Mid-Atlantic Brewing News February/March 2006
The Celebrated St. Vincent’s Beer
By Rich Wagner
Before there were any “glass-lined tanks of Old Latrobe,” there was a monastery nearby where monks from Bavaria “tendered their brew” in wooden vats and even gave refuge and sustenance to legions of hobos. The history of brewing in Pennsylvania is so long and varied, why shouldn’t it include cloister-beer?
Shortly after America’s first lager was brewed in Philadelphia (1840), perhaps some of the same monks who cultivated it started the first Benedictine community in America near Latrobe, PA. In 1844 Rev. Father Boniface Wimmer of Munich, along with six priests and several lay brothers, received a small brick structure and a little church in Unity Township to begin their self-sufficient religious community. They immediately set to work on the first Abbey building and were joined the following year by twenty-three brothers who carved out quite an industrial community near what came to be known as Monastery Hill.
Despite the cultivated fields, the blacksmith, carpenter and wagon shops, the water powered grist mills, and the brick kilns and slaughter houses, there was no traditional Abbey brewery to help quench the thirst.
According to one account, “through an unusual sequence of events, the monks found themselves the owners of a brewery and a tavern,” which Pittsburgh’s Bishop O’Connor found scandalous. Apparently there were wet and dry factions among Catholics at the time, drawn along ethnic lines. Unlike the Irish, the Germans did not care to be teetotalers, and the issue came to a head when Bishop O’Connor ordered them to divest themselves of their interests. In the summer of 1851 Father Wimmer sailed to Europe to appeal Bishop O’Connor’s orders.
By other accounts Father Wimmer secured permission from the Pope in 1855 to begin brewing beer for their own consumption. The following year a small log structure was built for that purpose and it wasn’t long before the notoriety of the Abbey’s beer spread far and wide, and started to become available in two taverns, one of which was in Latrobe.
Father Wimmer was well-known to the “tramp fraternity,” and in the early 1860s even had a brick dormitory constructed where as many as 120 “knights of the road” could be put up with a clean bed, a meal, and a foaming mug of beer before being bid farewell. It was at this time that a brewer and maltster by the name of John Hogl came from Pittsburgh to share his knowledge and wisdom with the monks, who were then brewing the celebrated St. Vincent’s Beer.
In 1867 a large brewery and malt house were built at the foot of Monastery Hill and the monks extended their trade to the leading towns in Pennsylvania, where it was available to only one saloon or inn-keeper per town. In 1877 when Father Wimmer was made Arch Abbot, the brewery was producing about 2,500 barrels per year. When he died eleven years later, the brewery was making $40,000 per year for the Abbey.
Rev. Father Andrew Hinternach succeeded Father Wimmer as Arch Abbot, and for the next five years the “dry agitation against the religious breweries” fomented. The Pope relented and permitted the brothers to brew beer only for their own consumption, an arrangement continued until 1892 when Rev. Father Leander Schneurr became head of St. Vincent’s Abbey and began selling the beer once again. It was advertised in the newspaper, bottled by a Pittsburg brewery, presumably, the Latrobe Brewing Company which was then a branch of the Pittsburgh Brewing Co.
As the popularity of St. Vincent’s beer once again flourished, the dry element within the Catholic Church exerted its influence, and in 1899 the brewery withdrew its product from the public market. Which is not to say the demand for the beer evaporated, for at the time there were forty priests and four hundred lay brothers who could still enjoy their St. Vincent’s Beer. It is not known how long the “cloister brauerei” continued, but the Loyalhanna Brewing Co. in Latrobe (a branch of the Independent Brewing Co. of Pittsburgh) came out with a brand called “Monastery Beer” prior to prohibition.
The brewery and malt house have been torn down, but the Saint Vincent Archabbey is still active. The monks buy and mill locally grown wheat. Visitors can purchase sacks of St. Vincent’s Flour.
Caption 01. Plant of the Benedictine Society, Latrobe, PA. The large building in the foreground is the malt-house: the large one in the middle, the brew-house, and the one on the right is the storehouse.
Caption 02. Benedictine Society Brewery, Latrobe, PA.
Caption 03. Loyalhanna Brewing Co. pre prohibition Monastery Beer label. Bob Kay collection.