In An Italian Town Destroyed By Last Month’s Earthquake, American Monks Are Using Beer They’ve Been Brewing To Try And Get The Town Back On Its Feet
Out in Norcia, Italy, Reverend Cassian Folsom prepared for morning Mass one morning, but the earth suddenly shook violently below him. “Stones and roof tiles started raining down on our heads,” he said. “It was a terrifying experience.”
When the quake came to a halt, Folsom and his fellow monks (most of them from the US) found their monastery in ruins. The Basilica of St. Benedict was built centuries ago in Norcia—the central Italian mountains—for its namesake’s birthplace.
However, amid the monastery’s remnants, their brewery still stood. For the past, four years, these Benedictine monks have been batching out Birra Nursia, which is named for Norcia’s ancient, Latin appellation.
“Remarkably, the brewery was hardly damaged,” the Connecticut-born Rev. Benedict Nivakoff said as he walked through the city’s center. “The fermenters were loosed, but they’re tall and heavy, and so they didn’t fall.”
It’s actually a bubbling blessing in disguise, as their spiritual sauce may be the town’s salvation. While the walled city is now ravaged in rubble, the monks will be moving the sacramental suds to a safer location. It will then be bottled and specially labeled in an effort to raise money for reconstruction.
“The campaign started then—now we need to add a few more zeros,” Father Nivakoff, the prior of the monastery, said.
With Father Folsom (the priory emeritus) at the helm, they’re an outfit of 15 performing a feat of breathing life back into this now-broken town. They learned their casking craft from Trappist brew masters in Belgium. As a result, Nursia ale arrived in 2012. They named the beer “specifically to help the townspeople, rather than naming it after St. Benedict,” Father Nivakoff said. “We wanted people to identify the beer with the town,” he added, which will help support their attempts at saving the city.
South Carolina-born Brother Augustine Wilmeth, who serves as brew master, said Nursia was “the only monastic beer in the world that is made exclusively by the monks.”
While other monastic-mash operations have blossomed into million-dollar enterprises, the Norcian monks are strictly DIY—a yield of 10,000 bottles each month. It’s a tradition among these monks, as St. Benedict believed their lives should entail self-supporting labor via hard-working hands. In accordance to this, they’ll keep the brewery small. This may seem like an arduous effort, but Brother Wilmeth said, “it will stay in our control and really serve monastic life not overwhelm and consume us.”
[Rev. Martin Bernhard (right) pointed Father Nivakoff (left) and a firemen to damages in the brewery. | Photo: Tara Todras-Whitehill]
The monks are more than confident their casks will avail an overall victory for Norcia. Not only is their brew being carried in local shops and restaurants, the brewery executed exportation to the US in early 2016. Even if regional venues struggle to seek it in light of the quake, it’s still available via American importers.
“With this community of American monks, the value that St. Benedict has for Europe assumes a global significance,” adding: “They have become a spiritual and cultural point of reference first for the city then for Umbria and then for Italy,” Mayor Nicola Alemanno said.
“We have tried to help the townspeople to dig deeper and discover an identity that goes beyond prosciutto and truffles,” Father Nivakoff said, referring to the Umbrian city’s more popular perks. “I think, in the last 15 years, we’ve managed to do that.”
The beer has become a big part of the town’s life. Their fund-raising efforts will enable both the sanctuary and Norcia to live again—the St. Benedictine monks are happy to repay their benefactors (in their own small, sudsy style).
“We are proud that we are American,” Texas-born Rev. Martin Bernhard, the cellarer of the monastery, said. “To taste and buy our beer is a beautiful thing for us.”