Through history, it was largely thanks to religious orders that the ancient arts of brewing and wine-making were preserved in Europe. According to legend, Irish monks also invented whisky. Even today, some well-known tipples are made in monasteries.
The Sacred Vine
There are only four monasteries in France still making wine. But for the thousand years leading up to the French Revolution, many of the country’s main wine-making areas were under the control of Benedictine and Cistercian monks. Wine was a medicine, a food, essential for religious observance and a handy source of income for the brothers. When Catholic missionaries ventured into the New World, they took their wine-making knowledge with them to California, Argentina and Chile. And to Australia. Sevenhill is the oldest vineyard in South Australia’s Clare Valley. It was founded, and is still owned, by the Jesuits and is highly regarded for its quality table wines.
Although his oft-quoted exclamation “Come quickly, I am tasting stars” is probably more legend than fact, the most famous of France’s wine-making monks was surely Dom Perignon. While he didn’t invent champagne, he is credited with refining the process and creating the first champagne cork. By introducing heavier ‘English glass’ bottles he also reduced the chance of dangerous explosions in the cellar, preserving that all-important fizz for happy drinkers.
Trappist monks originally brewed beer to feed the community, in days when beer was probably a safer drink than water. As the order spread from France to other countries, the Trappists took their knowledge with them. It’s still a rule that, to use the name Trappist, the beer must be brewed in a monastery, by monks. Six of the world’s ten Trappist breweries are in Belgium, and it’s the Belgian beers that are most common in Australia. Among the best known names are Chimay and Rochefort.
Bucks Behaving Badly
Strangely, a wine-based drink developed by the Benedictines in the 1890s as a medicine, and still made under license to Buckfast Abbey in Devon, has developed a particularly unsavoury reputation. Every 750ml bottle of Buckfast Tonic Wine contains as much caffeine as eight cans of cola and is around 15% alcohol by volume. No wonder it’s associated with what they call in Glasgow “ned” behaviour. According to one writer, “Buckie” has “almost supernatural powers of destruction” if you exceed the original recommended “Three small glasses a day, for good health and lively blood”.
Many liqueurs were originally developed as medicines, with alcohol used to preserve the health-giving plants from the monastery herb garden. Strangely, the liqueur you’d expect to be made by monks – Benedictine – isn’t. The recipe was developed by an industrialist, who may have invented a story about its religious origins. He appropriated the Benedictine order’s motto, Deo Optimo Maximo or D.O.M., for his label to reinforce the myth. Another liqueur with a quasi-religious heritage is Frangelico, supposedly named for Fra’ Angelico, a hermit monk who inhabited the hills of Italy’s Piedmont in the 18th century.
Perhaps the best known of the liqueurs genuinely produced by monks is Green Chartreuse, made at the Carthusian Abbey of La Grande Chartreuse in the French Alps. The full recipe, which contains 130 plants and herbs, is reputedly known to only three monks. They also make Yellow Chartreuse, which gains it colour from saffron. Other French liqueurs that continue to be made in monasteries include Stellina (somewhat similar to Chartreuse) and the mandarin-flavoured Liqueur Lorina Jaune. Eau de Vie de Poire Williams, a type of brandy, is made by the Trappists at the Abbey of Notre Dame D’Aiguebelle in Provence.