Ovila de Sierra Nevada: American-Made Trappist Ale

The collaboration between Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and the Trappist Abbey of New Clairvaux demonstrates a clear example of the intersection between religion and popular culture.

During the month of March last year, the first of three different styles of beer in a collaboration between Sierra Nevada Brewing Company and the Trappist Abbey of New Clairvaux started appearing on shelves across the country. Craft beer drinkers had been anticipating this release since the first press release from Chico, California, announced the partnership on August 6, 2010. As “the only authentic Trappist-style Abbey ales [brewed] in America,” the proceeds from this venture would be funding the rebuilding of a twelfth-century chapter house on the abbey’s grounds, the press release indicated, dating back to 1190 in Spain: Santa Maria de Ovila. Hence, of course, the name of the line of beers: Ovila Abbey Ales. Having acknowledged that the project was going to be expensive and time-consuming, the press release reported that the monks had already graciously accepted time, talent, and monetary gifts from various individuals. However, the revenue from their partnership with Sierra Nevada has been of particular interest among those following the progress of the project.

Of even more interest, however, are the economic dimensions of this collaboration, and how they relate to the centuries-long tradition of monastic brewing and the exploitation of particular commercial mediums to increase revenue – both spiritual and monetary. In an effort to effectively form a conclusive understanding that locates the collaboration as not only a business venture, but illustrative of unique contemporary trends in religiosity – and its direct encounter with popular cultural forms – both the abbot of the monastery, Father Paul Mark Schwan, and Sierra Nevada’s Brewing Communications Coordinator, Bill Manley, were personally contacted during the 2010-2011 and 2011-2012 winter seasons. In what follows, the accumulated data from those correspondences is explored, with particular attention and analysis given to what reflects the intersection between contemporary religiosity and commodification and consumption. Additionally, it is demonstrated that the involvement of the monks at New Clairvaux relates directly to the pre-existing interaction between “authentic” Trappist breweries in Europe and the global consumer market. ((There are currently seven Trappist breweries that have been permitted by the International Trappist Association to display the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo on their beer: Achel, Chimay, La Trappe, Orval, Rochefort, Westmalle, and Westvleteren. An eighth, Mont des Cats, located in France, might be granted this right in the near future as well. Further information can be found in the Trappist beer section on the International Trappist Association’s website.)) Thus, relevant data pertaining to the overarching implications surrounding monastic vows and market economy is drawn upon in an effort to further understand and interpret longstanding traditions and mainstream religious sensibilities within contemporary culture.

As noted on Sacred Stones, originally built between 1190 and 1220 on the grounds of the Santa Maria de Ovila abbey in Spain, the chapter house being rebuilt at New Clairvaux was a prized example of early Cistercian Gothic architecture. The Spanish government had secularized the abbey by 1835, and the property went into the hands of private owners. In 1931, a wealthy businessman by the name of William Randolph Hearst purchased sections of the monastery and had the stones dismantled and shipped to California to be reassembled on his estate. After encountering various financial troubles that prevented his plans from being actualized, Hearst presented the stones to the city of San Francisco to reconstruct the monastery as a museum near Golden Gate Park; this too, however, was never actualized. As the years passed, various reconstruction plans were conceived and interrupted, until Father Thomas Davis of New Clairvaux, Schwan’s predecessor, envisioned the rebuilding of the original monastery’s chapter house on his abbey’s grounds. After many more years of correspondence with museum officials, the Board of Trustees of the Museums finally awarded the stones to the Abbey of New Clairvaux, with the understanding that reconstruction of some sort would start within ten years of their receipt in 1994.

