So, as it turns out, the Belgians don’t have a monopoly on monks who make their own beer—and commercialize it. There’s a place right on American soil where hop-and-malt-minded pilgrims can connect with the brewing process in all its holy glory.
Welcome to Abiquiu, New Mexico, a town known mostly for Bode’s General store, and old-school—we’re talking founded-in-1893 old school—provider of basic day-to-day necessities, as well as a cornucopia of not-so-necessary oddities and curiosities. Oh, and there was a third-season episode of “Breaking Bad” titled after the town.
It’s also home to the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert where the brothers brew and market their product—with the help of a nearby contract brewer—under the name Abbey Beverage Co.
The Benedictine brothers actually control an 84 percent stake in Abbey Beverage through a separate entity, St. Luke’s Corporation. Its flagship 5.1 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) Monks’ Ale, which the brewery bills as an Abbey single—though I’d say the closest style approximation would be a Belgian amber along the lines of De Koninck—has been available in its home state since late 2005. Five years later it introduced Monks’ Wit, a Belgian-style white ale clocking in at the same ABV. It’s a pretty smart style for those characteristically dry Southwestern summers.
Abbey Beverage has been able to expand its distribution beyond New Mexico borders into Arizona, Colorado, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Eastern Pennsylvania—Philly is, after all one of the top five best beer cities in the country—and Texas. It’s actually carried by wholesaling behemoth Ben E. Keith in the Lone Star State, so it’s in pretty capable hands there.
Monks have been tied to brewing for the better part of a millennium (if not longer) and those in the craft beer world, whether they be brewers, publicans or drinkers (myself included), have played some role in romanticizing that link. Hell, even the name of the bar in Beerituality was “Abbey Normal” (yes, a “Young Frankenstein” reference) and the heroes were monks.
Tens of thousands of beer geeks make a pilgrimage to the BeNeLux countries to get as close to one, a few or all of the seven still-brewing Trappist monasteries in Belgium and the Netherlands. Six are in the former and one is in the latter country.
Back in the day, the beer-making activities were primarily for the brotherhood’s nourishment and survival through the punishing winters. In these more modern times it provides financial support to help keep their sacred sanctuaries up and running smoothly.
One of the most famous beer bars in the U.S., in Philadelphia to be precise, is called Monk’s for good reason. It’s the same reason San Diego-area craft producer Port Brewing Co. has a piously themed line called The Lost Abbey. And if you need further evidence of this link, I urge you to visit the Burp Castle pub in New York’s East Village. But when you’re there, don’t talk too loudly. You’ll get shushed by the staff, and quite possibly other drinkers, who strictly enforce the abbey-esque silence of the monastic bar.
Now, this isn’t the type of place you can just drop in on. If you’re planning a Southwestern holiday and you want to add monastic brewing to your itinerary, expect to devote the better part of a day to it. It’s not that you’ll be there all day. You’ll spend a good three or so hours just getting to it. You’ll more than likely be staying in either Santa Fe or Albuquerque. Either way, you’re going to want to pack snacks for the ride. And if you’re flying in, you’re going to need a rental car. Unless you want to walk, which would take you about a week. (Good luck with that.)
And here’s a pro tip: Don’t make the mistake my wife and I did at the rental counter.
When I’m traveling I try to be as thrifty as possible when it comes to aspects of the trip that aren’t about eating or drinking. I’ve never been a “car person.” At home I drive a 2004 Honda Civic, with all of the various and sundry dings and scratches that come with parking on an urban street seven days a week. To me, a motor vehicle is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Therefore, when I’m renting, I’m not easily swayed by the rental agent trying to upsell me on something sexier or roomier. I like compacts. They’re much cheaper to gas up.
But if you try to rent a compact in New Mexico, you’re very likely to get a fairly bemused (and rather judgmental) look from the rental agent—and understandably so.
The New Mexico highways can get rather hilly and once you’re on them you’ll immediately see the appeal of a four-wheel-drive vehicle of some sort. Even when it’s not ski season—which it wasn’t during my visit—those little economy numbers chug their way up inclines like an asthmatic donkey.
And with the arid climate and all, sometimes there will be massive plumes of smoke to drive through, thanks to wild fires (they were particularly bad during the summer of our visit). So expect to be driving extra slow because the visibility in such circumstances often can be close to zero.
But that, unfortunately, is the easy part because you’ll be driving on actual highways. The final 13 miles of the journey to the monastery is on a dirt road—and I use the term “road” almost ironically.
The first few thousand feet or so on the dusty terrain isn’t too much of a challenge. You’ll be cruising comfortably at about 30 miles per hour, stopping every couple hundred feet to snap photos of the truly spectacular landscape.
What is it that makes the vistas so breathtaking? Could it be the fact that you’re in the mountains? Could that be the same reason that things are about to get really scary?
Indeed. After you pass the flat, wide-open segment of the drive, the journey suddenly morphs into a spiraling nightmare around the edges of peaks of varying heights with no guardrails. Thirty-five mph suddenly became a white-knuckled 7 mph, with frequent stops—not to take pictures of the natural Southwestern splendor, but to take several deep breaths, compose yourself and maybe cry a little.
It goes on like that for the better part of 90 minutes before you finally catch a glimpse of the abbey compound. Once there, there’s no shame in getting caught up in the religiosity of the environs and reciting a little prayer of thanksgiving for making it in one piece. I’d also advise doing so just before you go off road to ward off any unwanted, and potentially life-threatening, precipitation. (We weren’t so lucky on the way back).
