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Building with beer and mortar

For the Trappist monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux, life follows a pattern centuries old.

They spend their days in the field and their nights in silence. They gather in prayer seven times daily, starting at 3:30 a.m. In many of their affairs, they are still guided by the 6th century Rule of St. Benedict — but not one of its 73 chapters deals with their current travails.

Benedict offers no words of wisdom on how the monks might find the funds to complete their most passionate pursuit: the resurrection of a medieval monastery from a jumble of stones William Randolph Hearst shipped over from Spain.

He is silent, too, on negotiating deals with a major brewery.

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The 23 monks at the rustic abbey north of Chico are seasoned winemakers — their Poor Souls Petite Syrah is a prizewinner — but, until a recent agreement with Sierra Nevada, all they knew of beer was how, on occasion, to drink it.

They are learning.

In partnership with the monks, Sierra Nevada next year will release an ale that pays tribute to the renowned Trappist beers of Europe. The brew also will be a boost to New Clairvaux, with the company pouring some of the venture’s profits into the monastery reconstruction project. Sierra Nevada will train Father Thomas X. Davis, New Clairvaux’s 77-year-old abbot emeritus, as a “sensory professional” — a beer taster who knows his phenols from his esters.

The alliance was forged only in the last year when the monks contacted the brewery, one of Chico’s biggest businesses.

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“We approached them for a fundraiser,” said Davis, a trim, wry man who also serves as the abbey’s forklift operator. “I felt so outlandish.”

But what’s one outlandish moment in a saga spanning more than 800 years?

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In 1190, monks started building the Santa Maria de Ovila monastery about 90 miles northeast of Madrid. For centuries the complex thrived, but by 1835 it was left to decay. Farm animals wandered through the chapel. The chapter house — a community hall so named for the chapters from the Rule of Benedict that were read daily — became a manure pit.

Nearly a century later, an art dealer working for Hearst, a voracious collector, stumbled across the ruins and purchased them for $85,000. Never one to think small, the legendary newspaper publisher planned to use Ovila’s limestone blocks in a grand redesign of Wyntoon, his family retreat at the base of Mt. Shasta.

In 1931, more than 100 workers dismantled the monastery and 11 freighters hauled the stones — 2,200 tons in all — to San Francisco. Under Hearst’s plan, they were to be used for a palace that would outshine San Simeon. Ovila’s 1,800-square-foot chapter house was to be reconstructed as a reception hall for an eight-story castle. Its chapel was to be transformed into a swimming pool 150 feet long.

The Depression scuttled Hearst’s vision. Ultimately, he gave the stones — some weighing as much as half a ton — to San Francisco for construction of a medieval museum. But for decades they sat in Golden Gate Park, where they were scorched by fires and smashed by vandals. Some were used for a retaining wall at the Japanese Garden and others in projects throughoutthe park.

In 1955, Father Davis was passing through San Francisco when a friend pointed out crates of stones piled in a eucalyptus grove behind the de Young Museum. The friend told him they were the remnants of a Cistercian monastery.

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“It was like being caught up in a dream,” Davis recalled. The neglected remains were those of an all-but-forgotten sacred place founded by members of his own order — now known as Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists.

“Wouldn’t it be a wonderful thing,” he thought, “to get them for the abbey?”

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When Davis took over as abbot 15 years later, he hadn’t forgotten the stones. From time to time, he read stories in the San Francisco papers either about new plans to use them or anger at their continued neglect. He never quit thinking that somehow they could be put to good use on the abbey’s 590 acres of vines and prune trees, part of a huge spread once owned by California railroad tycoon and politician Leland Stanford.

Sometime in the 1980s, a group of New Clairvaux monks drove to San Francisco and, with permission from parks officials, loaded a pickup with about 20 stones. “I thought we’d use them artistically around the abbey somewhere,” Davis said.

But nobody told Margaret Burke, an architectural historian who had a grant to study the prospect of the monastery’s reconstruction. When she learned that some of the stones were at New Clairvaux, she showed up to retrieve them.

“She was expecting I would give her a hard time,” said Davis, “but I’m not that kind of person.”

Burke left with the stones — and with the impression that if Ovila didn’t rise in Golden Gate Park, it just might have a good home at New Clairvaux

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In 1994, museum officials gave the monks the go-ahead to take the lot. The only requirement was that they start work within 10 years on a project that would be open to the public.

The next year, the last of 19 truckloads left San Francisco for Vina. It was a poignant moment, ceremonially marked by a handful of modern-day Druids who had long used the stones in worship. Davis left some behind for them.

When the dust cleared, the abbey had about 1,300 stones — a fraction of Hearst’s shipment from Spain. That would be enough, Burke had concluded, to restore the chapter house.

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Davis became the plan’s overseer, champion, fundraiser and publicist. As word spread, foundations and individuals gave money. Some people made bequests. So far, about $6 million has come in, with an additional $1 million needed to complete the chapter house by 2012.

It’s exacting work, made even more complex by the need for a concrete superstructure to brace the medieval building against earthquakes. Craftsmen familiar with dramatically vaulted Gothic ceilings are rare in the farm country around Vina.

For six years, the job has been supervised by Frank Helmholz, a German master mason who splits his time between the abbey and a restoration project at Egypt’s Temple of Luxor. Clambering up a ladder in the chapter house, he confesses to a daily dose of awe, pointing out the signatures inscribed by long-ago Spanish carvers: cross-hatched lines, a backward N, even a Star of David. Others are still heaped shoulder-high in the vast brick barn built to store Stanford’s brandy at what was once the world’s largest winery.

“I feel a connection to the old stonemasons,” Helmholz said as he helped workers hoist a stone with a pulley and chain. “For me, it’s a labor from on high.”

The building is about three-quarters done. It’s as spare as Shaker furniture, reflecting the Trappists’ unadorned faith.

“The simplicity, the depth, the light: It’s a nice image of God,” Davis said.

With its columns and arched entryways, it is intended to look much as it did when Spanish monks assembled it in the centuries before Columbus set sail.

Exactly how it looked back then is a matter of scholarly speculation. Builders working on the New Clairvaux project were guided by photographs and drawings made as the original chapter house was pried apart in 1931 — when it was a dilapidated shell. Only about 60% of the original stones survived the centuries in Spain and their exile in San Francisco; the rest were carved out of a limestone quarry in Texas, the closest place builders could find stones that matched the ones in Spain.

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At Sierra Nevada’s headquarters in Chico, 20 miles south of the abbey, executives have been keeping an eye on the chapter house’s progress.

Seven Trappist monasteries in Belgium and Holland own the trademark “Trappist beer” and zealously guard its use. Sierra Nevada’s “abbey ale” will be released in three varieties next winter, summer and fall. All will be called Ovila, in a nod to the project at New Clairvaux.

Though Ovila will not be labeled a Trappist beer, the brewery is taking the Trappist tradition seriously.

“Everybody in the brewing business knows about the legacy of Trappist beers,” said Sierra Nevada spokesman Bill Manley. “It’s monumental.”

Manley, Sierra Nevada founder Ken Grossman and other executives recently visited Trappist monasteries that brew beer in Belgium, with Davis as their guide.

“I know some of the monks over there,” he said. “And, as it happened, I had nothing else to do.”

Neither the abbey nor the brewery is disclosing how much money the ale will generate.

At about $10 per champagne-style bottle, that’s up to high-end consumers who have a taste for Belgium or a soft spot for medieval monastic history.

“Who knows?” Davis said with a smile. “It depends how much they drink.”

steve.chawkins@latimes.com


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