As mentioned above, the monastery, fully aware of how labor intensive and expensive the project is going to be, has made “substantial progress in the reconstruction,” having accepted contributions from various generous individuals of time, talent, and money. It is these contributions, of course, that are of particular concern – and specifically, the contribution being made through a business partnership with a close neighbor: Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. But why the partnership between these two particular organizations? Is there, or has there been, some type of previous relationship on part of the brewery and monastery, or is this the first time they have interacted with each other? If so, why only now? Both Father Paul Mark Schwan and Bill Manley were generously forthcoming with the data and information surrounding this collaboration. ((Unless otherwise noted, the following information was gained through email correspondence with both Father Paul Mark Schwan and Bill Manley between December 2010 and January 2011, and February 2012.)) Sierra Nevada’s origins actually date back to when Ken Grossman began building a small brewery in Chico, California, in 1979, and they have retained the reputation for brewing quality beers with only premium ingredients and time-honored techniques, that have become, critics proclaim, among some of the best beers brewed across the globe. Sierra Nevada also has a long history and reputation of generous philanthropy for local and regional causes, so their involvement with this project is certainly not anything out of the ordinary. For example, Manley mentioned that Grossman is a longtime supporter of children’s issues and education. Nationally, they donate a significant amount to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and the Child Abuse Prevention Council’s initiative against fetal alcohol syndrome. In addition, they locally support the Chico Unified School District reading programs and regional underage drinking prevention programs. Sierra Nevada also supports higher education for California State University Chico, Butte Community College, and University of California-Davis.

Although Grossman and Father Thomas Davis discussed the possibility of working together in 2005 (the monastery had originally contacted Sierra Nevada to ask for a donation for the building project), nothing really came of the conversation until 2010. As Manley reports, “Their conversation was casual, and not a true business discussion. There wasn’t really a reason the project didn’t develop. Both the Abbey and the brewery were interested, obviously, but at the time it was just a grain of an idea, and not a fleshed-out venture like it is today.” In late February of 2010, another smaller micro-brewery in the Bay Area, Bison Organic Beer, approached the monastery regarding a collaboration project. Bison’s interest was strictly business-related, in that it did not specifically pertain to the chapter house project. Within days of this, however, Sierra Nevada approached New Clairvaux with a similar offer, after having been contacted by the monastery a week earlier. According to Schwan, after considering both options, the monastery decided to go with Sierra Nevada for a number of reasons: Sierra Nevada is their neighbor – only twenty minutes away – they have a larger market base, they have been a pioneer in micro-brewing in the United States with thirty years of experience, and they have a reputation for high quality beer. Sierra Nevada also “seemed most committed,” Schwan states, “to accommodating itself in making the collaboration work by meeting the demands of trademark issues and our own Religious Order’s criteria for this type of business venture.”

That said, however, Manley made it clear that the partnership “was not then, nor is it today, motivated by any religious sensibilities on part of Sierra Nevada. As beer people, we are all familiar with the quality, reputation and tradition of Trappist-made beers.” In other words, Manley states, “When a beer-focused person hears the word ‘Trappist’ our minds immediately move to beer. When we spoke to a Trappist monastery about the possibility of working together, the first thing that rang true for us was beer.” Although the beers being produced by this collaboration, Manley admits, will not be Authentic Trappist Products (see note 1 below), as are the beers being produced by the seven remaining Trappist breweries in Belgium and the Netherlands, it does allow them to play a part in the rich, centuries-old monastic tradition of brewing beer.

These remarks by Manley engender another important question: why beer? In other words, why not just make a donation, as Sierra Nevada has done with the other organizations with which it has been affiliated? According to Schwan, the monastery had originally approached Sierra Nevada for assistance in funding the project, not to begin a beer brewing business with them. In other words, the monastery simply wanted to see if Sierra Nevada would be willing to assist them with the project, and their response was a line of beers specifically geared towards funding it. As Manley states, “Sierra Nevada could/would have simply made a donation, but while we here at the brewery were discussing the possibility, we thought a line of beers which could run over a period of years, instead of a one-time monetary donation, could be mutually beneficial for all parties involved.” This choice was motivated by several different factors, Manley states: helping to restore this particular architectural marvel in their immediate area, becoming involved with Californian history, the desire to work with Belgian-inspired beers, and their fascination and respect for abbey beers throughout the world, along with an interest in helping foster the tradition in the United States. A subsequent press release had also mentioned Grossman’s longtime fascination with Trappist ales, and as Manley corroborates, “He was interested in the beers then, and now, nearly 30 years later remains fascinated with the depth and character of these abbey-made beers.”

