Feeling guilty about drinking? Well, ask the saints

Each year the holidays bring with them an increase in both the consumption of alcohol and concern about drinking’s harmful effects.

Alcohol abuse is no laughing matter, but is it sinful to drink and make merry, moderately and responsibly, during a holy season or at any other time?

As a historical theologian, I researched the role that pious Christians played in developing and producing alcohol. What I discovered was an astonishing history.

Religious orders and wine-making

Wine was invented 6,000 years before the birth of Christ, but it was monks who largely preserved viniculture in Europe. Religious orders such as the Benedictines and Jesuits became expert winemakers. They stopped only because their lands were confiscated in the 18th and 19th centuries by anti-Catholic governments such as the French Revolution’s Constituent Assembly and Germany’s Second Reich.

In order to celebrate the Eucharist, which requires the use of bread and wine, Catholic missionaries brought their knowledge of vine-growing with them to the New World. Wine grapes were first introduced to Alta California in 1779 by Saint Junipero Serra and his Franciscan brethren, laying the foundation for the California wine industry. A similar pattern emerged in Argentina, Chile and Australia.

Monks in a cellar. Joseph Haier 1816-1891, via Wikimedia Commons
Godly men not only preserved and promulgated oenology, or the study of wines; they also advanced it. One of the pioneers in the “méthode champenoise,” or the “traditional method” of making sparkling wine, was a Benedictine monk whose name now adorns one of the world’s finest champagnes: Dom Pérignon. According to a later legend, when he sampled his first batch in 1715, Pérignon cried out to his fellow monks:

“Brothers, come quickly. I am drinking stars!”

Monks and priests also found new uses for the grape. The Jesuits are credited with improving the process for making grappa in Italy and pisco in South America, both of which are grape brandies.

Beer in the cloister

And although beer may have been invented by the ancient Babylonians, it was perfected by the medieval monasteries that gave us brewing as we know it today. The oldest drawings of a modern brewery are from the Monastery of Saint Gall in Switzerland. The plans, which date back to A.D. 820, show three breweries – one for guests of the monastery, one for pilgrims and the poor, and one for the monks themselves.

One saint, Arnold of Soissons, who lived in the 11th century, has even been credited with inventing the filtration process. To this day and despite the proliferation of many outstanding microbreweries, the world’s finest beer is arguably still made within the cloister – specifically, within the cloister of a Trappist monastery.

Liquors and liqueurs

Equally impressive is the religious contribution to distilled spirits. Whiskey was invented by medieval Irish monks, who probably shared their knowledge with the Scots during their missions.