The Monastery of Christ in the Desert, shown in this Oct. 20, 1995 photo,…
Standing in a field a few steps from the banks of the Rio Chama, Berkeley Merchant pulls apart a withered cone to reveal a tiny fleck of bright-yellow powder. He puts it up to his nose and inhales deeply.
"Lupulin," he announces. "That's what it's all about."
Here at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert, black-robed Benedictine monks have planted an assortment of bitter hops to be used in formulating new additions to their line of trademark ales. Lupulin, Merchant explains, is the stuff that gives hops their bite.
Merchant, a retired businessman and an oblate — a lay member of the monastic community — has learned a lot about brewing since he joined the Abbey Beverage Co., one of the monastery's main business ventures, several years ago.
Monks' Ale, a tasty Belgian-style brew known as an enkel, is sold throughout New Mexico, and will soon be shipped to surrounding states.
The monks recently introduced a second style called Monks' Wit, a wheat beer similar to a German hefeweizen, seasoned with coriander and orange peel. Both are brewed and bottled under contract at a commercial brewery, but when a pilot brewery being built on the monastery grounds opens in the spring, the monks will make draft batches of seasonal brews themselves.
The notion of Roman Catholic monks selling beer and ale might strike some as unusual, but the business is a direct outgrowth of the Benedictine motto "ora et labora," a Latin phrase meaning "prayer and work," explains Brother Christian Leisy, a 33-year resident of the monastery who serves as its cellarer — both business manager and chief fundraiser.
St. Benedict decreed that each monastery be self-sufficient in a list of rules he set down in the 6th century that became the standard model for Western monasticism, Leisy says. "We don't receive a paycheck from the Vatican," he says. "We're on our own, sink or swim."
While the Abbey Beverage Co. is believed to be the only monastic brewery in the U.S., monks in European monasteries have been crafting beers and ales since the Middle Ages, for sale and for their own consumption.
The monks at Christ in the Desert face some unusual challenges in making ends meet owing to the remoteness of their home. The monastery, established in 1964, is 13 miles up a gravel road from the nearest highway. It operates off the power grid, its adobe and straw-bale buildings heated mostly by the sun, with electricity supplied by the largest privately owned photovoltaic array in the state.
It is a popular tourist destination, however. Artist Georgia O'Keeffe, who lived nearby, loved and painted the remote Rio Chama canyon, with its tawny sandstone cliffs, and occasionally visited the monastery.
Christ in the Desert has developed a surprising number of business enterprises, both on and off the premises. Monks host overnight guests and religious retreats, operate a gift shop and make handcrafted goods. They even own a Colorado saddle and tack-repair business.
Other U.S. monasteries have been equally enterprising. Our Lady of Guadalupe Trappist Abbey near Lafayette, Ore., has a custom book bindery, a bakery that sells cakes online, a commercial wine storage business and a forestry department that manages the abbey's 1,350-acre property as a sustainable woodland.
In Chicago, the Monastery of the Holy Cross, a Benedictine community affiliated with Christ in the Desert, markets a line of wooden caskets and burial urns and operates a bed-and-breakfast. At the Trappist Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, Ga., monks sell Japanese-style bonsai and pottery.
The Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. announced in August that it was joining with Trappists at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, Calif., to create a Trappist-style abbey ale.
"From the beginning, monks have been involved in commerce," Leisy says. "As the abbot says, it costs a lot to live simply."
Abbey Beverage Co. started in 2005 as a partnership between the Monastery of Christ in the Desert and Our Lady of Guadalupe Abbey, a smaller Benedictine monastery in Pecos, about 90 miles south. A small test brewery was set up in Pecos, and Brad Kraus, a professional brewer and beer judge, was recruited to develop the recipes.
Kraus, a native New Mexican who studied chemistry at Rice University before discovering the joys of crafting his own brew 28 years ago, was familiar with the long history of brewing in Belgian monasteries. He modeled Monks' Ale on the ales that Belgian Trappist monks brew for their own consumption.
Last spring, Christ in the Desert bought out the Pecos abbey's share in the partnership and started building its own pilot brewery. Kraus looks forward to experimenting with new recipes, incorporating some of the hops grown on site.
Kraus, who is not Catholic, finds Christ in the Desert a "peaceful, serene place," adding that his work there "is something I do out of a labor of love more than anything else."
Merchant, a Portland, Ore., entrepreneur who took two technology start-ups public before retiring to Santa Fe with his wife in 2006, says much the same thing. When he can get away from the day-to-day duties of running the beverage company and other monastery ventures, he repairs to Christ in the Desert to work in the hops yard and join the monks in their daily devotions, which start with a 3:20 a.m. wake-up bell.
"There's something about the contemplative nature of the place that replenishes my soul," Merchant says. The monastery currently counts 34 monks as members. Unlike many monastic communities, there is a waiting list to join.
So far, the beverage company has marketed its brews entirely by word of mouth, Merchant says.
Although the business is growing, the monks are content to let it develop at its own pace, Merchant says. "Monks have very different time frames," he says. "They tend to think in 50- or 100-year cycles."