Camaldoli, a Benedictine monastery in Big Sur, California. His services include Spiritual Mentoring, Leadership and Organizational Coaching, and also hosts special 'Days of Reflection' and 'Craft Brewery Pilgramage' events in Southern California. Learn more at
The Paulaner monks arrived at Cloister Neudeck ob der Au in Munich from Italy in
1627, and began brewing beer for their own consumption. The monks developed new methods
of brewing which produced stronger beer. The Abbot became concerned that the strong
brew might be too much of an indulgence for Lent, when the monks refrained from eating
solid food. He sent a sample of the beer to the Vatican and asked for guidance.
It may have been that the cask was tossed and turned on the journey across the Alps, or heated for several weeks in the Italian sun, so that the beer spoiled and became undrinkable. An alternate interpretation is that the Pope and the Cardinals were more accustomed to the taste of wine than the more robust favors of strong beer. For whichever reason, when they read the Abbot's letter and tasted the beer in the cask from Munich, they decided that if the monks were willing to drink it they must be very devout. The Vatican approved the Paulaners' stronger brew for consumption during Lent.
Many people believe that Benedictine monks produce the best beer in the world even
There are seven Trappist monasteries, six in Belgium and one in the Netherlands, that brew beer for commercial sale. Most of these breweries are operated by employees who are not monks themselves, but work under the supervision of a monk from the abbey.
Many beers, because of the historical significance of monks in brewing, have names or logos that include monks and abbeys. Authentic Trappist beers are produced within the walls of a monastery, the monastery determines the policies and provides the means of production, and the profits are primarily intended to provide for the needs of the community or for social services. Beers produced in similar styles are called "Abbey" beers, not "Trappist" beers.
Brewing is a fairly contemplative practice. It takes a lot of patience. You do your best, and then wait for the results to become evident. You wait to see if you were able to bring out the best in the ingredients, and get them to work well together. There is always room for improvement the next time.
I try to recognize and celebrate the monastic aspects of everyday life, including the connections between monks and brewing beer.
Each year I take a Craft Brewery Pilgrimage that makes a monthly visit at a new craft brewery in the area. With other thirsty pilgrims, I explore the rapidly growing craft brewing community in southern California. Great conversation, authentic locations, excellent craft brews, and inspiring time with the people who make craft brewing happen. I learn a valuable lesson about leadership and pilgrimage at each visit, and the hospitality and creativity of the monks who have gone before us continues in our day.