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Holy cows, hot sauce part of monks' ministries in Subiaco

Artificial insemination, embryo transfer breed superior Black Angus

Published: March 20, 2010   
Black Angus cattle raised by the monks at Subiaco Abbey are recognized for superior genetics. The abbey was named the 2009 Breeder of the Year by the Arkansas Angus Association.

Subiaco Abbey's priests and brothers engage in many ministries. Running the academy and the Coury House Retreat Center and serving in parishes are a large part of what they do.

But they also raise cattle, make peanut brittle and grow peppers to make their special "Monk Sauce," and view these activities as ministries as well. None of these come close to supporting the abbey financially and aren't intended to, said Brother Ephrem O'Bryan, OSB, the spokesman for the Benedictine community.

"Those are all worthwhile things to do, and the same thing with the retreat house and the school," he said. "They're all good ministries, and that's what they are. They're not meant to be money-makers."

Yet each of these enterprises has proven successful. For instance, the abbey's herd of purebred Black Angus cattle recently earned it the 2009 Breeder of the Year award from the Arkansas Angus Association.

Steve Flickinger of Summers, Ark., who was on the selection committee for the award, said Subiaco Angus, as the cattle operation is known, was chosen "because they have a very progressive program which includes embryo transfer and artificial insemination that has helped advancement of the breed in Arkansas.

"People want to buy your cattle for their genetics," he explained.

The association's statewide membership of about 175 typically nominates eight to 10 breeders for the award each year, he said, and whoever gets the most votes wins.

"You've got to be thought of pretty highly by the other breeders" to receive the award, Flickinger said.

The glossy black cows that graze serenely in the rolling green fields surrounding the abbey are the result of this carefully controlled breeding program overseen by Father David Bellinghausen, OSB, and farm manager Craig Layes.

The herd now numbers about 300 head, Layes said, and supplies bulls to other breeders. The young bulls are usually sold by the time they are 16 to 18 months old. Layes estimates about 40 to 45 were sold last year. Most of the cattle are sold to breeders within a 100-mile radius of the abbey, he said, so they stay in the community.

The Subiaco monks had raised dairy cows since the abbey's beginnings in the late 1800s. But times and the cattle industry changed, and the dairy herd was sold in 1964 and replaced with beef cattle of various breeds.

When those cattle were auctioned off in 1998 to make way for the Angus, a billboard on Highway 22 called them "holy cows," according to the abbey's Web site. Angus breeders donated purebreds to the abbey, and Subiaco Angus was born.

The program reached a milestone in January 2005, when it made its first sale. A cow/calf pair sold for $5,000 and two bred heifers for $8,250 and $9,000, the Delta Farm Press reported at the time.

This year's calf crop will be born in the fall, Layes said.

"Sixty percent of our calves will be embryo transfer kids. We just pick the best of the breed and hope everything works well."

While the cattle, valued for breeding purposes, aren't produced for consumption, that's not the case with the abbey's other commodities -- its famous hot sauce and peanut brittle. These are the purview of Father Richard Walz, OSB.

Father Walz began making habanero pepper sauce while stationed in Belize. When he returned to Arkansas in 2003, he brought with him some seeds of the notoriously hot peppers and planted them in the monastery's garden.

That first year, he said, about 140 gallons of his Monk Sauce was made and either sold or given away. The next year, he grew more peppers and filled about 3,000 5-ounce bottles. And in 2009, he estimates they produced about 5,000 bottles.

The Web site, which sells the Monk Sauce along with products from other monasteries, describes it this way: "The meek may inherit the earth but they will never know the joy of tasting this hellishly hot habanero pepper sauce, created for courageous souls who are blessed with an ironclad constitution."

Father Walz said friends in Belize told him he should label the sauce "Industrial Strength Hot Sauce!"

"Others have suggested that we market a 'mild' version of our sauce," Father Walz said. "I counter by saying that there is no such thing as a mild habanero pepper."

The sauce does come in red and green varieties. The red sauce is made from the mature peppers, which turn red as they ripen, while the green sauce is made from the unripe peppers.

"The thing that sets our habanero pepper sauce off from others is the generous amount of peppers we use in making the sauce," Father Walz said.

Abbey Brittle has been made and sold at Subiaco Abbey for 15 years, from an original Arkansas recipe developed by the mother of one of the abbey's cooks, Father Walz said.

In a spacious kitchen, Father Walz keeps watch over skillets of brittle cooking on a gas stove. After the brittle cools and hardens, it is broken into pieces and packed into bright red 32-ounce tins bearing the Abbey Brittle monk logo.

"We believe the secret of Abbey Brittle's good taste is the large measure of peanuts used in each batch and the fact that it is made slowly, one skillet at a time, and not mass produced," Father Walz said.

But another secret ingredient he reveals is the baking soda added at the end of the cooking process, "which helps to make it 'fluff up' more than other brittles so it's less dense," and therefore more crunchy than chewy.

Father Walz said that last year, the brothers made some 4,300 cans of Abbey Brittle. Both the brittle and the Monk Sauce are available in the abbey's gift shop and online.

The brittle sells for $18 at the gift shop, or can be mailed for an additional $7.

The 5-ounce bottles of sauce sell for $4. Mailed orders cost $4 more for postage and handling, or, to save on postage, four to 12 bottles can be shipped for $12.

For information or to order the brittle or sauce, see

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