Inside Mt. Angel Abbey’s Benedictine Brewery and St. Michael Taproom

“What’s the rush, we live forever!” is a saying that’s caught on at Mt. Angel’s Abbey Monastery and Seminary as a favorite motto coined by Fr. Martin Grassel. It also sums up the slow, plodding, yet thoughtful build up to the monks constructing and opening their own brewery and taproom called Benedictine Brewery. Ever since word got out that Oregon was getting its own monastic brewery four years ago, fans have been waiting in anticipation for a grand opening that will happen later this month.

Founded by Benedictine monks from the Abbey of Engelberg in Switzerland in 1882, the Mt. Angel monks will follow in a 1,500 year old tradition of craft brewing. One of the first things to know is that although the Benedictine Brewery is one of only three monastic breweries in the United States, it is not a “Trappist” brewery. Famous the world over, there are only eleven Trappist breweries in the world and while both the Trappists and the Benedictines are Catholic and follow the Rule of Saint Benedict. The difference is Trappists are of the “Cistercian Order” while the Benedictines are autonomous and known as the black monks under the “Order of Saint Benedict.” The Trappists are also vegetarians, as far as they do not eat meat from any “four-footed animals,” while the Benedictines are actively working on bringing cattle back to Mt. Angel that they can feed spent grain from the brewery and eventually serve meat from the animals raised on the land. The Trappist breweries also are required to have brewing operations closely overseen by monks, while many other abbeys contract out the brewing operations. Benedictine Brewery falls more into the former.

“We are monks brewing beer in Oregon. We are not monks hiring people to brew beer in Oregon,” says Fr. Martin Grassel. “You expect authenticity. We want to be real.”

Grassel is heading up the Mt. Angel Abbey’s Benedictine Brewery as its head brewer and general manager. Grassel has been with the monastery since 1995. When not concocting recipes and brewing beer, Grassel is the Procurator (CFO) of the Abbey, overseeing finances.

Fr. Martin Grassel with the bell of St. Michael

Grassel started homebrewing in college after discovering the forefather of Trappist beer, La Trappe, while in France. Before that he did not drink beer and didn’t really come to appreciate it until he had a Black Butte Porter from Deschutes Brewery at an event in Oregon. After a colleague offered him a book on homebrewing, Grassel became transfixed with the art of brewing and becoming hands on with the ingredients and process, an experience he hadn’t had since working as an engineer before entering the seminary. Grassel had been homebrewing on a small 10 gallon scale at the monastery for the last few years and serving it to the monks, but at the urging of locals he considered the idea of opening a true production brewery. Part of Grassel’s job is to oversee the brewery’s finances, where once they farmed their own lands they have long since moved beyond it. Finding new revenue streams for the abbey was difficult, but with the explosion of craft beer in the United States, it seemed like there was an opportunity.

Mt. Angel Abbey monastery

The Swiss monks who founded Mt. Angel Abbey were investors in property and land. They planted hops for brewing all the way back in 1882 and at one time oversaw all the crops themselves; now they have about 700 acres under their ownership, some of which is farmed by Valley Hops. The Benedictine Brewery and its taproom sit on the lower, south side of the hill with a view to the valley and hop fields just across the road. Sipping beer off the small enclosed patio up a grassy knoll is even more pleasurable, as the view of the occasional tractor pulling loads of freshly picked hops from the farm rolls by. An incredible amount of the key ingredients in the Benedictine Brewery come from the mountain and the city below, from the hops grown on their own farmland to the timber used from their tree farm to build their new brewery and taproom.

The monks and Grassel have dubbed their brewery tasting room St. Michael Taproom after the archangel Michael. A wood carving of St. Michael hangs at the far end of the taproom and the medal of St. Benedict is cut into the legs of the taproom tables. Grassel has restored a church bell that will be hung next to the carving and rung at the opening of the taproom in honor of St. Michael. It’s a reminder that everything the monks do is in service to the lord, but the taproom in particular seems to be about the community most of all.

