Some of the most passionate advocates in the world of beer are among the monks of the Roman Catholic Order of the Cistercians, also called the White Monks or Bernardines. Their name comes from the city of Cîteaux (Cistercium in the Latin), located in Eastern France. Following an austere life of spiritual reading, prayer and manual labor, the Cistercians are dedicated to self-sustenance through tasks focused in the fields of agriculture and architecture, book illustration and binding, and the brewing of ales.
The order, founded in 1098, is embedded in the history of Western Europe, surviving through more than 900 years of ups-and-downs, including economic hardship and two World Wars. These days, famous Abbey beers are taking center stage, led by Westvleteren XII of the Abbey Sint Sixtus in West Flanders, Belgium, and the Ovila Collaboration Beers made by Sierra Nevada Brewing Company of Chico, California for the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California.
Westy 12, as Westvleteren XII is affectionately called by Americans, is revered among the most coveted, rare beers in the world. Throughout its history, the beer could only be purchased within the walls of the abbey. But costs have been ever-spiking in all markets, and the monks’ needs are no exception. Pushed to cover expensive renovations at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus, they began selling Westy 12 outside the walls of the abbey on 12/12/2012, in limited quantities. Rumors abound that it will only be available to the public until 13/13/2013, much like the end of the world predicted by the Mayan calendar.
At 10.3% ABV, Westy 12 pours burgundy red, with aromas of caramel and nuts vying for your attention. Fruit, anise and exotic spices touch your taste buds, with licorice lingering in the finish. The flavors are intense, complex and voluptuous.
In some ways, this beer echoes the complex history of this Trappist Order. During WWI, the abbey was home to nearly 400,000 allied forces who occupied both the abbey and its surrounding lands. During this time, the monastery also opened its doors to refugees who had lost their homes. WWII was even more challenging; but after the wars, the abbey returned to a more sedate lifestyle, consistently brewing its capacity of 4800 hl/year. It has now strayed from this number for a short time, making its beer available in cases of 24, or in limited quantities of 6 bottles with 2 branded Westvleteren chalices.
The background of Ovila is no less colorful. In 1190, the Cistercians broke ground for the Abbey of Santa Maria de Ovila, a medieval-style monastery near Trillo, Spain. The abbey sustained their spiritual order for 800 years until the wind, weather and Father Time left the building in ruins by the early 20th Century. In 1931, William Randolph Hearst, the gushing-with-money newspaper magnate, dismantled it stone-by stone, with the intention of using the materials for a family castle in the northern California countryside.
That dream never fully took shape. The stones, stored at Golden Gate Park, fell victim to urban rot; but by 1994, they were again in the capable hands of the Cistercians near Vina, California. The Cistercians set about rebuilding the chapter house as the Abbey of New Clairvaux.
Needing funding, they approached Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company in Chico California, appealing to their common roots in brewing. Brewmaster Steve Dresler of Sierra Nevada worked with the monks to develop three Ovila beers, with a portion of the proceeds flowing into the coffers of the monastery for the rebuild.
It was a mindbender for Dresler, who typically brews beers with assertive West Coast hoppiness. These beers, consistent with the abbey styles of low hop levels, were reliant on delicate yeasts that infused layers of flavor amidst the sweetness of rock candi sugars and syrups.
Three original beers were launched to coincide with the seasons: Ovila Abbey Dubbel, Ovila Saison, and Ovila Quad. Packaged in 750 ml bottles with cork and cage, the beers are delicate and understated, a polar opposite of the regular Sierra Nevada line of beers. Success begat more styles. Experimentation in barrels allowed the beers to take on nuances that added roundness or character to each style.
New Clairvaux Petite Sirah Barrel-Aged Ovila Saison picked up some age in Sirah wine barrels for 8 months. Ovila Quad did time in Bourbon Barrels; another vintage had exposure in Brandy barrels. Abbey Dubbel was hit-up with a splash in red wine barrels. The collaboration seems to have piqued the innovative spirit of Dresler, while adding solid value to dreams finally realized by the brothers at New Clairvaux. The Ovila collaboration gives new meaning to the phrase, “Everybody must get stoned.”
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