Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
The Benedictine monks of Nursia have become world famous for Birra Nursia, quickly becoming one of the most sought and loved brews in the Unites States, and the latest news from the monastery is huge for loyal consumers and first time tasters. In short, their shipping chain has changed and anyone in the U.S. can enjoy a huge cost savings.
But before I unfold the complete details, I had a conversation with the Head Brewmonk, Brother Augustine, to discuss the brew, its future, and the recent news.
1. In your view, how does brewing beer fit into the cenobitic life of a monk?
We can’t help but remember Christ’s first miracle: the changing of water into wine. We might imagine he changed it to beer, for the lesson would be the same. There he shows us that despite the many sufferings of Man due to Original Sin, life is not a tragedy. When men live together, they see each others faults, they suffer the hardships of the Rule together. But like Cana, they share joys together, they celebrate together. Wine—the best wine—was a concrete manifestation of that joy. It was also a great surprise. We have to be ready to be surprised by joy and, ever realistic about the reality of sin, hopeful since Christ has conquered death through the Resurrection. Yes, beer helps with all of that!
2. When there are so many choices of craft, why beer?
In our early days, we would often enjoy other monastic beers at meals on special feasts days. As many homebrewers know, making beer yourself is a lot cheaper than buying it! As we grew as community over the years and we began restoring different parts of our monastery, we realized that we needed to make and sell some kind of monastic craft or good. Relying only on donations and the proceeds from our small gift shop was never going to cover all our expenses. We didn’t want to compete with anything already present in town. Our beer, as it turns out, is a great companion to the rich culinary tradition of Norcia (prosciutto and sausages). Even though we monks don’t eat meat in the monastery, our beer goes great with it!
3. You might not be allowed to answer this question, but can you name your favorite beer brand or specific brew?
All of the Trappist monastic beers are excellent; most Belgian beers all have such a unique personality. Despite all the fads and latest styles of the craft beer world (I like IPAs a lot!), I have been growing in my appreciation for the traditional German and English beer styles, they are very balanced.
4. The Bionda and Extra are delicious, but are there plans for the development of a third recipe? Please say yes.
I have dreams, ideas and a vision for it, but it’s not time yet. We have been discussing it for awhile now and probably will make a third beer eventually. There is gap between the 6% alcohol of our Bionda beer and the 10% alcohol of our Extra beer, but both of them are doing fine for now and I’m not sure they are ready for a sibling yet. Our main work is prayer, and we spend 5-6 hours every day chanting our prayers in our chapel as well as two hours of private prayer and study. We work hard but have limited resources, so we have to consider carefully what to focus on and what new initiatives we undertake.
5. Is there anything special about the current recipes that folks should know?
I can only say that we use the best ingredients, but everyone says that! How about this: The monks brew and taste every batch! We can’t share too many of our secrets, but both beers are really special and unique, quite different from many of the craft beers you find in the USA now. Our refermentation in the bottle (like champagne) contributes to a complexity and finesse that isn’t found in canned or kegged beer.
6. It’s purely speculation, but entertain me: if monks of San Benedetto in Monte were not selling beer, what would they be selling?
Right now, on our mountain property, we might be inclined to start up a truffle farm. There is also an old vineyard on our property we would like to restore one day…
7. There’s a rumor I’ve heard several times that you could perhaps clear up. Is it true that some Benedictines fast from everything besides beer during some of the year?
That sounds wonderful, but in fact it’s not true! We only drink our beer at dinner on Sundays and feast days; the bottles that might have a wrinkled label or some other cosmetic defect don’t get sold to the public and end up on our table. It seems some monks at some point used beer during Lent to supplement the thin fare of that season, but we’ve never heard of a complete substitution.
8. Did you have any interest in beer before becoming a monk?
I began homebrewing with my father about 10 years ago, long before I had heard of the monastery or was considering becoming a monk!
9. Okay, so the good news is that as of Sept. 15, 2019, folks in the U.S. can purchase Birra Nursia with flat-rate shipping. Does this mean significant cost savings for customers?
The saving is really significant! Most customers were paying between 30 and 70 dollars to ship a case to their home or place of work. Now it is flat-rate, $14.99 for all orders up to a case of 12, or FREE shipping for club members and orders of 3 cases or more. The beer is good for 2-3 years, so if you buy 3 cases at a time they will last! Order online.
10. Look, I can’t speak for everyone but part of the American dream is to have beer delivery door service. If there is flat-rate shipping, do you know if there are expected delivery times?
With flat-rate shipping, it should take 1-2 weeks; we also offer expedited shipping but that has an additional cost.
11. Anything else folks should know about Birra Nursia?
The motto of the beer, Ut Laetificet Cor, comes from Psalm 103. This is not an invitation to drunkenness, but a reminder that our hearts are restless until they rests in Him, as St. Augustine, my patron, says. Beer itself does not bring joy to the heart, but God does. The beer can act as a reminder that God does want us to be happy, does want us to be joyful, not through sin but through virtue and love.
12. Will you pray for me and readers upon your next beer?
Certainly! During the hour of Prime and after every meal, we thank God for our benefactors and all who do good for our community for the sake of His name…. He keeps track of who those people are, so after you purchase our beer, you definitely will be included in that list! We also keep a list of all those who order from our e-store and pray for those people specifically.
Thank you to Brother Augustine and Prior Benedict for providing the time to taste and discuss this special beer. For purchases, donations, and information, please visit BirraNursia.com