These Booze-Making Capitalist Monks Will Make Your Day

When Europe's beer-brewing, liquor-distilling monks combine Catholicism and capitalism, the results are delicious.


Behind the gray stone walls of the 900-year-old Grande Chartreuse monastery, high in the French Alps, two monks dry, crush, and sort 130 herbs and spices into burlap bags. The "plants room" where they work is accessible to them alone, because they are the only people on Earth who know exactly which ingredients are in Chartreuse, the bright-green liqueur produced exclusively by their religious community.

Beneath their robes, Father Benoît and Brother Jean-Jacques wear rough sackcloth shirts meant to prevent them from ever getting too comfortable. They are among the 30 or so monks who live in almost total silence on the premises—vowed members of the Carthusians, often referred to as the most ascetic of the Catholic monastic orders. In her book An Infinity of Little Hours, Nancy Klein Maguire calls these men the "Church's green berets" because of their strict commitment to minimal speech, their vegetarian diet, and their practice of waking up to pray in the middle of the night—a "special responsibility…of being on duty, on call, keeping watch" when the rest of the world is asleep.

According to legend, a French general in 1605 presented the Carthusians with an ancient manuscript containing a recipe for an "elixir of long life." After more than a century of trial and error, the motherhouse's apothecary perfected the medicinal concoction in 1737. It would be produced on site until 1860, when a distillery was constructed nearby.

What started as medical ministry to local villagers is now a global luxury brand. Some 1.5 million bottles were sold in 100 countries last year, primarily for use in high-end cocktails and as an aperitif.

The industrious Carthusians of Grande Chartreuse, like their beer-brewing Trappist brethren and countless other religious communities, might be considered the original conscious capitalists. They have survived war, exile, natural disasters (one of their distilleries was destroyed in an Alpine landslide in 1935), and challenges to their intellectual property rights. Balancing the austere demands of their faith with the whims of an international marketplace, these monks maintain what may look to outsiders like an improbable balance between the Christian and capitalist virtues.

From Medicine to Fancy Cocktails

Booze production is an age-old tradition for Catholic monks, especially in Europe. "They had vast tracts of land for planting grapes or barley, a long institutional memory through which special knowledge could be handed down and perfected, a facility for teamwork and a commitment to excellence in even the smallest of chores as a means of glorifying God," wrote the Baylor theologian Michael Foley in 2017.

There was a major practical consideration as well: During the period when monastic alcohol making began, "it was better to drink beer than water for sanitary reasons," explains Fabrice Bordon, a brand ambassador for the Trappist beer Chimay. "The process of making beer purified all the ingredients."

In the 11th century, Arnold of Soissons—now known as the patron saint of hop pickers and beer brewers—is credited with encouraging the Christians living near his abbey to drink beer instead of water. "He served them with his alcoholic brews," explained a 2016 article for The Vintage News, "and many of the people in the town survived the plague."

We know the Chartreuse elixir was initially developed as a medicine, and "the very first recorded instance of whiskey was in an Irish monastic manual, where it was described as, and I swear I'm not making this up, 'a cure for paralysis of the tongue,'" Foley says. "Into the 20th century, whiskey was used as an anesthetic for surgeries and for dressing wounds.…Even bitters were invented and sold in pharmacy stores as a cure for seasickness."

Since Christians are called on to serve the needy in their communities, it makes sense that monastics at a time of rampant ill health would look for ways to combat disease and promote wellness.

"A long time ago, the monks would deliver medicines to the people at the door of the monastery," explains Maryline Boero, my tour guide on a June visit to the cellars in Voiron, France, where hundreds of barrels of Chartreuse are being aged. "But after a few years that was too noisy for them, so they stopped doing that and gave money to build a hospital in Saint-Laurent-du-Pont," the closest town.

They had money to give because Chartreuse had proved exceedingly popular, and not just among the sick.

