St. Benedict’s Brew Works Offers Unmatched Experience, Great Beer, Plenty of Nuns
I rarely feel uncomfortable drinking beer. In fact, beer helps me feel comfortable in most any situation – in-law visits, tax audits, even yearly performance reviews. Yet here were Walter and I standing in a gorgeous monastery full of Benedictine Sisters, getting ready to sample some craft beer. It felt just the slightest bit odd. Though St. Benedict’s Brew Works is housed on the grounds of the Sisters of St. Benedict Monastery in Ferdinand, IN, we soon learned that it’s the perfect place for some great beer.
As soon as we entered the small edifice around the corner from the main housing and church building, we started to feel better. There was a photo opportunity worthy of Holiday World nearby, with life-size head-in-the-hole cut outs of a nun and a monk. At the bar, the beer list is called the daily missal (religious talk for a daily mass/prayer book). Heck, the motto of the brewery is Pray-Work-Brew. If they are so comfortable with a church-based brewery, why should I feel queasy?
Walter introduced herself to our beertender, Andy Hedinger, who also turned out to be one of St. Benedict’s co-owners and brewers. Andy explained the beers to us, and we had a flight that included the Sister Mary Kölsch, the Pax Pale Ale, the Prioress Porter, and the William Tell Alt (see a future post for the history of this beer). This is obviously not a place that takes itself too seriously. The beer is true to style and the surroundings and wonderful attitudes of the people there make it a glorious experience.
The other owner is Vince Luecke, a newspaper editor in southern Indiana and former home brewer that studied for the priesthood for quite a while with the monks at the archabbey in nearby St. Meinrad, IN. I had a long conversation on the phone with Vince about St. Benedict’s after Walter and I got home, and he explained the workings of the brewery to me. Basically, he and Andy see beer as fellowship, both within the religious community and the lay community. The philosophy of the brewery is to produce traditional German and Belgian monastic styles of beer with inventive twists here and there, and doing so in community with Southern Indiana.
So just how does a brewery end up on the grounds of one of the largest congregations of Benedictine nuns in America? At the time that Vince and Andy had the idea of brewing commercially, they were both involved in the religious community to a certain degree. Why not mimic the European idea of monastic brewery here in Indiana? During this same period a couple of years ago, St. Benedict’s monastery was experiencing a cash crunch. They had closed their academy and had buildings on the grounds that were going unused.
When Vince and Andy came to Sister Jean Marie and suggested a brewery on the grounds, she said, “Why not?” The former academy art studio was a perfect spot, right next to the Sisters’ gift shop (which has great cookies made by the nuns by the way) and a contract was soon drawn up and signed. The Monastery does benefit financially from the sales of the brewery, and they accommodated Vince and Andy with a stair step rental agreement that would give them time to get established. The deal was good for everyone.
St. Benedict’s Brew Works opened in August of 2015 with a public ceremony and a blessing from Sister Barbara Lynn Schmitz, the Prioress of the Monastery. Vince said that the night before the opening he and Andy had an endless list of last minute details to take care of inside the building; they didn’t know if they would be ready for customers the next day. Then he saw several of the sisters and a couple laywomen of the community walk into the brewery carrying buckets and mops and other cleaning equipment. They took over the detailing of the space for the opening so Andy and Vince could focus on the beer. Vince said he is still moved whenever he recalls that evening.
The sisters still come down to help out at the brewery; they like zesting dozens of oranges that are added to the Belgian Farmhouse they make. The sisters drink with them too, as do the monks from St. Meinrad’s Monastery close by. When the monks or sisters have family or other visitors, it is nice for them to be able to bring them to the brewery instead of just sitting in a lounge within the monastery. It’s all about fellowship.
I asked Vince if other people had expressed a hesitancy with visiting a brewery located on the grounds of a large women’s religious community. He said that a few people had told him that same thing, but after visiting and experiencing the atmosphere they felt better, just as Walter and I did. Vince chuckled at the notion because he grew up closely tied to the monastic community, and beer/wine was as normal as could be. He has been exposed to religion and drinking all his life; it was as normal as could be for him.
When people talk to Vince about feeling ill at ease in a monastic brewery, he relates the idea that fellowship through beer is centuries old within the religious community and that beer is uplifting and fits into the monastic lifestyle by being a completely natural product. It’s just water hops, grain and yeast – the bounty of the Earth and it’s creator, certainly a worthwhile enterprise for a religious community.
St. Benedict’s is currently working with a 1 BBL system, but they have a 3 BBL system in house just waiting to be hooked up and plumbed. Vince told me that this will allow them to make much more beer as well as many more styles. Currently they do a few bomber bottles for their Christmas Festival and serve their beer in two local restaurants, but the new system will allow them to bottle more beer and distribute to additional pubs. Vince says he has a list of twenty restaurants that are asking for beer. To make a long story short – to drink this beer as of now, you are most likely going to have to make a visit. And a visit is well worth the time. The monastery is gorgeous, they have tours delivered by the nuns, and the grounds and southern part of the state are beautiful.
As if you needed another reason to make the trip, Vince and Andy are offering a craft beer retreat in November. For a small donation, participants can learn about the history of monastic brewing and brew a craft beer of their own, right on the monastery grounds. It also helps to realize that, as far as Vince knows, St. Benedict’s is still the only brewery located on the grounds of a women’s religious community in the United States, and only the second one in the world. In total there are about two dozen monastic breweries in the world – wouldn’t it be great if they came together for a beer festival? This is exactly the idea that Vince and Andy are considering now.
Three Floyd’s has its Dark Lord Day and Taxman has Death and Taxes Day, but these seem too dark in tone for the men brewing in a monastery. They would like to develop an uplifting brew fest in April or May that would celebrate the fellowship exemplified by monastic brewing – maybe a Day of Light Festival or similar. Any idea that brings more great monastic beer to Indiana (including Spencer Brewery Trappist Ales from St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer MA, Mount Angel Benedictine Brewery in St. Benedict, OR, and willing Belgian Trappist breweries) is fine by me.
So head down south to Ferdinand and have a beer with the nuns and monks. Get your picture taken posing as a sister or monk and toast the fellowship that Andy and Vince are spreading in Indiana. Talk them up and spread the word of their beer throughout the state and beyond – your palate will love you for it and you’ll be doing a good deed. It couldn’t hurt your chances in the afterlife.