This brewery in the New Mexico desert is not a mirage


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ABIQUIU, N.M. -- A parched throat is one of the hazards of hiking in the New Mexico desert. If you're scrambling around the beautiful and empty stretches near this village north of Santa Fe, you might think you've seen a mirage when a brewery comes into view.

It's real. The Benedictine monks at Christ in the Desert, in the tradition of their Old World brothers, started brewing beer in 2006 at a small operation in their desert retreat 27 miles north of here. While small batches are brewed in the desert, the flagship beer, Monk's Ale, is made at a commercial brewery near Albuquerque.

The road approaching the monastery -- U.S. Route 84 -- is well traveled because it passes Ghost Ranch, the former home of artist Georgia O'Keeffe. Her paintings of the area capture the singular beauty and color of the canyons and creek beds where Christ in the Desert sits in the Santa Fe National Forest.

There's only a small sign on the left of the highway heading north from Ghost Ranch that points the way to the retreat up a narrow dirt road rutted and full of gravel that banged against the car as my wife and I innocently set course. We should have expected a bumpy ride because the route is called Forest Service Road 151.

PG graphic: Monastery of Christ in the Desert
(Click image for larger version)

Thirteen miles, bruised tailbones and nearly an hour later, the low adobe buildings appeared in Chama Canyon, seemingly dropped by helicopter into the flat, red-colored landscape. The monastery started in 1964 with architect George Nakashima designing a welcoming chapel that grows out from the canyon wall.

Accompanying the subtle architecture and stark rock walls is a silence that envelopes visitors -- aided by the lack of cell phone reception and absence of machinery. The place runs on solar power.

A layman, Berkeley Merchant, runs the brewing operation called the Abbey Brewing Co., at both locations. A former executive at high-tech firms in the Pacific Northwest, Mr. Merchant said he intended to retire to Santa Fe, but "I've been working on making beer almost since the day I got here."

For more than a thousand years, Old World monasteries supported themselves and sustained their monks by brewing distinct beers known as Trappist brews. The Benedictine monks at Christ in the Desert decided to follow that tradition to raise funds and asked Mr. Merchant to start the project.

"I can say now that it's been the most satisfying work I've ever done," he said.

Mr. Merchant brought in Brad Kraus, a freelance beer and brewery designer who installed a new half-barrel system at the monastery in 2011 and devised recipes to make brews similar to the European ones. Five religious orders in Belgium make Trappist beers while others farm out the brewing to commercial operations.

Mr. Merchant copied that approach by contracting with the Rio Grande and Sierra Blancha brewery in Moriarty, N.M., where the Abbey Brewing Co. maintains its own equipment. He makes specialty beers at the monastery for draft sales only, pointing out that "it's pretty rough getting a tractor-trailer down that road, so we keep it small."

He gets the beer started and turns the fermentation process over to the monks. Mr. Merchant also oversees the small garden where hops indigenous to New Mexico are grown and used in the monastery beers.

Mr. Merchant plans to expand the brewery's capacity and install more sophisticated equipment to make it a year-around operation. "We have to shut things down in the summer when it gets pretty hot," Mr. Merchant said, so he will add a refrigeration system in the next year.

Because the monastery brewing schedule is limited, visitors interested in a brewery tour must make reservations well in advance by calling Mr. Merchant at 1-505-670-6802. Check the monastery website www.christdesert.org for information on visits.

It also offers brief accommodations for individuals as well as a gift shop.

There are at least two other monasteries in the beer business this year: Spencer Trappist Ale is made by the monks at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass., an unfiltered beer in the Belgian tradition and available only in New England.

The Benedictine Brewery is the project of the Mount Angel Abbey in St. Benedict, Ore., and plans to release its beers later this year.

Western Pennsylvania's own Benedictine monastery, Saint Vincent, the oldest in the United States, brewed beer in the German pilsner style until 1920 and was the victim of Prohibition. After the brewery burned down in 1926, the archabbey in Latrobe abandoned plans to restore the brewery operation.

Kim Metzger, spokeswoman for the archabbey, said the Saint Vincent beer will remain only a part of history. "And besides, the recipe is lost," she added.


Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Post-Gazette.

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