The eyes of the world were on Vatican City last month, as the big muckety-mucks of the Catholic Church elected a new pope.
Your intrepid liquor reporter didn’t pay much attention to all the hullabaloo, but it did get me to thinking on how much beer and pizza got consumed during all those late-night papal votes.
As it turns out, there is an official papal conclave beer, brewed by a nearby order of Benedictine monks from the Birra Nursia monastic brewery, which recently started production in a 1000-year old monastery in the town of Norcia.
In a country more defined by its wine culture than the relatively humble beer, this is only the 2nd monastery in Italy to have an onsite brewery.
However, since the town of Norcia is the birthplace of Saint Benedict, father of the entire concept of monastic brewing, this tiny brewery supplying the Vatican comes from the spiritual home of beer in the Catholic Church. That’s a pretty big deal as far as beer goes.
Yes, gentle reader, only a beer that has been untouched by heathen hands will do for the cardinals of the Holy See.
There was a brewery on the same site back in the 1800s, but it was closed by Napoleon during his invasion of the Italian peninsula. That must be how Calgary’s own Wild Rose Brewery feels right now, being ejected from their long-standing brewery so the city can re-zone the land for more yuppie condos.
Sadly, most of the production from the small artisanal brewery is consumed right on the monastery grounds by the monks, so you won’t find this beer exported to Alberta anytime soon.
Lest you think being a monk is all about chanting and wearing Jedi robes, monks and beer have a long and intimate history. Beer was originally consumed by monks for sustenance during fast days, but later came to be enjoyed during feasts and celebrations as well.
Reports that some of the more progressive cloisters used this as justification for a 40-day beer bash tend to get to get swept under the rug by the church, so I will leave it as a mental exercise for the reader to figure out just how many pints were guzzled by the cardinals during the voting for the new pope.
With fastidious record-keeping and centuries of experience, many of the greatest breweries in the old world were kick-started by monks, who were considered the master brewers of the middle ages.
While you won’t be able to sample the same beer as the fellows in the big pointy hats in the Vatican, you will be able to find brands available locally that are made in the same style.
In keeping with tradition, the Birra Nursia brews in the Trappist style first dictated by Saint Benedict, which is still followed by a healthy number of Abbey-style breweries.
Birra Nursia makes a blond beer, as well as a dark, both in the Trappist style. For a local approximation of the blond beer enjoyed inside the Vatican, pick up a Chimay Blond at your local well-stocked booze merchant.
You will find the flavor of the Chimay Blond to be uplifting on the palate as well as the spirit, with a tingly hop effervescence that make the beer pair particularly well with bread and cheese, common staples of a monkish diet.
If you prefer a fuller, more malty beer, Birra Nursia also delivered a few cases of their dark beer, made in the Trappist Extra style.
A similar beer is the Achel Trappist Extra, available in Alberta at well-stocked liquor retailers. At 9.5% ABV, this beer style was brewed with plenty of malted barley to provide sustenance for medieval monks during fasts, and the extra kick likely took their mind off how hungry they were!
Tasting like a malt bomb in the mouth, the malt sweetness dominates the mild hop bitterness, with aromas of dark fruits like prunes and raisins in the finish. This is definitely not a style for novice beer drinkers, so Coors Lite fans beware!
Should the holy spirit move you to do so, ask for an Abbey-style beer at your local booze merchant, or wherever beer nerds can be found congregating about odd-looking bottles at your local watering hole