Beer sales help monastery

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- A Benedictine monastic community has recorded a CD that has now climbed to the top of the classical sales charts of online retailer
The same community, the Monastery of Christ in the Desert in Abiquiu, N.M., also has begun expanding the sales territory for the beer it brews based on Belgian Benedictine recipes that have survived over centuries.
But with these both of these ventures being relatively new, that begs the question: How has a monastic community that's supposed to be self-sustaining been able to sustain itself in a remote part of New Mexico over nearly a half-century?
The answer: It hasn't always been easy.
The monastery was started in 1964. "Our founder came from a fairly wealthy family and basically they lived off donations," said Abbot Philip Lawrence, who has led the community since 1978.
"They tried to start a cheese-making industry but the water here would have to be treated and they didn't have the money for a water purification plant," Abbot Lawrence told Catholic News Service during a May 25 telephone interview from the monastery.
"They tried raising sheep, but that didn't work," he added. "They had a guesthouse, but that didn't bring in a lot of income."
"I came in '74 when we were still living off the money that he (the founder) had raised. We really worked hard at the guesthouse and we started a gift shop."
Problem solved? Yes -- and no.
The guesthouse is one of the monastery's steadiest revenue generators. People want to come and stay despite it being 13 miles from the nearest paved road and 6,500 feet above sea level, and in an area with an annual average rainfall of 6 to 8 inches.
"Guests come here primarily for silence and solitude. We have a little more noise now. We have electricity" -- thanks in part to New Mexico's largest private solar generator. "It used to be so quiet you could hear the birds' wings flapping over you," Abbot Lawrence said.
"It's incredibly silent and incredibly beautiful. We have cliffs going up 600 feet right behind the monastery. We don't give retreats. People come and pray with us."
Seminarians at Southern Baptist-run Baylor University in Waco, Texas, comes to Abiquiu for an annual retreat. Students from Duke University in North Carolina come each year, too.
"About half of our guests are Catholic. But they're all looking for something," he said. "This is not a seminary, but it's one of their (Baylor's) more popular programs. It's filled a year ahead of time. We have 17 guest rooms and 23 beds."
The gift shop is stocked with items the monks make. "We did lots of weaving. But the main brother who was weaving left the community," Abbot Lawrence told CNS. "We had a brother who was a potter and his pottery was incredible.
"The potter also left the community. We went through that with the weaver, and we went through that with a man who was making furniture. So we've tried to focus on craft work that doesn't require such expertise."
The monastery has settled on "craft work anybody could do with a little bit of direction," the abbot said. They produce enough goods now to stock two gift shops. "We make sandals, belts, soap, hand lotions, incense, candles, lots of little things," he added.
The income supports not only their own monastery, but four others: one in Chicago, two in "Old Mexico," as Abbot Lawrence put it, and a Vietnamese Benedictine community in Texas. "Our income, 30 percent, goes out to charity, helping other (monastery) houses," he said.
The CD, "Blessings, Peace & Harmony," was recorded not in a recording studio or even the monastery chapel, but in the monastery's refectory, or dining hall. Following a quick cackle noting the improbability of it all, Abbot Lawrence said, "We did one recording inside the chapel a number of years ago, but the acoustics were not as good. The refectory has the echo delay that works well for chant."
He doesn't know if his U.S. Benedictines will replicate the success of the Spanish Benedictine Monks of Santo Domingo do Silos, whose "Chant" CD of nearly 20 years ago became a top-three success on U.S. pop charts.
How did the CD project come to pass? "This is the story we heard," Abbot Lawrence replied. "The head of Sony International in Germany was talking to the upper-echelon leadership and said the world doesn't seem to be getting any better. We need to find a monastery that will work with us and do some recording."
An Internet search, he added, reveals that "not that many monasteries have held on to Gregorian chant. Apparently they were looking for a monastery in the United States -- and they've held on to Gregorian chant even less. Going on the website, looking for a monastery, most people would go to Google, you type in 'monastery,' we would be one of the first ones that come up."
A second CD could be in the works if Sony wishes it.
As for the beer, Abbey Beverage Co. produces Monks' Ale, Monks' Dubbel, Monks' Tripel and Monks' Wit. The first of these, Monks' Ale, has been available since 2005. Monks' Wit debuted in 2010. Monks' Tripel debuted in limited markets in February, and Monks' Dubbel does the same in June.
According to Berkeley Merchant, a lay member of the community, efforts are under way to secure distributorships along the Eastern Seaboard for the beers. Pennsylvania has been secured and Abbey Beverage is looking to expand from there.
The monastery grows the hops used in the beers, and does some of the brewing on-site as well as testing new recipes. Another facility in New Mexico handles the rest of the brewing. Abbot Lawrence said he hopes the beer investments will turn a profit either this year or next.
But once the business reaches a certain level of sales, it won't expand for the sake of expanding.
"Here in the United States, it's rare that we have liquor with meals unless we're going out," the abbot said, hoping out loud at some point that at "every main meal there's a pitcher a beer so that anyone who wants some beer can try it. I was in Holland one time, and they serve beer every feast day. I thought that's one thing we could do."
Even with all of these pursuits, about 40 percent of the monks' revenue still comes from fundraising, he added. "The beer and the hops will pick up that slack."

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