Since 2018, the Catholic monks of Subiaco Abbey in Arkansas have been working diligently to brew the finest hand-crafted beer available under the brand Country Monks Brewing. It’s taken them a few years to get their brand off the ground, but now the community is venturing into the retail market, where their brews may soon find their way to a store shelf near you.
Brother Sebastian Richey OSB, who oversees the brewing operation at the abbey, recently spoke with Arkansas Catholic about the budding brewery. He noted that Catholic monks have been making beer for about 1,500 years and the monks of Subiaco Abbey take pride in carrying on the tradition, noting that their unique position as religious brewers sparks the curiosity of customers:
“It’s not a gimmick, but it is an idea that’s so not normal. The fact that we’re real monks doing it, making the beer, people are like, ‘I’ll give that a try.’”
For the last several years, locals and visitors have been able to enjoy their brews on site, but now they have the potential to reach a much broader consumer base as they have secured wider distribution, in 2023. So far, their brand is only distributed within Arkansas, but it would not surprise us to see a national campaign in the near future, because these monks consider their brand to be an extension of their ministry.
When people visit the abbey, Brother Richey explained, it gives the monks an opportunity to open their eyes to the Benedictine lifestyle:
“It starts a conversation,” Brother Sebastian said with a gentle smile. “We’re at Sodie’s last week and a number of people were like, ‘I love your costume.’” I was like, ‘Let me help you out here. This is not a costume. It’s actually a habit.’” He added, “We have people come into the taproom who’ll say, ‘You know? I’ve been driving by this place for 20 years, and I never felt comfortable stopping.’ To me, that’s exactly what the taproom does.”
Brother Richey noted that when deciding to expand the brewery’s services, they had to choose between investing in the ability to fill kegs and growlers or jump right to canning and distribution. While many small breweries find success with growlers, the abbey was ill equipped to keep the hours necessary for such a campaign to succeed. Their tap room is only open on Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.:
“With our hours and the way that prayer schedule and everything else is, there was never going to be a way that I can be open when people need us to be. Most places that are successful are open until 9 at night, and we don’t have that option. The option for us was to put beer on shelves where people can sell it for us.”
Canning has a few benefits over kegs and growlers, aside from the less demanding time requirements. Canned beer can just last a lot longer than beer poured into a keg or growler. On top of that, canning allows for distribution, which provides the opportunity for a wider customer base to get a taste of the abbey.
Brother Richey said that the canning machine the community invested in has already made the process a lot easier. It used to take over two hours for him to can just one barrel of beer, but the canning machine can prepare 30 cans per minute, and three barrels in just one hour.
In 2019, Aleteia reported on the brewing efforts of the monks at Subiaco Abbey, located about 100 miles northwest of Little Rock. Founded in 1878, the Abbey’s storied grounds serve the local community as a boon to tourism, as well as a boarding school for some 160 boys, grades 7 to 12. At that point, Country Monk Brewing had not yet even built their tap room.
Country Monk Brewing is the fourth monastic beer operation to flourish in the States, with others located in Oregon, Indiana, and Massachusetts. The last of these is the American branch of Trappist Beer, the most famous monastic brewing company, which was started in Belgium and spread to many countries in Europe.