“We want people to be able to have the elusive monastic experience,” says Grassel. “People used to stay at monasteries; you had food, drink and hospitality, this is a way to do that.”

Grassel notes that the town they call home existed before the monastery, but citizens later voted to change the name to Mt. Angel in honor of the abbey. Mt. Angel Abbey Monastery has invested in the town in land, business and agriculture and yet you can tell that it digs at Grassel a little bit that the monks don’t actually interact much with the community, noting that you don’t exactly see monks out on the town and that Mt. Angel does not even have it’s own grocery store. The St. Michael Taproom is a way for the monks to give back by drawing tourists to town to try the beer and spend their money at local business. Grassel also notes that the taproom “provides a new opportunity to mingle with us.” Though the taproom won’t be run by monks but by manager Jenny Baxter, monks will help out like volunteer pouring in exchange for free beer or intern in the brewery. It’s clear already that they may have a hard time keeping up with production on their small 5 barrel brewhouse from the now defunct Metalcraft Fabrication. The brewery only has three fermentation tanks and no bright tanks. Grassel has to split his time at the brewery with regular day-to-day activities as the CFO of the abbey and often only has a few hours a day for the brewery. They have brought in brewer and consultant Dave Fleming to help in production until the monks have things dialed in. Fr. Jacob Stronach, O.S.B. has already been interning in the brewery and learning the trade.

Mt. Angel Abbey director of enterprise Chris Jones has long been a shepherd of the Benedictine Brewery project as well. As a fan of craft beer, he and Grassel were involved in many of the earliest homebrews that sowed the seeds for a commercial brewing operation. While the monks may lead a fairly solitary life, they are well researched and casually drop knowledge of the beers of Belgium to inspirational breweries like Allagash and Deschutes and their locals like Santiam and Vagabond. The breadth of styles that will be made at Benedictine Brewery are not straight abbey styles and the ones that they do make in Belgian-style have a pacific northwest twist. The three core ales so far are Haustus (a Belgian Pale Ale), Saison and the best-seller ,Black Habit (Belgian-style Dark Ale). The monks are playing with regular small batch brewing where other monks at the monastery can try their hands at recipes. One of the big hits has been a Tripel, and they also have their eyes on a Cascadian Dark Ale and a Dubbel.

One of the new beers that will be on draft at the taproom when it opens is the brewery’s first lager, a Helles. Lagered for about two months, this beer was actually brewed at Seven Brides Brewing in Silverton and came out nice and refreshing, bready and not hoppy, clean and light but pretty full bodied for the style. I think it could become their best seller if they can keep up with production, which could be a serious issue with the already smallish new facility. It’s all part of the plan to stay small and draw people to them, rather than vice versa. In that plan, they will do only selective distribution to special accounts and events and expressed interest in trading kegs with breweries they admire. Future plans do include barrels and perhaps even some wild/mixed fermentation ales but only after they have mastered the brewhouse and traditional ales says Grassel. They already have an Imperial Stout called “Dark Knight” aging in a variety of different barrels that they hope to blend and release in the future.

Benedictine Brewery and St. Michael Taproom (400 Humpert Lane NE, Mt. Angel, OR) will soft open for the Mt. Angel Oktoberfest on September 13-16th with limited hours of noon to 5pm and just their primary flagship beers on tap. They will celebrate their Grand Opening the weekend of September 22nd and 23rd and be open noon to 8pm each day. The monks do plan to be open to all-ages, serve non-alcoholic drinks, cider and wine and have local food options prepared outside from the likes of Glockenspiel.

Fall Hours start the weekend after the Grand Opening

Monday – Closed

Tuesday – Closed

Wednesday  2-7pm

Thursday  2-7pm

Friday  1-8pm

Saturday 1-8pm

Sunday 11-5pm

Follow the Benedictine Brewery on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/BenedictineBrewery/

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: SamuraiArtist@NewSchoolBeer.com

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