Another equally important question pertains to the specific amount being donated to the monastery by Sierra Nevada. Both Manley and Schwan made it clear that the line of beers is not a non-profit venture for Sierra Nevada; Sierra Nevada will receive profits from the sale of these beers. The monastery was given a sum of money up-front and will continue to receive a percentage from each case of beer sold. Unfortunately, neither Manley nor Schwan have been able to disclose the actual amount of the proceeds being donated to the monastery for their chapter house project, but Schwan was able to provide a percentage for the first year’s overall contribution: 20-25% of total funding for the project. If other supporters “step to the plate with larger donations,” then that percentage – though a significant part of the project – might drop. He also made it clear that Sierra Nevada has left it up to the monastery to determine how much of the donation will go towards the chapter house restoration, and how much will be used to support the monastery itself, in accordance with their vows.

Ovila Abbey Ales has currently seen the production of three different, historical styles. These first three include: an Abbey Dubbel, a Belgian-French style farmhouse ale known as a Saison, and an Abbey Quadrupel – released in March, June, and November, respectively. These were all released last year in 750ml bottles, with future production and innovation dependent upon their initial reception. According to Manley, the Ovila beers have been “a smashing success,” which has determined the line’s continuance this year. This past March saw the re-release of the original Ovila Dubbel in 350ml four-packs available year-round. A Belgian Golden Ale will be released in May, a spiced Quadrupel in November, and a version of last year’s Ovila Quad aged in bourbon and brandy barrels (draught-only) this December.

The formulation of the recipes for these historic styles was based on a trip Grossman and his soon took to Belgium in November of 2010 with the brewmaster and pilot brewmaster at Sierra Nevada, Bill Manley, and Father Thomas Davis, in an effort to experience some of the authentic abbey beers close to their source. As Manley reports, “With Belgian beers – or any imported beer for that matter – age and storage condition play a HUGE role in the way a beer tastes. We were able to get a true and unclouded sense of what these beers taste like in their prime and that really helped us to shape our recipes.” This unclouded sense was experienced at five of the seven remaining Trappist breweries: Westvleteren, Westmalle, Rochefort, Orval, and Chimay, among several secular breweries as well. It was based on tasting these unique flavors, and being educated on the particulars of these styles, that Sierra Nevada was able to formulate their own recipes for this line of beers.

Although Sierra Nevada does not claim to have entered into the collaboration under the pretext of any religious sensibilities or motivations, the intersection between both mainstream religiosity and contemporary popular culture remains. Regardless, then, of the initial intent of both parties, the collaboration between Sierra Nevada and New Clairvaux demonstrates a clear example of the intersection between religion and popular culture, in accordance with what Forbes and Mahan have classified in the introduction to their primer on popular culture and religion in America, as a phenomenon falling under the classification of “Popular Culture in Religion.” Following Forbes, this refers to “the appropriation of aspects of popular culture by religious groups and institutions.” ((Bruce David Forbes, introduction to Religion and Popular Culture in America, ed. Bruce David Forbes and Jeffrey H. Mahan, revised edition (California: University of California Press, 2005), 12.)) In this case, it would be in regard to the abbey utilizing a popular craft brewery. This category of investigation and classification is hardly exempt from contemporary analyses, as the so-called “megachurch movement” and the music industry, along with the implementation – albeit manipulation – of popular culture icons and slogans by religious institutions, have received much attention in recent years. However, there remains a fascinating dimension to the relationship this analysis has explored that has yet to receive as much attention in academia: the appropriation of religious elements by popular culture.

