The Monastery of San Benedetto in Monte
We have worked with the Benedictine monks of Norcia to establish
Birra Nursia as a permanent fixture on the dinner tables of discerning
UK beer enthusiasts.
The proceeds of this delicious brew go towards the rebuilding of their
ancient monastery, damaged by Umbria’s historic earthquakes. In this,
they seek to inspire and support the local community around them, so
devastated by the latest quake in 2016.
As the dust settled on the collapsed Western Roman Empire, a child
was born to a distinguished noble family living in the central Italian
town of Nursia. It was 480 A.D. and Italy was ruled by the barbarian
Flavius Odoacer. Sent to Rome for his education, the sensitive young
man was repulsed by the decadence and corruption that had
consumed the once great city.
Leaving the city behind, he eventually settled in a cave near Subiaco
where, away from the chaos of the world, he cultivated a life of
simplicity and prayer, striving for holiness. His reputation led a group
of local monks to appoint him as their superior, however admiration
soon turned to murderous intent when he tried to reform their
comfortable way of life. After escaping an attempted poisoning, he
settled in an ancient villa once owned by Nero where he was joined by
a growing number of young men who felt called to abandon the world
for the spiritual life. Eventually, twelve monasteries would be
established in the region and the young man would come to be known
to us as Saint Benedict of Nursia, patron saint of Europe.
Although Saint Benedict would go on to found Monte Cassino on the
ruins of a pagan temple to Apollo, his birthplace would also become a
place of pilgrimage. At least as far back as written records go (around
the 900's A.D.), monastic life was established in the town with a
Monastery being built over the ruins of his family home. The region
had previously suffered intense upheaval with Goths and Lombards
invading, and many famines and plagues laying waste to the people; in
the ninth century even Saracen invaders made it as far as Nursia.
All of this disruption did not mean however, that the development of
viticulture was held back. In contrast to popular perception of a dark
age, Italy's new Gothic rulers cooperated with the church and monastic
houses in the maintenance and spread of winegrowing. With the onset
of the Carolingian Empire and the renaissance that followed,
widespread education was revived and the arts flourished. Knowledge
was spread through Monastery networks across Europe and Italy
continued to develop in this climate.
Not long before the earliest records of the monastic settlement at
Nursia, the Benedictine monks of the French Abbey of Corbie are first
recorded adding hops to their beer, the first to create a brew that we
would recognise today. From there it began to be introduced as a
practice throughout Europe during the Carolingian period, reaching
Germany and England by the 11th century. Hopped beer had a
significant advantage over the previously used gruit, as it turned out to
be a great preservative allowing the tasty brew to be transported far
and wide throughout Europe.
It was a merry age, with evidence suggesting that monks drank on
average 1.5 litres of ale or wine a day, with nuns not far behind and the
rest of lay society drinking between 600 ml and 1.5 litres per day. Beer
in particular had many uses - being highly calorific it was a sort of
liquid bread, nourishing the labourers in the field and the
hard-working monks, who often would be reduced to one meal a day as
part of their ascetic life.
In an age where it was potentially dangerous to travel long distances,
with bandits and brigands roaming the wilderness, monasteries
offered a network of secure resting spots across the entire continent
where travellers could turn up and expected to be "received as Christ"
as the rule of some Benedict taught. As elsewhere the Monastery in
Nursia would have provided hospital care and education throughout
the medieval period as part of its service to Christ. Throughout this
period, many monasteries became repositories of great learning, often
keeping large libraries and tirelessly creating copies of ancient
manuscripts for future generations to rediscover.
Throughout the medieval period, Umbria was devastated by powerful
earthquakes continuing through to the current day. In 1859 an
earthquake hit the Papal States leading to a restriction on building
structures of more than three floors and mandating certain building
materials and techniques. For this reason Norcia has been able to
maintain a beautiful historical architecture throughout the town.
However, the Napoleonic Wars lead to an era of great instability for
the Church throughout Europe with the Napoleonic Code of 1810
forcing the closure of the monastic community which had lasted in
some form for almost a thousand years.
In 1998 Benedictine life was re-established by Fr. Cassian Folsom,
initially in Rome, followed two years later by an invitation by the
Archbishop of Spoleto-Norcia to take charge of the Basilica of San
Benedetto. The community is careful to live in authentic simplicity
according to the rule of Saint Benedict, turning away from any of the
luxuries which have historically crept in to their austere life. At the
heart of Benedictine life is the singing of the Divine Office, a set of
prayers sung according to an ancient mode of chant. For over three
hours a day, often starting before 3 o'clock in the morning, the monks
rise to raise their voices in the ancient Latin tones, praising God, and
following in the footsteps of innumerable brothers before them.
In obedience to Saint Benedict's admonition that monks should work
to provide themselves with a living with their own hands, in 2012 the
monks turned to the ancient monastic tradition of brewing. The two
brews they developed were carefully designed with the help of a
Belgian Trappist master brewer resulting in beer flowing from the
heritage of well over a thousand years of monastic beer development.
Today, although this beer is produced in small quantities, it is highly
sought after, selling as far as the United States in the West and Taiwan
in the East.
Known as the green heart of Italy, the Umbrian terroir has produced
an exceptionally rich food culture with its sheep's milk cheese,
varieties of prosciutto, sausages and black truffle among the most
well-known products. With this in mind, the monks of Norcia set
out to brew beer whose quality and taste would match these
exceptional culinary offerings. Taking advantage of the rich
monastic heritage, they have more than succeeded, producing a
beer which is highly sought after despite its low volume production.
Recognising this, the monks' "Extra" brew was included in Slow
Food's 2021 Edition of "Beers of Italy", calling it "unmissable".
The Beer Option – Jared Staudt
History of Monasticism: The Eastern Tradition – John Binns
Monasteries and Monastic Orders – Khristina Krüger