|History in a bottle
By Tony Staley
Consider a glass of Norbertine beer. More than a beverage, it represents
900 years of “recent” tradition in 8,000 years of brewing history.
Premonstratensian abbeys have been making beer and ale since shortly after Norbert of Xanten founded the order in 1120 at Prémontré, France.
Today, the De Pere branch of Festival Foods carries Leffe and Grimbergen beers, while the abbey keeps St-Feuillien in stock. A Norbertine liqueur, Frigolet, is no longer made, but college catering treasures a few last bottles, reserved for serving on very special occasions.
“Brewing is a very natural thing for an abbey to do,” says William Hyland, director of the Center for Norbertine Studies. “The whole life of an abbey is organized around the seasons of the year and the church year, just as brewing was tied into the crops. You would brew certain things that would be available for the Christmas ale and something else that would be available for the Easter ale. It’s a rhythm of life that could be tied into the rhythms of the liturgical year, seasons of fast and seasons of celebration.”
In medieval times, most, if not all, Norbertine, Benedictine and Trappist abbeys made beer for their members, villagers, and pilgrims seeking lodging, and as a source of revenue.
“Just as the abbeys during the Middle Ages excelled in having advances in agriculture and all sorts of things, they also became some of the best brewers just for the obvious reasons. They had the breweries. They cared about it a lot. They had monks, and canons in our case, who could pass on generations of knowledge and expertise, and they had the desire to experiment and improve the technology. These were the guys who had the time and the expertise and the economic role in society to become master brewers,” Hyland says.
As Brent Weycker ’92, president of Titletown Brewing Company in Green Bay, puts it, “The Norbertines helped keep beer brewing alive during the Dark Ages.”
Abbey brews then
Beer and ale once were much more a part of daily sustenance, says Hyland. “People didn’t drink water the way we do. You didn’t have a water faucet right there, and a lot of water was not good to drink straight out of the ground.”
As for the beer itself, Hyland likens medieval ale to crumbling bread into a modern beer. For centuries beer was made from half-baked loaves of coarsely ground barley or wheat bread fermented in water-filled crocks. The husks and crumbs floated in the sour, murky ale, flavored by herbs such as yarrow, bog myrtle or juniper. Hops weren’t used until about the 11th century.
No wonder monks called it “liquid bread,” and why a midday beer allowed them to work from breakfast to dinner on fast days.
David Oldenberg, brewmaster at Titletown Brewing Company, notes that until the mid- to late- 20th century, Belgian brewers “were pretty creative and were never afraid to use all kinds of different things – wheat, oats, spices, lemongrass, whatever they could find.” But beer making has changed a lot in the last 150 years. Advances include pasteurization for preserving beer; refrigeration, resulting in steady brewing temperatures; and a filtering device that removes yeast and suspends solids for clearer, longer-lasting beer.
Commercial realities are nothing new for abbey beers, which even in their earliest days faced competition from medieval feudal lords and the rising merchant class. (Often, that meant the town baker, who took to brewing as a profitable sideline.)
Many abbey industries did not survive the forced closure of abbeys during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries; by Napoleon or an ally in the 18th and 19th centuries; and by communism in the 20th century.
Later, steam locomotives and railroad networks meant beer could be shipped greater distances, allowing larger breweries with their economies of scale to replace small local breweries. But when Jill Olson (Conference and Catering Services) took part in the Norbertine Heritage tour of European abbeys in 2009, one of her interests was in seeking out beers that were specifically Norbertine. Some are served at college events, like the beer-tasting held for parents during new student orientations over the summer.
Abbey brews now
Today only two Praemonstratensian abbeys still produce beer – Abbey Brewery Želiv in the Czech Republic and Schlägl in Austria. Želiv is Central and Eastern Europe’s only abbey beer in the tradition of Belgian and Dutch Trappists. Želiv was founded in the 12th century and destroyed by Hussites in the 15th century. By the end of the 16th century, the Norbertines returned to Želiv. Under communist rule it was a sanatorium until 1989. Norbertines returned again in the 1990s.
Schlägl Abbey, founded in the 13th century, began brewing early in its history and, since 1580, has been a commercial brewery, making and bottling its beers. A new brewery was built in 1954, and improvements have been made since.
The Schlägl brewmaster’s brother is a member of the community, says the Rev. Jay Fostner, O.Praem., ’84. “Besides the brewery, there’s a restaurant where patrons eat while sitting in old beer barrels. It’s a fun, social, educational time and a fun part of our heritage.”
In addition to these beers, several commercial brews, including some widely available in the U.S., were originally made in Norbertine abbeys, and still bear their names. Belgian abbeys and the breweries that make their namesake beers include:
In the Czech Republic, the privately owned Strahov Monastic Brewery in Prague sells St. Norbert Beer in the St. Norbert Restaurant and Brewery Courtyard across from Strahov Abbey, which had a brewery from the 13th century into the 20th century.
- Grimbergen (Alken-Maes, a subsidiary of Heineken)
- Postel (Heineken)
- Leffe (InBev)
- Tongerlo (Haacht)
- Bonne Esperance and Floreffe (Lefebvre)
- St-Feuillien du Roeulx (Friart)
Then there’s St. Michel de Frigolet Abbey, near Avignon, France, which specialized in an herbal liqueur, Frigolet, and continues to be associated with three other liqueurs: Liqueur des Prémontrés, Verveine des Prémontrés and la Norbertine. The infusion could serve as a metaphor for the Norbertine community that first distilled it in the 19th century: 30 components that together constitute a pleasing whole.
Norbertines from around the world will gather at the college next summer for the 2012 General Chapter, hosted by St. Norbert Abbey. In anticipation, we begin this occasional series on the life of the order.