In a modern era in which water is (mostly) clean and alcohol is no longer the most effective medication available, Catholic religious orders continue to produce a variety of libations. Twelve communities make official Trappist beers, including one in Massachusetts. The newest, in the United Kingdom, began brewing just this summer. And sale of Chartreuse financially supports Carthusians at monasteries as far-flung as South Korea and Brazil.

Paying for a Life of Praying

People affiliated with the monastic brands are quick to assure you that these endeavors are not about anything as worldly as profit maximization. The monks are merely trying to earn enough to support their activities. Self-sufficiency, after all, is a virtue.

"They don't make Chartreuse to make money-money-money," says Boero. "They only do it so they can continue to live the life of contemplation that they have chosen."

Chimay claims its brewery at Scourmont Abbey was launched in 1862 specifically to bring economic development to what was then a suffering part of rural Belgium. "It's not tithes [from the public] that allow the monks to survive—it's the reverse," Bordon says.

Three criteria must be met for something to be designated an "Authentic Trappist Product." It has to be made on the grounds of a monastery belonging to the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance; the business operation has to "be of secondary importance" to the monks' lives of prayer; and any profits that the order doesn't need have to go to charity. The Cistercians of Chimay have set up a foundation to ensure whatever extra money they make goes to a good cause.

But if Europe's Catholic monks aren't storing up for themselves treasures on Earth "where moth and decay destroy," they do tend to behave like good capitalists who know they have a good product.

In the 18th century, when the Carthusians realized people were drinking their "medicinal" concoction recreationally, they began selling a less-potent version colloquially known as "green Chartreuse." Later, the even sweeter and lower-proof "yellow Chartreuse" was introduced, another innovation catering to customer desires. Today, mostly as a novelty, you can still buy the original stuff in vials marketed as "Élixir Végétal." For $150, big spenders can also get a bottle of limited-quantity Chartreuse V.E.P. ("exceptionally prolonged aging").

And while every bottle's production still begins at the Grande Chartreuse, once the plants are sorted, they're driven to a brand new facility 12 kilometers away. There, three professional distillers—laymen—convert the plants into their lucrative liquid form. Father Benoît and Brother Jean-Jacques oversee this process, having been granted a dispensation to travel outside the monastery for that purpose. Chartreuse Diffusion, a company set up to handle distribution and advertising, employs some 70 people, including Boero. At no point are any of the other Carthusian monks involved.

Monasticism as Marketing

Brands associated with religious orders generally lean into the perception that their products are connected to ancient practices and profound contemplation. The label of every bottle of Chartreuse features a large "1605," a reminder of the year the Carthusians supposedly took custody of their elixir recipe. "Time is very important for the monks," Boero says. "They have time and they take time. We should be more like them."

At Chimay, Bordon tells me, a team of taste testers assembles at 11:30 each morning to try the latest batch and ensure it's ready for sale. "Every brew is unique," he says. "Sometimes it takes more time, and we don't want to release a product that is not perfect."

Wage laborers do most of the work. But because the monks own the means of production—the stills and barrels, the secret list of ingredients, the right to use the "Authentic Trappist Product" logo—the proceeds ultimately belong to them.

This sense of distinctiveness and authenticity—call it the "monastic mystique"—can be great for business. Playing off the push in recent years toward "locavorism" and "food traceability," the website for Birra Nursia, a beer made at a Benedictine monastery in Italy, encourages people to shop "monk-to-table."

Unsurprisingly, nonreligious brands have gotten in on the game as well. "On the other end of the spectrum, you have companies that are basically just capitalizing off of monastic reputations," Baylor's Foley says. He points to the French liqueur Benedictine as an example. "It sounds like a very monastic liqueur, but it has never been manufactured by the Benedictine order and the Benedictine order doesn't get a penny from the sale."

Bordon notes that there are many abbey-style beers out there, but only a few are official Trappist products. "Trappist beer, abbey beer, and other beer: If you can find it in the supermarket, normally they're all good," he says. "After that it's up to you to think about, who is making this beer? What's the philosophy? Is it just to push the volume, and the quality is not the main focus—it's just to enrich the family or the shareholders? OK, it's a business. But you have in our business some other values."

