Under the Influence

From cheese to cannabis - the fascinating products made by monks

Monks create a myriad of merchandise that is sold to the public. Some sing and sell CDs of their chants. Others brew their own beer. A few even deal in marijuana. But in almost all cases, the products sell well and sell fast. And the reasons why are fascinating.
A crate of Trappist beer from Belgium. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

The work of monks and nuns is humble and functional. It is not motivated by success or greed. Labour is undertaken to sustain the abbeys where they live. No more, no less.

Monks and nuns do not want to beg or be a burden to anyone. Therefore, they create a myriad of merchandise that is sold to the public.

These products are almost always a function of their particular environment. So if a monastery sits on fertile farmlands, the products are grown, cultivated or derived from farm animals.

If a monastery has no arable land but resides near a forest, the product is hewn from wood.

Some monks sing and sell CDs of their chants. And some nuns deal in cannabis.

In almost all cases, the monasteries sell their products in gift shops and market their wares on websites.

Trappist Beer

The Westmalle Abbey was founded in 1794.

The monks there brew three different brands of beer. The first is called Tripel – it's a blonde, Belgian ale that is strong, slightly bitter and packs a 9.5% alcohol wallop.

The second is a dark ale called Dubbel and a third is called Extra, but that one isn't for sale and is only served to guests who stay there on retreat.

The Westmalle Trappist monks made an interesting decision recently that would be unheard of in the commercial world.

They decided to cap production of their world-renowned beers despite increasing demand. The reason: They didn't want to generate a profit.

The beers are all available in the monastery's pub called the Café Trappisten.

Another Belgian monastery renowned for its beer is the Our Lady of Scourmont Abbey.

The monks there make a beer called Chimay. It comes in three varieties: Res, Triple and what is considered by Belgians to be their favourite Trappist beer, Chimay Blue.

The hexagonal stamp of authenticity. (Terry O'Reilly)
Trappist beers can be found in stores but be sure to look for the small Trappist logo on the label that simply says: "Authentic Trappist Product."

This all-word logo is more than an advertising gimmick. It guarantees the beer you're buying has been made by monks and all proceeds are used to support the Trappist monasteries.

Commercial brewers love to put monks and abbeys on their labels because Trappist beers have such an admired reputation for quality and taste.

But only a dozen beers in the world qualify for the Trappist logo. And here's the clue: If there's a monk or an abbey on the beer label, you know it wasn't made by monks.

Musical monks

The Cistercian monks of Stift Heiligenkreuz in Austria sell a different product.

Namely, CDs.

In Europe, their recording, titled, Chant: Music for Paradise, not only went to the #1 position on the Classical charts, but also hit the Top Ten on the Pop charts.

It all began when the monks discovered Universal Music was searching for old sacred music, so these digitally-hip monks provided Universal with a link to their monastery website and a YouTube clip of their chants.

Since its international release, the CD has sold over 800,000 copies.

Proceeds from the CD are used to maintain the 900-year old abbey and for the training of Cistercian monks and seminarians from the Third World.

Heavenly cheese

Monks and nuns have made cheeses since the Middle Ages.

Cheese made by monks have amazing flavour and fragrance, all due to the fact the they are made by hand. (Karen Pauls/CBC)
Cheese is an important aspect of monastery living, as Benedictine monks and nuns adhere by a vegetarian diet.

The aforementioned Westmalle abbey also makes cheese along with their beer. They use unpasteurized raw milk from their own herd of about 100 cows. And in a striking difference from commercial farming, the monks give each cow a name rather than a number.

The cheese subtly changes colour and flavour depending on the season and whether the cows are eating grass or hay.

In the U.S., the nuns at Our Lady of the Angels Monastery near Richmond, Virginia, make and market a cheese that has earned them the nickname "Gouda Girls."

The monks of Scourmont Abbey sell a cheese that is soaked in their Chimay beer as it ripens.

Chimay cheese is a favourite among some of New York's top cheese connoisseurs. It is said beer and cheese go together at least as well, if not better than, wine and cheese – probably because beer uses grains, and dairy animals eat grains.

The monks at Abbay de St-Benoit-Du-Lac in Quebec also make cheese. It is the only cheese dairy in North America run by Benedictine monks.

Founded in 1912, the monks make 12 different cheeses with hazelnut and butter flavours.

The monks at Notre-Dame-du-Lac abbey in a different part of Quebec make a renowned Oka cheese.

The recipe resides in a notebook where the original monk wrote that if there ever came a day when the abbey stopped making the cheese, the notebook was to be burned so the secret process would not be divulged.

Conventual cannabis

Nuns from the Sisters of the Valley in California make medicinal products from their own marijuana crop.

The nuns cultivating marijuana were met with pushback. (Associated Press)
The nun's beliefs inform their business process. Production follows the lunar cycle and the nuns pray and meditate while preparing their products in the abbey kitchen.

The oils, salves and tinctures they create contain no psychoactive properties, so they can be legally sold online and exported internationally. The proceeds more than pay for the abbey's upkeep.

Initially, neighbours protested and tried to get the marijuana nuns to move, but as the Mother Superior there said, the nuns resisted that "head on."

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Under The Influence is recorded in the Terstream Mobile Recording studio - a 1969 Airstream trailer that's been restored and transformed into a studio on wheels. So host Terry O'Reilly can record the show wherever he goes.
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(Image Credit: Sidney O'Reilly)