If the emerald hills and clear waterways of Logan County aren’t enough of a draw for tourists, there’s always the beer at Country Monks Brewing, produced on site at Subiaco Abbey.
“We’re trying to do something that has been done across the world for 1,500 years,” said Brother Sebastian Richey OSB, who oversees all things beer at the abbey. “It’s not a gimmick, but it is an idea that’s so not normal. The fact that we’re real monks doing it, making the beer, people are like, ‘I’ll give that a try.’”
Since its founding in 2018, Country Monks has always engendered loyalty from the Catholic community, and thanks to the novelty of a real working monastic brewery, in rural Arkansas of all places, it’s nabbed its share of tourists.
But of late, the beer has gained additional fame and exposure thanks to wider retail distribution.
After several years of being available only on site, the beer has landed in several Arkansas retail locations, including Circle S Foods in Paris and Bluff, Liquor World in Fayetteville and Sodie’s Wine & Spirits in Fort Smith. Brother Sebastian said the move into retail was a challenge, but necessary for the brand and its ministry to grow.
“Some people say that we skipped a step because most small breweries start off with putting everything in kegs and then filling growlers, doing tap, stuff like that,” he said. “We didn’t invest in growlers. We didn’t invest in that whole side of it. The business plan always was that we were selling beer for people to go, beer that was going to last longer. As soon as we started canning it, people were like, ‘This is going to work.’
“But with our hours and the way that prayer schedule and everything else is, there was never going to be a way that I can be open when people need us to be. Most places that are successful are open until 9 at night, and we don’t have that option. The option for us was to put beer on shelves where people can sell it for us.”
Few people were worried about retailers not seeing the potential of beer made by monks, especially in the hyper-local culture that tends to dominate the craft beer community. In fact, a far bigger concern was how to keep up if the product was as popular as everyone hoped it would be. For that, the brewery turned to technology, especially on the canning side, which has kept the beermaking process in high gear.
“It’s a great machine. It does three cans at a time and you can do up to 30 cans a minute,” Brother Sebastian said. “Before that, we did it by hand, and we would probably take two and a half hours to can one barrel. Now we’re able to can three barrels in an hour. Total game changer.”
Between in-store promotions and delivery drop-offs, the monks also get a chance to open some eyes about the Benedictine lifestyle.
“It starts a conversation,” Brother Sebastian said with a gentle smile. “We’re at Sodie’s last week and a number of people were like, ‘I love your costume.’” I was like, ‘Let me help you out here. This is not a costume. It’s actually a habit.’
“Then they’re like, ‘Wait a minute. Where are monks at?’ I’m like, ‘First, you guys have St. Scholastica right here, those are monks also, then there’s us down at Subiaco.’ They’re like, ‘Wait a minute. The building that looks like a castle or a prison?’ Well, yes, it is neither of those.”
The brewery has also latched onto a local historical promotion, the True Grit Trail, tracing the fictional route followed by the protagonists in Charles Portis’ book “True Grit.” The abbey’s True Grit Oatmeal Ale was created as part of the promotion, further highlighting the brand.
There’s so much opportunity, in fact, that Brother Sebastian is taking a measured approach to ensure the brewery can keep up and still stock its own taps. He said no matter how big the brand ultimately gets, the heart of the operation remains in the taproom, and he’s determined that the locals and visitors who gather regularly here have enough pints to fuel their friendly conversation and fellowship.
“I love getting the beer out there. I love having people be able to go to a store and buy it, but I still want people to come to the abbey,” he said. “It's a whole different perspective as to other bars that I’ve been in and bars that I’ve worked at. People are willing to engage with each other here whereas when you go out to a restaurant or bar you don’t really do that.
“We have people come into the taproom who’ll say, ‘You know? I’ve been driving by this place for 20 years, and I never felt comfortable stopping.’ To me, that’s exactly what the taproom does. It offers a space that’s comfortable for people to get away from that ‘Oh, I don’t really know what that is, so I’m just going to keep driving.’ Now they stop. And it’s fun and it gives me something to do. I get to talk about the abbey and the beer.”
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