You, Too, Can Brew Like a Monk | Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine
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You, Too, Can Brew Like a Monk

Just follow the example of the monks at Mount Angel Abbey and ask yourself these nine questions before you tackle your first abbey-style beer.

Stan Hieronymus April 05, 2017

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Father Martin Grassel brews beer in his home. He lives in a monastery.

At the outset, he was simply making homebrew. He produced his first 5-gallon batch in the kitchen of the retreat house at Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon with used equipment that somebody had given him. Now he looks forward to brewing 5-barrel batches for the newest American abbey brewery. That won’t be homebrew.

Benedictine Brewery expects to begin selling beer brewed by the monks in summer 2016. Father Martin and Chris Jones, the director of enterprises who helps him brew on the pilot system the monastery purchased, continue to work on recipes while waiting for a new brewery building to be finished. The original plan was to install a 5-barrel brewhouse in a vacant part of the monastery. However, one location after another proved to be unsuitable. During the summer, Jones took bids for constructing a brewery on land across from the abbey.

“[We decided that] we’re just going to do this ourselves. There [aren’t] going to be any partners,” Farther Martin said some time after the monks voted in 2012 to start the brewery. “The whole vision will be ours.” And the work as well.

Monks at Mount Angel will make beer for the same reason that monks at other monasteries oversee—sometimes actually brewing, often not—production of beer within the walls of their abbeys. They live by the rule of Saint Benedict, written about A.D. 530. It calls on monks to be self-sufficient through their own labor. But at Mount Angel, what began as a revenue enterprise evolved into something more.

“It quickly became something for the community,” Father Martin says. The monks did not simply vote on whether to start a brewery. They tasted commercial beers and talked about the flavors they liked, or didn’t. They eventually helped pick the yeast Benedictine Brewery will use in all its beer. Some sat in on meetings with Brand Navigation, an agency that created a message and design that represents the monastery as well as the beers.

“[The project] went in another direction. We began to see the outreach potential,” Father Martin continues, “if we could have our product with our values on the label, telling our story.”

He pauses for an emotional but not awkward moment. “When you see a holy image on a beer bottle, there is more here than beer,” he says, his voice still unsteady. “That’s something you want to do, to get your values out there. That is a great thing. It is really us. Things like that happened with the project to energize our whole community.”

The label of Black Habit Dark Ale, for instance, describes the monks’ basic attire, black to signify that a monk has died to this world to live with Christ. It was the first recipe developed and will be one of the core beers. The monks received help from the Oregon State University fermentation science program and professional brewers in Portland—most particularly Alex Ganum, Upright Brewing’s owner and head brewer—but the questions they asked themselves are the ones any brewer who wants to make abbey-style beer should ask.

1. Which Yeast?

Trappist is not a beer style, but an appellation, indicating that a beer is brewed under the supervision of Trappist monks. Although Mount Angel Abbey is not a Trappist monastery and was founded in 1882 by Swiss monks, its members understand that consumers expect a beer with flavor characteristics like those apparent in Trappist and abbey beers. They put considerable effort into choosing their yeast, beginning by tasting a wide range of beers. They next sampled test batches, some pale and others dark, brewed with different strains (sourced from Trappist abbeys such as Westmalle and Chimay, as well as other Belgian breweries, such as Brasserie Achouffe) before choosing one to use in their brewery. It is Belgian in origin, commercially available, and will be a cornerstone for all the monastery beers. As a homebrewer, you could consider Wyeast 3787/White Labs WLP530 (Westmalle), Wyeast 1214/White Labs WLP500 (Chimay), or Wyeast 3522/White Labs WLP550 (Achouffe).

2. How Strong?

Black Habit starts at 17°P (1.070) and finishes between 2.2 and 2.5°P (1.009–1.010). A mark of Trappist beers, more so even than abbey beers, is attenuation. The BJCP guidelines provide parameters, but a brewer should remember that a beer that begins at the top end of the scale for original gravity and ends at the low end for final gravity will likely contain too much alcohol by volume (ABV).

3. What Grains and Color?

Trappist-brewed beers start with Pilsner malt at the base. Black Habit is made with 2-row (pale-ale malt), Vienna, flaked barley, crystal 80 and 120, roasted barley, and black malt. For dark beers, a handy rule of thumb is to limit malts darker than 40°L to 7 percent of the grist.

4. Step Mash or Single Temperature?

Good attenuation begins in the mash tun. Trappist brewers typically conduct a four-step infusion mash, with steps at 135°F (57°C), 145°F (63°C), 165°F (74°C), and 172°F (78°C) being common. An alternative is to do a long conversion at about 146°F (63°C). Black Habit is mashed a bit warmer, in the low-150s Fahrenheit (mid-60s Celsius).

5. How Much Sugar?

Sugar accounts for a modest 7.5 percent of the fermentables in Black Habit. Trappist brewers use sugar to boost ABV without increasing body. In some cases, sugar—basic table sugar will do—may account for more than 20 percent of fermentables, but 10 to 15 percent is more typical.

6. How Much Hops and Which Ones?

Hops bitterness plays a modest role in most monastery beers (Westvleteren Blond and Orval are notable exceptions). At monastery breweries, the bitterness ratio (BU:GU ratio) is most often 1:2 or less—even a lot less—but the beers would not be the same without aroma and flavor from European so-called noble hops. Monks at Mount Angel own hundreds of acres of hops land surrounding the brewery. In the past, they tended to the hops themselves, picking and processing them. Now they lease out the land, but they are intent on using Oregon hops, preferably grown on their land. Black Habit targets 23–27 IBUs, most of the bitterness coming from an addition of Liberty, or a similar hops, in the second half of the boil. Willamette hops at knockout and in the hopback provide most of the aroma and flavor.

7. What Temperature?

Jones and Father Martin continue to experiment with fermentation temperatures for Black Habit and other test batches. They’ve brewed some batches holding the temperature to 68°F (20°C), others in the mid-70s Fahrenheit (low-20s Celsius). They have let it rise on its own, reaching 81°F (27°C). What they’ve seen is that most of the fermentation takes place in two to three days. Trappist brewers usually pitch in the mid-60s Fahrenheit (high-teens Celsius) and let the temperatures generated by fermentation rise into the 70s Fahrenheit (20s Celsius), or even 80s Fahrenheit (high-20s Celsius). By starting low they assure that most of the fermentation will be complete at lower temperatures.

8. How Long Must I Wait?

After primary fermentation, Black Habit spends a few days at 48°F (9°C), then two weeks at 34°F (1°C). Practices vary at Trappist breweries. At Rochefort, beer conditions only three days at 46°F (8°C) after primary fermentation and before bottling. At Westmalle, however, secondary lasts three weeks at 46°F (8°C). At Achel, beer lagers three to four weeks at 32°F (0°C).

9. What’s My Target Carbonation?

All Benedictine Brewery beers will be bottle-conditioned and should contain about 3.5 volumes of CO2. Likewise, Trappist beers are bottle-conditioned at similar levels of carbonation, much higher than most others, with the notable exception of German weisse beers. Assuring the pour is effervescent might be the last step for a brewer, but the pour itself is the first step for a drinker.

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Have you brewed this recipe? What did you think?