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Sin & Tonic

Making beer, wine, and spirits is not the Devil’s work.

By Kevin Lynch

During the wedding feast of Cana in Galilee, the unthinkable occurred: the hosts ran out of wine. Fortunately, Jesus was at the party. Ordering stewards to fill large vessels with water, he performed his first miracle by transforming the water into wine. Almost as equally impressive, Christ resurrected what was to become a very dull party into something im-Biblical.

Since the wedding feast miracle, holy men and women the world over have followed the lead of their boss and produced some of the best and, at times, strangest adult beverages as part of their vocation. When not making drink, they thought about it, and many a notable theologian lent a hand in improving the lot of the drinker.

One of the earliest contributions toward improving winemaking came from St. Martin of Tours, who is credited with the “discovery” of pruning after watching a mule graze on a grapevine. Albertus Magnus, later known as St. Albert the Great, penned the first detailed treatise on distillation. With the process fully elucidated, it began to spread slowly among monks, physicians, and alchemists, who were interested in distilled alcohol as a cure for ailments. Early distillates were called aqua vitae, “water of life” – later known as brandy, derived from the Dutch brandewijn, meaning burnt (or distilled) wine. And, of course, Dom Pérignon, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the invention of champagne, made great strides in grape blending and pioneered a cork restraint made of hemp (later replaced by wire called an “agrafe”), thus improving the safety of the monks who handled volatile champagne.

Throughout the Middle Ages and into the early 18th century, the Catholic Church was the primary producer of beer, wine, and most spirits in Europe. A distant second were feudal manors, who made enough beer or wine to meet their needs. The church’s exclusive control proved to be one of those rare instances in history where the mingling of church and state harmonized nicely.

Most royal courts were too busy jousting to bother with the basic needs of their subjects. Monasteries picked up the slack and provided the vital service of making something potable to drink – chiefly, beer. Since sanitation was nonexistent, and fresh water sources were often contaminated, the safest way to slake one’s thirst was to visit the friendly monks down the road and drink their blessed beer. Inside the monastery, beer was as essential to monkhood as a hair shirt. A monk’s daily ration was five liters of beer, and for that one-step-closer-to-thee feeling, monks were allowed to drink their brew during fasts, proving the adage “Beer is bread” to be accurate.

Many of the beers that saved our European ancestors’ lives are still made today, mainly in Belgium, and are available in the United States. A branch of the Cistercian Order called the Trappists is the world’s great brewmaster. True monk brew bears a hexagonal stamp that certifies the contents as “Authentic Trappist Product.” The only six choices – Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, Westvleteren, and Achel – can be purchased in quality liquor stores.

Between their daily liters of beer, many a good friar was involved in viticulture. In what were turbulent times, it was the clergy-owned vineyards that made wine, called vinium theologium, necessary to celebrate Mass. Monks had the education and time needed to improve their viticulture skills. Where they excelled was in the world of sparkling wines. Though Dom Pérignon (born 1639) had nothing to do with inventing champagne, there are strong indications that it was the monks of the Benedictine abbey of Saint-Hilaire, Limoux, France who, in 1531, accidentally developed the second, carbonic fermentation and gave the world its celebratory drink.

Of the more unusual drinks made by monks that are still produced and drunk today, Chartreuse is by far the most interesting. An artillery officer gave the drink recipe to a Chartreuse monk in 1605. The already ancient text purported to be the recipe for “An Elixir of Long Life.” In 1737, after many botched attempts, the monks finally unraveled the complex recipe and began bottling Chartreuse Elixir Vegetal de la Grand-Chartreuese. The so-called “Liquor of Health” is a wine based with herbs, plants, and botanicals selected for their healthful properties suspended in the fluid that is later distilled. In addition to the lenitive qualities of the 130-plus ingredients, the green liquid is 71 percent alcohol, or 142 proof. While the Elixir Vegetal is all but impossible to find in the U.S., its weaker but equally interesting brother, Green and Yellow Chartreuse, can be found in any good bar. The flavor and aromas of Chartreuse are unlike any other beverage, and is the sort of liquor one either loves or loathes. There are only two monks at any time who know the recipe.

More curious than Chartreuse is Buckfast. Brewed by Benedictine monks in Devon, England, this “tonic wine” – though the label warns that the product “does not imply health giving or medicinal properties” – is a staple in low-income areas throughout the United Kingdom. At 15 percent alcohol with a lot of caffeine, and a few phosphates, notably Sodium Glycerophosphate BPC (anything with that many syllables cannot be good for you), Buckfast is adored in certain circles and viewed as a social ill in others. Buckfast has become the drink of choice among Chavs, Scousers, Scallys, and Neds. As it is lovingly described on the streets of England, “made by monks, drunk by punks.”

Perhaps the most famous drink invented by monks is Benedictine. Made with cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, nutmeg, saffron, vanilla, hyssop, and aloe (to name but a few ingredients), this sweet liqueur was developed in the 1500s by a Venetian monk living in Fécamp, France. After the French Revolution, the recipe surfaced only in 1863 when Alexandre Le Grand, a layman, chanced upon it while searching for a book of magic spells. The discovery made Le Grand extremely wealthy. In honor of the monk who crafted the original recipe, the label bears the letters D.O.M., short for Deo Optimo Maximo (“To God, most good, most great”), and was named Benedictine. The syrupy liqueur is usually mixed with brandy to make the B&B, which makes an excellent post-prandial beverage, or is a great sipper for a winter’s night.

Among the many vows monks take, one is the vow of poverty. As such, revenue generated through the sales of the spirits they produce is used to cover the cost of production and maintenance of their orders. The considerable leftover sums go to charity. A purchase of a genuine monk product is what one might call a modern “indulgence.” Amen.


The Wine Rack, 6136 Bollinger Rd., San Jose (408) 253-3050; Santa Teresa Blvd., San Jose (408) 227-8882 Available Beers: Chimay, Orval, Green Chartreuse, Benedictine

Beverages and More, 14800 Camden Ave., San Jose (408) 369-0990; 1247 W. El Camino Real, Sunnyvale (650) 965-4721; 423 San Antonio Rd., Mountain View (650) 949-1826; 1745 El Camino Real, Redwood City (650) 261-1414 Available Beers: Chimay, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, Green & Yellow Chartreuse, Benedictine

House of Siam, 151 S. Second St., San Jose (408) 279-5668 Available Beers: Chimay

Empire Grill & Tap Room, 651 Emerson St., Palo Alto (650) 321-3030 Available Beers: Chimay, Trappist Ale, Benedictine

Rose & Crown English Food & Ale House, 547 Emerson St., Palo Alto (650) 327-7673 Available Beers: Chimay

Whole Foods, 1690 S. Bascom Ave., Campbell (408) 371-5000; 20830 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino (408) 257-7000; 15980 Los Gatos Blvd., Los Gatos (408) 358-4434; 4800 El Camino Real, Los Altos (650) 559-0300; 774 Emerson St., Palo Alto (650) 326-8676 Available Beers: Chimay

La Bodeguita del Medio, 463 S. California Ave., Palo Alto (650) 326-7762 Available Beers: Chimay, Orval, Westmalle

*This Article appeared in Volume 6, Issue 19 of The Wave Magazine.

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