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Monks brew beer to help restore Italian town after earthquake

Father Prior Benedict Nivakoff is an American Benedictine monk who lives in Norcia and brews a beer called “Nursia” in the cellars of the Basilica of St. Benedict.

After an earthquake destroyed their 14th Century basilica, the monks are using their business to aid the rebuild

As we strolled along the main shopping street in Norcia, Corso Sertorio, the effects of the devastating Oct. 30 earthquake, the strongest to hit Italy since 1980, were not immediately apparent. Most of the shops, though shut, seemed intact. Christmas lights were strung overhead.

The scenery changed dramatically when our guide, Benedict Nivakoff, 37, a Benedictine monk from Connecticut who is known in the local monastic community as Fr. Prior, led us to Piazza San Benedetto, the main square. There, its dominant feature, the 14th Century Basilica of St. Benedict, the spiritual home of the Benedictines, lay in ruins. The bell tower had collapsed onto the roof, reducing the basilica to rubble. Only the basilica's façade was standing.

"When we got there right after the quake, the façade was wobbling and there was a moment when our breath was taken away," Fr. Prior said. "A basilica that had been around for many centuries was gone in six seconds."

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The basilica, built over the legendary birthplace of the saint, who was born in 480, was not the only Benedictine treasure lost in the central Italy earthquake. So was the monks' business, the modern brewery in the basement of the Benedictine monastery adjacent to the wrecked church. While the brewery was left more or less intact, it can't be used because the structure around it is unstable.

Two of the six stainless-steel fermenting vats are still full of beer – 5,000 litres in total. About 1,000 bottles of the beer lay in cases. The pre-earthquake beer is precious. While the monks plan to build a second brewery at their makeshift monastery on the hills overlooking Norcia, production may not resume for many months. That means the local bars and restaurants that cherish the beer, and the American beer stores that stock it, will be running short of supplies soon.

The inside of a store on the high street of Norcia, Italy devastated by earthquakes in August and October.

The beer is called Birra Nursia – Nursia is the Latin name for Norcia – and it's more than just another product in a town famous for its culinary delights, which include wild boar sausage and hams, black truffles, fine pecorino cheeses and Sangiovese and Trebbiano wines. The relaunch of the brewery, along with the monks' effort to bring their basilica back to life, have given Norcia hope that it will not forever remain a ghost town – the fate, no doubt, of many nearby towns and villages levelled in the series of earthquakes since August.

"The brewery for the townspeople is a sign of life," Fr. Prior said.

Norcia was not supposed to be an earthquake victim. The town was hit by devastating, fatal earthquakes in 1859, 1978 and 1997 – "dates written in flesh," as they are known – and was repaired each time to make the buildings more resistant to tremors. The horrendous Aug. 24 earthquake that killed about 300 people in and around Amatrice, about an hour's drive southeast of Norcia, inflicted little damage on Norcia.

As aftershocks from the August earthquake proved relentless, the locals lost their faith in the town's resilience. Most moved out, including the monks. The exodus probably spared Norcia from mass funerals. The town was virtually empty when the Oct. 30 earthquake hit in the early morning. There were no fatalities, though about 20 people were injured.

Moments after the earthquake struck, the Benedictine monks commandeered a car and sped down to Norcia. Their first thought was not the fate of their brewery or the basilica, but that of the cloistered Franciscan nuns, known as the Poor Clares, who lived near the basilica. "Firefighters helped us break down their door and we found the nuns huddled around the altar," Fr. Prior said. "We could have all died there."

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Benedictine monks in blue habits and local workers building foundations for a new church and residence near the church of St. Benedict.

When they inspected their brewery, housed in the remnants of a 13th Century barn, they found it in remarkably good shape. It was one of the few businesses in Norcia that was not destroyed. The monks' goal is to bottle the 5,000 litres of beer remaining in the two vats and get their new brewery going so that the sales can fund the reconstruction of the basilica and their old monastery. The original brewery, and the monks' tourist shop associated with it, will be brought back to life at some point. But that could take years.

The American Benedictine monks arrived in Norcia in 2000. Their idea was to reopen the monastery that was abandoned in 1810, when Napoleon clamped down on monastic orders. In time, the number of Benedictines rose to 20, all American save for one Canadian.

The Benedictine monastic order insists on a simple, spiritual life of discipline, prayer and chanting, but a life that is also industrious. The Rule of St. Benedict, a book of precepts that dictates the orders and principles of monastic life, does not contemplate a holy existence for lay-a-bouts. Chapter 48 states "for then are they monks in truth, if they live by the work of their hands."

But what work? One of the monks had some experience in brewing and was sent to Belgium to learn the art of Trappist beer making. Donations rolled in and the brewery was built in 2012.

Almost all the monks are involved in some way. Texan monk Fr. Martin Bernhard is the monks' cellarer – he is in charge of food and clothes provisioning – and manages the brewery. After a slow start, beer production of two varieties of the barley malt-based Nursia beer – the light Bionda and the dark Extra – ramped up to 12,000 bottles a month.

Mario Jacozzilli, owner of a butcher shop in Norcia.

Fr. Bernhard found distributors in Italy and the United States, but was unable to crack the LCBO, in Ontario. "The brewery was really helping us rely less on donations," he said. "Before the earthquake hit, it was really starting to take off."

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In Norcia, the beer, which costs €7.50 for the big, wine-sized bottle and €4 for the small version, was a hit with the locals, all the more so since 10 per cent of the proceeds went to charity. Mario Jacozzilli, 57, the owner of a butcher shop that did not survive the earthquake, said the monks' brew and the shop where it was sold became a tourist attraction and put the monks in good stead.

"They just didn't pray all day," he said. "They were monks who worked hard. Their beer was good, though expensive. I hope their brewery comes back."

Back in the brewery, Fr. Prior bent down, not to pray, but to show us a curious tombstone that monks found behind the wall when they were installing the brewing equipment. The stone, probably from the 1500s or 1600s, read "Sempre dura al dar sepultura," which roughly translates as "Always hard to bury the dead."

The inscription can be interpreted in various ways. Fr. Prior jokes that it could mean that fat men, because of their girth, were hard to bury. It will inspire the monks not to bury their beloved brewery. "We'll keep brewing," Fr. Prior said.

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