A couple of years ago, I did a little research into the Lenten practice of monks of the 17th Century. Thirsty as I am, I focused on the origin story of the doppelbock style of beer. Legend has it that monks from Munich developed the beer for more nutrition during their liquid-only fasts during Lent. Was that even possible? Yes. I learned that it was.
As I prepared for the project, during my fast and in subsequent months, I’ve had interactions with a number of clergy, including a pair of monks. Both found my project interesting and both confirmed that this practice no longer takes place. “We don’t do without; we do with less,” said Brother Thomas of Conception Abbey in Northwest Missouri.
But, with more specifics, what’s it like today for a fulltime monk? For answers, I turned to Brother Francis Davoren of Monastero San Benedetto in Italy. Raised in Dallas, Texas and possessing an interest and affection for craft beer, Brother Francis is the Head Brewmonk of Birra Nursia, which produces a pair of beers: a light and buoyant “blond” beer and a deep and rich “extra.”
Beautifully, any profits derived from the sale of these beers is “used to support the work of prayer and witness of God, which is the monk’s duty. Naturally this includes giving a warm welcome pilgrims and poor, who are assured of finding hospitality at the monk’s door, as well as contributions to the cultural and spiritual growth of the town.” Just like the good, old days.
Without further delay, let’s ask Brother Francis a few questions:
BR. FRANCIS: I heard about your Lenten adventure and thought it was pretty cool sounding. Although when I thought about it, I wondered if I would be sick of beer by the end of Lent if I did that. I’ve also been interested in the relationships between beer and monks. Chimay Red was what “converted” me to craft beer, and of course having an interest in being a monk helped as well.
BREWVANA: Where do your beer preferences lie?
BR. FRANCIS: I used to love dopplebocks because I really didn’t like hops too much. But then about six years ago I think I had the infamous “lupulin threshold shift” and started going for hoppier and hoppier beers. Still my favorite style is the Russian Imperial Stout (oh how I wish I could get Old Rasputin over here!), but dopplebocks, for a while at least, seemed too malty. I haven’t had one in awhile though, so I wonder what I’d think of it now. Seems like my beer tastes have changed quite a bit over the years. I’m no beer-tasting expert by any means, but I guess just lots of practice over the years has helped me understand things better.
BREWVANA: You’re the “Head Brewmonk” at Birra Nursia. Tell us about your brewing background:
BR. FRANCIS: I am the new kid on the block regarding brewing and I feel like a total noob. My beer background: I didn’t start drinking beer until I was 21 … seriously (I’m 40 now)! Growing up in the South, all you saw was the usual BMC’s, and my family really wasn’t into alcohol. There was the occasional wine for special occasions, but that was about it. In college I was introduced to Guinness, which was tolerable, and gave me a way to have something if friends wanted to go out drinking. One night I went to a pub that had a wall of taps and tons of beers in the bottle. I got my usual Guinness and something about it was really off. So I grabbed the beer menu and noticed “Trappist” beers. That made me curious since I was looking at monastic life. I ordered a Chimay Red and it was like the proverbial scales fell from my eyes. Tasty beer really did exist! After that, there was no looking back. I started trying everything. Eventually my best friend got into homebrewing. I would sometimes help him, but never really paid attention to the process … just the results.
BREWVANA: How did you become Head Brewmonk at the monastery?
BR. FRANCIS: Eventually I came to the monastery, and the idea of a brewery came up. Given my beer (tasting) background, I took a hearty interest in it. I got permission to start homebrewing, although I had to do it on my free time, and in a monastery, there isn’t a lot of that. So I began doing research on brewing and dabbled in homebrewing while the brewery project moved along. By the time we actually got the brewery up, I had a whopping seven homebrews under my belt: five kit beers and two extract batches. So … my first all-grain … was on our real brewing system. Thankfully the brewmaster who has taught me is the Belgian brewer Marc Knops. Great teacher, brewmaster, and friend. I owe all my brewing accomplishments to him.
BREWVANA: What’s been the reception to your beers?
BR. FRANCIS: Given that there is only one other monastery in Italy that brews beer (Cascinazza), we are certainly facing a challenge. But so far Italians have been very receptive to our beer. Thankfully they have a very artisanal and local mentality here.
BREWVANA: What does mealtime look like at the monastery? And what about Lent, specifically?
BR. FRANCIS: We try to follow the monastic fast described by Saint Benedict in his rule. So, depending on the time of the year, we have different meal schedules.”
Normally we have the following:
From Easter to Pentecost we have a normal meal schedule: breakfast in the morning, lunch around 1 p.m., and dinner around 6:30 p.m.
From Pentecost to Sept. 14, we have the above schedule on all days but Wednesday and Friday. On those days we have breakfast in the morning, lunch around 3 p.m., and no dinner.
From Sept. 14 until Lent, we have the same fasting schedule as above: breakfast in the morning, and lunch around 3 p.m., no dinner. Of course we do go back to the Easter schedule for the time from Christmas to Epiphany.
Then from Lent until Easter, we have breakfast in the morning, then our only meal is at 5:30 p.m.
On any 1st or 2nd class feast, we follow the Easter to Pentecost schedule for the day no matter what time of the year it is.
Sundays are always the same too: breakfast in the morning, lunch around 1:30 p.m., and dinner around 6:30 p.m.
Also, breakfast is optional on all days. We also only eat meat on Christmas, Holy Thursday, Easter and Thanksgiving.
Typically monasteries take on a more penitential spirit during Lent, but given the nature of Benedictine monasticism, each house will have its own customs. Trappists and Cistercians have a bit more uniform organization, whereas Benedictines are grouped by different “confederations” usually based along the lines of motherhouses and daughterhouses, or geographical regions or language.
BREWVANA: Aside from the scaled back diet, are there other Lenten practices that you keep?
BR. FRANCIS: As for our other Lenten practices, each monk selects one penance under each of the categories of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and submits that to superior for approval just like in the Rule of Saint Benedict. So, for example, a monk could choose to say a rosary a day, not add sugar to his coffee during Lent, and clean the common bathrooms once a week on his own. We also have to a Lenten book to read, a choice we make and submit to the superior for approval.
BREWVANA: What about beer in your everyday life?
BR. FRANCIS: Regarding beer in our monastery, we typically only have it at dinner on 1st or 2nd class feasts. At lunch and dinner any time we have table wine, since we’re in Italy. I personally don’t find it that high quality, so we might get wine at meals, but it is more of a penance for me to drink it. LOL. We do get a nicer wine on feast days though.
BREWVANA: That’s today. What do you know of “yesteryear?”
BR. FRANCIS: In the early monastic life (ie Egyptian desert fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries), they never had breakfast so a “monastic fast” was not eating until None (the 9th hour of the day) which is around 3 p.m. On penitential days, this fast was extended to sundown. This is why Saint Benedict wrote his rule as he did. He was greatly influenced by the writings of Saint John Cassian, who himself spent time in the Egyptian desert learning about the monastic life there. He then “imported” it the Western Roman Empire where it had a great influence on western monasticism.
BREWVANA: Tell us about the history of Monastero San Benedetto.
BR. FRANCIS: As for 17th century monastic practices, we don’t really have anything since our community has only been here since 2000. We “refounded” the monastery here at the birthplace of Saint Benedict in 2000. There had been a monastery here for centuries but once Napoleon suppressed the religious orders in Italy and kicked out the Benedictines from the monastery here, there had not been monks here for almost 200 years.
Big thanks to Brother Francis for taking the time to correspond with me over the course of the last few weeks/months.