Stone by stone

Chico’s famous brewery teams up with monks for fundraising brew

Father Paul Mark Schwan (left) talks with Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman in the chapter house at New Clairvaux monastery.

Father Paul Mark Schwan (left) talks with Sierra Nevada’s Ken Grossman in the chapter house at New Clairvaux monastery.

photo courtesy of sierra nevada brewing co.

Buy Belgian:
The first of the new Ovila Abbey Ales will be available this month, in limited quantities, at select beer outlets and the Sierra Nevada gift shop.

It takes heaps of Old World cobblestones to build a monastery— and, sometimes, plenty of local craft beer.

Selling beer, anyway, is how the monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, just north and west off Highway 99, are raising funds to reassemble the Cistercian monastery Santa Maria de Ovila. This noble establishment was built in the late 1100s in the village of Trillo, Spain, on a hilltop overlooking the Tagus River. From this comfortable perch it watched the boats go by and the centuries pass. Summers came and winters went, and life might have seemed endless for this monument built of sacred stone.

But the mightiest of monuments will crumble at the force of the dollar, and in 1931 the monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila met its paltry fate when William Randolph Hearst partly dismantled the complex—including a handsome chapter house—with the rich-man plan of reassembling it in California as a gross vanity vacation home. Hearst eventually abandoned the scheme, settling for a mere castle at San Simeon and leaving a pile of Spanish masonry scattered in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Here, blocks, bits and pieces were vandalized, stolen and lost through the decades, until the 1990s, when New Clairvaux acquired the rubble.

In their efforts to rebuild the structure based on academic documents describing the original design, New Clairvaux’s robed residents have lacked only funds. So the abbot contacted Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s owner, Ken Grossman. They brainstormed the possibility of raising money by some creative means and, being a monk and a brewer, settled on making a special beer (was any other outcome possible?). Grossman, keen on putting his craft-brewing talents to philanthropic use, embraced the idea and gathered up the boys for a preliminary beer recon tour. In November, brewer Steve Dresler, research-and-development brewer Scott Jennings, communications director Bill Manley, New Clairvaux’s former abbot and current monk Thomas Davis, and Grossman journeyed to the land where the best beers aren’t Belgian-style; they’re simply Belgian. Here, the team visited some dozen breweries in a busy week to study the fermentation methods applied by Belgium’s monastic brewers.

“We mainly learned to get out of the way and let the yeast do the work,” said Manley, who notes that the estery, zesty fruit flavors of many Belgian beers are products not of brewers, but of yeasts at work. Upon returning home, Sierra Nevada’s brew team set a house yeast strain pulled from the brewery’s library loose on a vat of specialty hops and liquid candy sugar. When fermentation finished, the beer spent several months maturing in bottles plugged with corks and stamped with labels reading “Ovila Abbey Ales Dubbel.” The beer, of 7.6% ABV, is now exhibiting a chewy, malty character of dried fruit, nut, and caramel notes beneath its classic citrus-and-spice scents, according to Manley. It runs about $10 and will be soon available throughout Chico in 750-milliliter bottles. Proceeds, you can bet, are going to a good cause.


Fundraising beers are nothing new in the monastic world. Here, monastic rule decrees that monks support themselves by the labors of their hands. In this spirit, many European monks brew and sell beer. At New Clairvaux, onsite fruit trees have provided the abbey with a source of income, as have vineyards, which were planted in 2000 and have been producing wine since 2003.

The Ovila Dubbel’s association with a real abbey makes it one of the very few true “abbey” ales in America—and more will come. One beer, after all, is hardly equal to a monastery, and Sierra Nevada plans to brew more fundraising ales. Already on the release calendar are a bright and cheery Saison for the summer and a brooding Belgian-style Quadruple for November. Meanwhile, the historical Spanish landmark—destroyed by Mr. Hearst—will rise again from the Sacramento Valley floor, stone by stone, and beer by beer.