Brewing with Monks: A Day at the Mt. Angel Abbey

A few weekends ago the monks of the Mt. Angel Benedictine Brewery released their first beer for public consumption via a dock sale to the public and were met with a resounding demand. It turns out people love beer and are especially interested in beer from a monastery, likely because of those famous Belgian brewers of monastic traditions. Theis raises the question of whether a Belgian-esque black ale tastes any better because it was created by monks, even if it was brewed in Portland but bottled and released at the monastery gift shop. I think if you asked the two men who are largely behind the Benedictine Brewery–Chris Jones and Father Martin Grassel–I think they would probably say ‘no.’ But during my recent visit to the Mt. Angel Abbey I found a strict dedication to perfection. No matter the cost, or–more importantly–the amount of time it takes, they are in no rush to move product out the doo, and perhaps this is the key to what makes abbey breweries so great at what they do.

I had never been to the Mt. Angel Abbey, and I admittedly have little knowledge of the inner workings of monasteries such as this. I was thus fascinated by the monks’ lifestyle and beautiful campus. Situated on top of a large hill, the abbey has impressive buildings for students, monks, guest houses, and more, all separated by a partially open, tree-lined grass field. It’s a beautiful field for a game of disc golf, sun bathing, or just reading a book. The views of surrounding farmland and downtown Mt. Angel are also astounding. Surrounding the monastery’s more accomplished features are abandoned pig barns, old fortresses, and unused farmland. At one time the monks were expected to grow their own vegetables, raise their own animals, and use water from their own well, while also turning a profit, but more modern laws have put an end to their total self-sufficieny. Nevertheless, the monks still own a lot of farmland that they lease to local farmers for use, and among the the crops are hop fields.

There are currently about 37 acres of hops growing along the base of the abbey’s land, with plans to expand to 300 acres. The frams already have a nice variety going that will allow some versatility in the beers the Benedictine Brewery will make from all homegrown hops varieites like Willamette, Liberty, Chinook, and Bravo.

Keeping with traditions, communications director Chris Jones (not a monk)–who first came up with the idea to start a brewery–and Father Grassel have taken the lead on brewing operations with a vision that nods to both Belgian Abbey brewing traditions and American west coast beer. So those expecting straight up styles like Belgian singles, dubbels, and tripels will find something a bit different being made from mostly local ingredients. The brewers plan to tone down the Belgian yeast character (though they have now settled on a mild Belgian yeast strain) and get away from banana and bubblegum phenolics, while slightly playing up the hops. Unlike their European counterparts, the monks of Mt. Angel are less interested in classical styles of beer, and I got a feeling that if they did not need to classify the beer in styles that they would not. With that in mind, what they are going for seems to fall most closely into the farmhouse ale category. Like any good farmhouse or monastery, the monks have a local cat that roams around the campus and offices and apparently does not like to be left out of brewery operations as well.

If you were not one of the lucky group who lined up for the one-day dock sale a few weekends ago to try the brewery’s first official outing, “Black Habit Dark Ale,” here is what you might have tasted: a slightly sweet cross between an America black ale and Belgian strong dark ale, with a dry finish. It pours a nice dark mahogany with great head retention, average carbonation, and ruby highlights. It has a pretty light body for a beer of nearly 8% ABV, and in addition to the expected maltier characteristics, some Belgian esters of maraschino cherry and dark plums add depth, but are subtle enough to not overtake the clean crispness of the beer. The brewers have successfully veered the esters away from banana and bubblegum for a more subdued, spicy Belgian yeast character and a noticeably hop edge on the finish. It’s super drinkable and quaffable for a beer of this kind.

Sadly, the old stone building on the Abbey campus that now houses the homebrewing (and pottery) facilities will not be able to make the structural permits to become the actual brewery and tasting room. Still, the farmhouse where it will now be located has the benefit of being attached to the original home of the Traeger Grill inventor in a huge modern bar that is not now in use. Its benefits include tons of space, its own parking, room for a tasting room and possibly a beer garden, and a nice view of the hop fields just across the way. A brand new 5-barrel, 3-vessel brewhouse has already been fabricated in Portland by Metalcraft, and the monks will be accepting delivery soon before they begin production in 8-9 months. In the meantime they are busy brewing test batches, sampling both Belgian and northwest beers, and dialing in their own recipes to get exactly the flavor characteristics they want.

Did you miss your chance to pick up bottles of the Black Habit Dark Ale? There is still a little left and they will be selling it at the upcoming Bach Festival at the abbey.

43rd Annual Abbey Bach Festival

Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, July 23, 24 and 25, 2014

Samurai Artist
Samurai Artist

Founder of The New School and most frequent contributor Ezra Johnson-Greenough has worked in the craft beer industry for almost 10 years, doing everything from illustrating beer labels to bartending at renowned beer bars and breweries like Belmont Station, Apex, Laurelwood and Upright Brewing. He has also had a hand in creating events like the Portland Fruit Beer Festival, Portland Beer Week, and the Brewing up Cocktails series. He is available for freelance consultation in marketing, events, graphic design and branding. Contact: