DE PERE — One of the oldest religious orders in the world is bound to have a rich backstory. For the Norbertines, founded in 1121, that history includes the art of brewing beer and original musical compositions from the Classical era of Mozart. Background information on both was offered on Jan. 30 at the Norbertine Center for Spirituality at St. Norbert Abbey.
Norbertine Fr. Andrew Ciferni, director of the Center for Norbertine Studies at St. Norbert College, and Norbertine Fr. Michael Frisch, who holds a doctorate in music, served as the presenters at “All Things Norbertine! History, Music, Abbey Ale.” The program was divided into three sections: learning about and tasting beer, music in the Abbey and a closing session of tasting and information that included a video on life at the Notre Dame de-Leffe Abbey in Belgium.
Fr. Ciferni explained the importance of monastic beer in general before providing details about the abbey ales. He credited Norbertine Fr. James Neilson for his research on the subject for a previous presentation. Monastic beer was a necessity for good health, said Fr. Ciferni.
“In the Middle Ages, one of the last things you wanted to do was drink the water,” he said. “The well was near the pit where the garbage was dropped. The process of getting water from a spring and boiling it for beer made it safe to drink for all ages. Every monastery had a brewery and sometimes it was the brewery for the village.”
Monastic beer tended to be better than the other available ales of the time because the monks made brewing a science and took great care in the cleanliness of the utensils they used. The production of beer supported their ministry.
“Monks used the beer made for the village as a way to raise money, they used it to pay taxes and used it as salary,” said Fr. Ciferni. “They always served it to visitors and pilgrims.”
In his research, Fr. Ciferni discovered that some monks received a ration of four liters of beer per day. He added that the monasteries brewed two types of beer: strong and weak.
“The strong, which the monks drank, had 10 to 11 percent alcohol content,” said Fr. Ciferni. “The weak had 2 percent alcohol content. It was given to the local population, visitors and even to nuns.”
Trappist breweries date back to the 16th century in Belgium. Fr. Ciferni is not aware of any monastery that has brewed beer continuously over history. Most of the breweries were destroyed during the French Revolution and World Wars and later revived in some form. The first U.S. Trappist beer, Spencer Trappist Ale of Massachusetts, recently hit the market.
Schlagl, the first Norbertine beer tasted during the event, is made in the only brewery in Austria that is completely owned by a religious order. The Schlagl Abbey was founded in 1218. The brewery was formally opened in 1580, but the abbey had been brewing beer, many years prior, for private use.
“The brewery is located across the street from the abbey,” explained Fr. Ciferni. “Until last week, I thought that it was the only beer still made by Norbertines. The Zeliv Abbey in the Czech Republic has a microbrewery. … They brew beer down in the cellar.”
Fr. Frisch performed, on the piano, the works of two German Norbertine composers from the 18th century — Isfrid Kayser, who was born in 1712, and Sixtus Bachmann, who was born in 1754.
“Bachmann was a 12-year-old prodigy in 1776 when he was studying in a Benedictine monastery,” said Fr. Frisch. “Mozart came through. He was 10 years old at the time. Bachmann was forced into a competition on the organ with Mozart. From what I understand, both received high marks.”
Bachmann was ordained a Norbertine priest in 1778.
Grimbergen Double Ale and two selections of Leffe beer completed the evening’s tastings. The beers are now produced by commercial breweries in the abbey tradition and are considered Norbertine, explained Fr. Ciferni. Grimbergen is imported to the U.S. by St. Killian, Inc.
The brewery at Grimbergen Abbey dates back to 1629. The building still exists and now houses a restaurant. The brewery at Leffe was closed by Napoleon between 1790 and 1805. The building served as a glass factory in the 19th century.
The Rule of St. Benedict guided monastic life in the Middle Ages, including the brewing of beer. Today, the abbots of abbeys affiliated with breweries meet regularly to control the marketing, said Fr. Ciferni.
“You will never see a monk or a canon on the label,” he said. “Grimbergen, for example, has a phoenix on its label to represent how the abbey has risen from the ashes many times in its history.”
Some beers carry labels from abbeys that no longer exist because, according to Fr. Ciferni, “People think if it’s an abbey beer that it has to be good.”
The video highlighted the different ministries provided by the Norbertines of the Notre Dame de-Leffe Abbey, which is supported by the brewing industry.
“It isn’t beer for the sake of making beer,” said Fr. Ciferni. “It’s beer to make life possible.”