Fighting for Their Intellectual Property

In May 1903, the government expelled the Carthusians from France for the second time—the first had been during the French Revolution—and nationalized their assets. "The community was given fourteen days in which to quit the home that had been theirs for a thousand years," according to a 1931 history published in the Australian newspaper The Advocate. "The Father-General…was not disposed to submit to injustice without a protest," so the military broke down the monastery doors and drove out the monks by force.

A corporation was given control of the distillery and began producing a liqueur it called Chartreuse. But without the vaunted list of 130 plants, it was no more than an obvious imitation. "There is poetic justice in the sequel to this story," The Advocate article asserts. "Within a year the monthly consumption of the celebrated liqueur fell from 50,000 bottles to 3,000, so inferior was the quality."

Meanwhile, the banished religious community took its recipe to Tarragona, Spain, and set up shop there. According to the Chartreuse Diffusion website, drinkers across Europe quickly learned to ask for a "Tarragone"—shorthand signaling they wanted the real thing, as made by the exiled monks. The Carthusians also used their foreign trademark registration to prevent the fake stuff from being exported. After the usurper corporation went bust in 1929, the French government finally acceded to the monks' return.

Scourmont Abbey in Chimay, Belgium; Jean-Pol Grandmont/Creative Commons

Throughout all of this turmoil, the religious community has managed to keep the Chartreuse recipe a secret, protecting its valuable intellectual property. The plants room at the monastery continues to store the raw ingredients, lest outsiders be tempted to snoop.

The Trappists, for their part, pioneered high-proof brews in an effort to stand out from an overcrowded 19th century beer market, according to a 2016 article at Culture Trip. It turned out to be a smart bet: In 1919, Belgium's Vandervelde Law banned the sale and consumption of hard liquor in places accessible to the general public. The monks at Chimay and elsewhere were well-positioned to profit off that prohibition as bar patrons turned to very-high-proof beers as a replacement for the missing spirits.

The monks at Chimay, Chartreuse, and many other places in the world are capitalists in the literal sense. In many cases, they're only tangentially involved in the actual brewing or distilling process, and even less so when it comes to marketing and sales. They employ wage laborers to do most of the work. But because the religious communities own the means of production of their wares—the stills and barrels, the secret list of ingredients, the right to use the "Authentic Trappist Product" logo—the proceeds ultimately belong to them.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the International Trappist Association today keeps lawyers on retainer in Washington and Brussels, "ready to sue brewers who try use the word Trappist" without adhering to the order's three criteria. In 1999, the group rescinded a Dutch brewery's permission to place the Trappist seal on its beverages after the monks at Koningshoeven Abbey handed too much control over their operations to a large commercial beer producer. (The monastery regained its labeling rights, after a fight, six years later.)

Taking Advantage of Globalization

The monks of Scourmont Abbey may benefit from the monastic mystique, but make no mistake about the modern nature of their business. For one thing, Chimay beer turns out to be a thoroughly international product, incorporating barley malt from France, hops from Germany and the Czech Republic, and wheat from a distant region of Belgium. The brewers have even sourced ingredients from the United States on occasion. All this despite the fact that the monastery sits on hundreds of acres of farmland.

"A lot of people ask us why the monks don't grow everything we need in their field," Bordon observes—but the climate in that part of the country is "not great" for cultivating many of the necessary crops. By seeking out places that are ideally suited to a particular job, Chimay can buy higher-quality ingredients, and in larger quantities, than it could hope to produce on site.

The land, for its part, is mostly used for grazing cattle. "We're known to be in a part of Belgium that has some very good grass," he says. The milk their cows produce is sold to bring in revenue or used to make their famously delicious cheeses.

