Italian lunch, called “pranzo,” and supper, called “cena,” are nearly always accompanied by wine, either red or white, sometimes both. This is not just the case in restaurants and trattorie, but also private homes, as well as monasteries and other religious houses. This is my impression at least.
I also understand that alcoholism is not as widespread in Italy as in other parts of the world, due in part to people growing up with the product and imbibing it in moderation throughout their life. Even Italian Saint Benedict, Father of Western Monasticism, in his sixth century “Rule for Monks” presumes daily consumption of wine by his followers in monasteries. It appears the custom has been adhered to over the centuries in Europe by both monks and laity alike
Italian wines are among the finest in the world, with the production of grapes in this climate an important factor in the high quality of the end result. A “bad bottle of wine,” I am told, is hard to find in Italy, and the low price of the quality product is taken for granted.
Here at Sant’Ambrogio, where I live in Rome, wine is always present at pranzo and cena. Yes, I imbibe. Over the years, though, I have become a modest fan of beer, which is also present at some of our meals. When it is, I see it being consumed even more readily than wine.
On a wider scale, ever increasingly is the possibility of beer as well as wine at Italian meals. I am aware of three monasteries of monks in Italy that are now producing beer. This is a relatively new monastic enterprise and done not as “contract brewing,” when a commercial brewery produces beer on behalf of others, but with breweries on the monastery property and the monks fully participating in the production.
The three Italian monasteries now brewing beer are the diocesan Benedictine monks of Saints Peter and Paul at Cascinazza, near Milan, the monks at the Monastery of Saint Benedict at Norcia in Umbria, and the Cisterican Trappist monks at Tre Fontane, on the outskirts of Rome.
For centuries Benedictine and Cistercian monks and nuns in Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and elsewhere have been producing beer, and now brothers in Italy are doing so as well. I have sampled only the Italian Trappist beer so far, which I find quite good, and I hope to eventually taste the other Italian monastic brews as well.
The monks at Saints Peter and Paul monastery near Milan began their beer production in 2008, thus becoming Italy’s first Italian micobrewery.
In 2005 two of the monks went to Belgium to learn from the monastic brewers there, especially the Trappists, who produce what are considered some of the finest beers in the world. The Italian monks saw and learned the ins and outs of brewing and marketing and returned to Italy ready to set up their own brewery nine years ago.
Like some other monastic brewers, the monks of Cascinazza produce a limited number of bottles each year, enough to keep them solvent and not be overwhelmed by the business. It also allows them to carefully monitor their craft, for quality output. As one of their monks, Padre Claudio, expressed it, “This work requires a particular type of precision during all the phases of production because of its complexity. Time is a fundamental feature. No need for hurry, but respect for the natural process of fermentation and maturation of the beer to obtain the maximum aromatic profile.”
The monks currently produce a line of four beers: Blond, which has a green label; Amber, with a yellow label; Bruin, sporting a blue label; and Kriek, having a white label.
The Blond beer is described by the monks as fresh, light and a thirst-quencher. It has a nice mix of aromatic hops, with some honey, flower and citrus flavor. This is the lightest beer these monks produce, a great beer by itself or with a meal, the monks add.
Their Amber beer has traces of honey, but also some bitter orange and a variety of herbs and spices. This beer goes well with all foods, but especially lamb and pork.
The Bruin beer is noted as having a rich blend of caramel, raisin, California prune, rum and other fruits. The somewhat sweet base is balanced with the slightest of bitterness from the hops it is made with.
Kriek beer from the monks is slightly red in color, frothy, creamy, with a lasting taste. It is made with a mix of red fruits and berries, including raspberry and maraschino cherry. It pairs well with seafood but also with beef.
For more about these monks and their beers, visit. www.birracascinazza.it
Their website also has information about where to and how to acquire their beers. Along with other quality monastic brews, these monks do not filter or pasteurize their beers.
The second oldest monastic brewer in Italy is at Norcia in Umbria, birthplace of Saint Benedict. The Benedictine monks there suffered a serious setback with a succession of earthquakes and tremors in recent times including a very strong quake in October of 2016, destroying their place of residence and their church, the Basilica of Saint Benedict, in the center of Norcia. This was a heartbreaker for all Benedictines, myself included.
The brewing equipment at the Norcia monastery was spared and the monks have continued their brewing. They call their product “Birra Nursia,” including a specialty one to help raise funds for restoration in Norcia, called “I Love Nursia,” Nursia is the ancient name of the city now called Norcia. The 5,000 bottles of beer were sold from a container at San Benedetto in Monte, their new place of residence, just outside of Norcia. I presume by now this limited edition beer has sold old. A portion of the sales went to support the rebuilding in the environs of Norica.
The monks of Norcia also produce a Blonde beer and an “Extra,” their original brews, and both in the style of the Belgian beers the Trappists have made famous and from whom the Norcia monks learned to brew a few years ago, beginning their brewery in 2012.
Their Blonde is described as a “golden, luminous beer with a creamy, compact and persistent taste.” The Extra has “a beguiling dark brown hue with luminous ruby reflections,” as well as being “creamy and frothy.”
See the Norcia monks’ website at: www.en.nursia.org
The third and newest of the Italian breweries is at the Trappist abbey, Tre Fontane, on the edge of Rome, but easy to reach by metro (subway) and then by bus or on foot, to their lovely grounds nestled amidst hundreds of eucalyptus trees.
The name “Tre Fontane” comes from the place where the monks live, believed to be the spot where Saint Paul was beheaded in 67 AD. It is said that his head bounced three times after decapitation and three wells of water sprang up on the “bounce spots,” hence the name, “tre (three) fontane (fountains), Tre Fontane.
This may conjure up memories for some of “three coins in the fountain,” but that refers to a song and film from 1954, connected to the famous and beautiful Trevi Fountain in the center of Rome. The film was part of “Hollywood on the Tiber,” along with “Roman Holiday” and others.
Since 1873 various products have been made by the Trappist monks at Tre Fontane, using eucalyptus leaves from their trees, including sweet liquor and most recently, beer. Because they are Trappists and brew on their premises, with monks involved in the work, their bottles carry the highly prestigious “Authentic Trappist Product,” on the label.
At present the monks produce just one beer, called “Birra Triple Tre Fontane.” It is a golden color, with some fruit and eucalyptus taste. Some bitterness exists too, from the hops employed. The brew pairs especially well with cheese.
The Tre Fontane website is at: www.abbaziatrefontance.it
Scroll down their site to learn more about the beer they produce.
We wish all our monastic brothers success in their brewing endeavors and please do what you can to support their efforts. At least some of these beers can be gotten in the United States. And always drink in moderation, another important Benedictine trait, which is Latin is, “moderatus.”