Following Manley’s remarks, Sierra Nevada was not directly concerned with the religious nature of the endeavor. However, from the perspective of an organization utilizing historic and religious traditions deeply connected to the institutions of the past, in order to promote the sale of a product (regardless of the fact that the product is funding one of those very institutions), there is certainly an indirect concern and appreciation for the surrounding religious sensibilities; after all, Grossman’s fascination can hardly go unnoticed as an initial motivating factor. Sierra Nevada is making a profit from the sale of these particular beers, and generated revenue is dependent upon market appeal and value. Without risking an overgeneralization regarding craft beer aficionados worldwide, it is reasonable to state that many, if not most, hold monastic beers still being produced with an incredible high esteem, if not outright reverence. Indeed, often hailed as being the best beer in the world, Westvleteren 12 is one of the beers brewed at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Belgium – one of the remaining seven Trappist breweries in Europe; the nostalgia of this brewery being the “least commercial,” only selling its product at the monastery gates and the neighboring café, may or may not be a factor, of course. There certainly is an advantage, then, in catering to the fascination and appeal that occupies the minds – and palates – of Sierra Nevada’s perceived market of consumers, which of course is clothed in religiosity.

This is not to say, of course, that Sierra Nevada has entered into the collaboration simply under a deceitful guise of selfless philanthropy, which may or may not be deduced regarding other propositions New Clairvaux received prior to embarking on the venture with Sierra Nevada; however, this also does not necessarily make them exempt from it either – especially given the fact that the amount of proceeds being donated remains undisclosed. A portion of the proceeds is going towards the building project at New Clairvaux, mimicking the charitable efforts of European Trappist breweries in Belgium and the Netherlands, which does attest to Sierra Nevada’s longstanding concern with community development and assistance, and is, of course, in accordance with what Schwan reports. However, they are also a business, and capitalizing on the nostalgia of monastic brewing is certainly beneficial in that regard.

The collaboration also revives, and enters into, the international dialogue between contemporary market economy and Benedictine monastic vows. Saint Benedict instructed his monks to “live by the labor of their hands” (XLVIII) and to remain as self-sufficient and self-dependent as possible. This understanding has not only applied to the monastic breweries throughout the Middle Ages, but the contemporary remnants of these early propagators of commercial brewing as well. Brewing beer not only sustained the monastery itself, but also provided a means – and still does – for these brothers to fund charitable endeavors in their surrounding community. While the brewing is not actually taking place at New Clairvaux by the monks themselves, but instead in Chico at Sierra Nevada, the relationship this project has with the “authentic” Trappist breweries can again be seen in the business practice of those such as Scourmont Abbey in Belgium – producers of Chimay Trappist Ales – which does not actually produce beer being brewed by the monks themselves either; the beer is brewed under the auspices of a separate business that has been licensed to use the name, and the brothers simply oversee production.

As an organization functioning within the sphere of contemporary popular culture, it can be understood that Sierra Nevada, in at least an indirect way, is appropriating particular religious elements in an effort to remain successful and appeal to the market of craft beer drinkers, if not win over any new converts to the industry in the process. Are the remaining “authentic” Trappist breweries not doing the same thing? The implications of this type of relationship are, of course, profound, in that it opens up a level of inquiry into the nature of religion and cultural forms that has previously escaped thorough attention of scholars and critics. This is not to say that a relationship of this sort has not already flourished, but it does highlight an interesting role monastic beer is playing in a contemporary, secular context. As Manley has made clear, the future of this project is dependent upon the success of the beers. With this understanding occupying the minds and long-term goals of Sierra Nevada, it is reasonable to assume that the implications of this burgeoning phenomenon are only beginning to unfold, and that the levels of investigation that will likely develop in the foreseeable future will provide scholars and critics alike with further insight into the manner in which religion and contemporary cultural phenomena interact with, and at times appropriate, one another in the contemporary arena of market economy.

Discussion and Comments

  1. 1.Are any Oliva Abbey Ales currently available?
    2.When will more be available?
    3.Will there be an announcement?

    • Hi, Wayne. I’m pretty sure Sierra Nevada is still regularly producing four-pack versions of a few of them, but their website is probably a much better resource for that information.