Still, Bordon maintains it would be impossible for any other outfit to replicate Chimay's beers, or even for Chimay to produce the same brews somewhere else. "You could maybe find the same yeast in another place," he says. "But the main reason is the water," drawn from wells located on the abbey grounds. "We cannot change that water. If we produced in another place it would change the taste of the beer. No compromise here."

Whether or not he thinks of it as such, the arrangement Bordon describes is a perfect illustration of the core free market principle that trade—especially among partners who have specialized according to their respective comparative advantages—is wealth-enhancing. Likewise for the decision to entrust the brewery operation largely to the care of laymen and laywomen.

Remember: To be considered an official Trappist product, oversight must be provided by the Cistercians. So how many residents of Scourmont Abbey participate in that task? "One monk is in charge of the relationship with the [beer and cheese] companies, and he is visiting once a week and walking through the brewery," Bordon says. "The decision that the community took was that 'our mission is to pray.' They don't have to get involved in the business."

There are still some places where the Trappists do the work themselves. One is Saint-Sixtus Abbey, whose Westvleteren XII often tops's annual list of the world's best brews. But the result of these monks' hands-on business arrangement is an extremely low total quantity produced. Consumers may purchase no more than two cases at a time, and only by showing up in person after calling to make a reservation. In fact, if you've ever tasted a Westvleteren beer, chances are you were in violation of the brewery's policies. Per the website, the stuff "is for sale only for private individuals, whereby every buyer undertakes not to sell the beer any further."

But not even the humble monks of Saint-Sixtus are completely immune to the allure of commercialization. In 2012, finding their monastery in need of some pricey repairs, they announced a one-time sale to American consumers of six bottles of Westvleteren XII packaged with a pair of commemorative glasses. Every store lucky enough to carry the box set reportedly sold out within minutes.

Private Property and the Church

These religious orders' entanglement with commercial enterprises may be discomfiting to those who see private property and pursuit of profit as anathema to Christianity. Didn't Jesus say that it's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to make it to heaven? And doesn't the Catholic Church believe in the "universal destination of goods"—i.e., that a person should regard his belongings "not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also"?

Indeed, for more than 100 years, Rome has been building a rich body of teachings on social justice, the upshot of which, to quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is that "reasonable regulation of the marketplace and economic initiatives, in keeping with a just hierarchy of values and a view to the common good, is to be commended."

Yet nowhere does this doctrine demand top-down wealth redistribution. "Primary responsibility [for regulating the market] belongs not to the state but to individuals and to the various groups and associations which make up society," the Catechism reads.

From the very beginning, the Church has categorically rejected socialism as a superior alternative to markets. There are two reasons for that. First, because the socialist ideology explicitly foments class warfare—laborers vs. capital holders, the proletariat vs. the bourgeoisie—and the Church is dedicated to fostering peaceful relations among mankind. And second, because property accumulation is both a human right and a necessary condition for a functioning economy.

As the earliest papal encyclical on these matters, 1891's Rerum Novarum, puts it, "every man has by nature the right to possess property as his own." Later, the document asserts that "the first and most fundamental principle…if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property."

At Chimay, the fact that the monks own, and thus control, the brewery operation is what gives them the ability to shut it down on weekends out of respect for their workers. "Even though we have a modern brewery and modern equipment, we use it only five days a week and eight hours a day—one shift," Bordon says. Weekends are reserved for employees to spend with their families. The fact that the brewery is privately held also allows the Trappists to ensure that any extra money goes to a charitable cause.

Even at little Westvleteren, where the monks do the brewing themselves, the order is known to insist: "We are not brewers. We are monks. We brew beer to be able to afford being monks."

In each of these places and dozens of others, religious communities are living out the Church's social doctrine, which says that businesses "have an obligation to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits." But they're also proof testing claims by free market advocates, who often struggle to convince the world that there's room in our modern system of global commercial enterprise for people to do well by doing good and do good by doing well. As the monks of Scourmont Abbey and the Grande Chartreuse demonstrate, blending capitalism and Catholicism can be rewarding in more than one way.