But the payoff for such steadfast perseverance is nothing short of magical.
You’ll know that when you drive up to a sign that reads “Monks Only.” (If you call ahead, you can get a special dispensation to continue beyond that).
The next thing you’ll notice is a fuel pump. It may seem rather odd, but it makes logical sense. When something is as remote as the Benedictine Abbey of Christ in the Desert, Exxon is pretty much a world away.
Self-reliance has its perks. There are very few major production breweries, let alone pint-sized ones, that grow hops on their grounds. But there they are, dangling in all their lupulin glory in their own private garden. Full disclosure: a good percentage of the hops that make their way into Abbey’s brews come from the usual off-site and often European suppliers, but the mere presence of a mini hop plantation on this scrappy little paradise beyond a treacherous mountain pass enhance its beery cred a thousand-fold. The monks actually grow ten different hop varieties, all native to New Mexico, and harvest them, with the help of monastery guests and daily visitors, over the course of a few weeks in late August and early September.
Expect to make a few wrong turns into the wilderness before you manage to find your way to the extremely well-hidden brew house. It exists almost as a reward for the sheer will and stick-with-it-ness of those who seek it. The day of our visit we greeted enthusiastically by general manager Berkley Merchant (a layman), as well as Brad Kraus, brew master (another layman), and Brother Bernard who’s very much, as his title suggests, not a layman.
Those in beergeekdom (myself included, admittedly) tend to romanticize the notion of brewing monks. The image it evokes is that of a solemn, stoic man in a long, flowing hooded robe, chanting as he circled the brew kettle, swinging a dangling incense burner. The reality of it is considerably more secular in nature, albeit with a rather monastic twist. Whoever among the brotherhood is tending to the brew kettle is more likely to be clad in what only could be described as “monk fatigues”—light blue pants not unlike O.R. scrubs and a thigh-length gray pullover with, yes, a hood! And forget about solemn; downright chatty is a much more accurate description.
On the day of our visit, the ecclesiastical and lay brewing team were cooking up a riff on an amber, tweaking and tinkering with established recipes to, through trial and error, come up with what would be Abbey’s next great offering. The marvelously malty aroma was making me weak in the knees.
In the monastery’s main building you’ll find, among other things, a gift shop. Among the assorted Roman Catholic artifacts, handmade and otherwise, the store has a couple of brewery-related items. Yes, that includes branded tulip-shaped glassware. Regardless of how many glasses you may have amassed over the years, you really can’t not buy one with the Monks’ Ale logo on it, even if it does cost $14. You need some sort of trophy to commemorate the perilous expedition.
But if you feel the whole excursion seems short on the ambiance of pious reflection, just hang out a little longer in the gift shop. You’ll eventually hear the ringing of a bell.
“That’s the call to the brothers to assemble,” Berkley Merchant explains. “When it rings it means they’ve got 10 minutes to get from wherever they are on the grounds to the chapel do some Gregorian chanting.”
Perhaps those romanticized notions of monkdom were not completely inaccurate after all!
The chapel, as one would expect, is austerely appointed. The brothers gradually file in from various corners of the hallowed sanctuary and take their places among their fellows.
When the last of the holy quorum arrives, the melodic incantations commence and continue for a good 12 minutes or so. To fully experience the vibe, go download something from Enigma on iTunes and try to imagine it without the hypnotically dancy beat.
Could there be any moment that better punctuates an afternoon that very well can prove to be—and please pardon the cliché—a remarkable religious experience of biblical proportions?
Of course such euphoria quickly fades when you suddenly realize you’ll have to make the same winding, roadless drive in the opposite direction.
But, hey, it’s all part of the experience. And trust me, once you’ve done it, you will not have wanted it any other way.
Once you’ve accomplished that and you’re looking for a bit of a palate cleanser in the form of a much more accessible craft brewery excursion that still captures the essence and beauty of the Southwest, you won’t want to miss the chance to stop by Santa Fe Brewing Co., the oldest microbrewery in the state. It’s just outside of town on a road off of Highway 14 that loops around to run parallel (briefly) to highway 85. The road’s even got a charming name—Fire Place, mainly because the local volunteer fire department’s there. There’s not much around it, so you get that tumbleweed and old-school Americana kind of vibe. For the full experience, take your pint of Santa Fe Nut Brown or State Pen Porter outside and just absorb the idyllic desert setting.
If you’re there on a weekend, the brewery runs what it calls Small Batch Saturday. The brewery gives the assistant brewers the chance to flex their creative muscles and brew small 10-gallon batches of their innovations. Santa Fe then puts those creations on tap in the tasting room every Saturday at 2 p.m. Once a month the local homebrewers club, the Sangre de Cristo Craft Brewers (literally “Blood of Christ)send the victors of their homebrewing competitions to produce their winner beers on Santa Fe’s small batch system. Visitors have gotten the chance to try everything from a blueberry porter to a cactus stout to a green chile pale ale.
Santa Fe brewing also operates a second taphouse in the nearby suburb of Eldorado.
For those staying in downtown Santa Fe, the Albuquerque-based Marble Brewing runs a small tap house with outdoor seating overlooking historic Santa Fe plaza. But if you want to avoid the touristy vibe, it’s best advised to drive an hour to Albuquerque and visit its downtown pub and/or Westside Tap Room. You should still have that intrepid mountain-scaling vehicle you used to get to the holy land, so, why not?