It’s not uncommon for alcohol and religion to go hand-in-hand. Religious orders have produced alcoholic beverages for centuries, including France’s Carthusian Monks, who’ve distilled the herbaceous liqueur Chartreuse since 1737, and the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, which has brewed Trappist beers since at least the 17th century. German and Austrian monks are also well known for a long history of brewing beer, especially the Augustinians and Benedictines.
It may surprise Americans, however, to know that another order of robed brothers is brewing incredible beer much closer to home. Walk into the Friars’ Brewhouse Taproom in Bucksport, Maine, and you’ll worship the artisanal flight placed in front of you.
This is no standard brewpub. The décor is churchlike, with ornate standing candle holders and statues of saints. Curtains, adorned with a pint-glass print, cover windows overlooking the Penobscot River. A sign on the wall reads, “Complaints will be heard on the second Tuesday of next week.” And behind the counter preparing food is Brother Donald Paul, a Franciscan friar, garbed in a traditional brown robe with a rope around his waist.
The brewhouse is operated by the nonprofit Franciscan Brothers of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, which has a monastery seven miles away. Brother Paul runs the brewhouse with help from two other friars: Brother Kenneth Leo, who keeps the books, and Brother Stephen Leen, who bakes the pastries and daily bread. All live in the monastery down the road.
Franciscans aren’t typically known for crafting beer. “We’re more involved in working directly with the poor,” says Brother Paul. They do that, too, of course: The brewhouse’s Facebook page often features outreach the monastery does to help the community.
So how did it come to be? Brother Paul has interestingly been in hospitality for a while, having operated a monastery-run bakery in Bangor, Maine, for nearly 19 years. Though he originally learned to brew beer as a hobby, the interest snowballed—so much that he decided to get a brewery license and open a taproom. “We developed the recipes on our own,” he says. “Stylistically, they’re predominantly German and Belgian recipes.”
Brother Paul thinks his ancestral heritage may play a role in his interest in beer. “I can trace my lineage back to Charles Martel, the Holy Roman Emperor who was grandfather to Charlemagne. And his grandfather was Arnulf of Metz, the patron saint of brewers,” he says. Arnulf of Metz was famous for a saying that Brother Paul can recite from memory: “It is through God’s love and man’s labor that beer entered the world.”
The beer at Friars’ Brewhouse Taproom begins with clear well water from the Franciscan Brothers of St. Elizabeth of Hungary monastery. Most popular with patrons is the Whoopie Pie Porter, a dark, robust and chocolatey porter with hints of vanilla, butter and marshmallow. Its flavor profile is modeled after that of Maine’s official snack, the Whoopie Pie. “Not to be confused with Maine’s official dessert,” he jokes, “which is blueberry pie.”
Another highlight is an English-style pale ale—or ESB for “extra special bitter”—called the Admiral Peary’s Shipbuilder ESB. It’s named for Admiral Robert E. Peary, the Maine resident who discovered the North Pole. For those drinkers who can’t decide what to order, there’s a flight of four beers available to try a wider selection.
The food and drink menu is available in English and French, given Canada’s proximity of about two hours. And although beer is the main pull, the food is not to be missed. The description under the pâté de foie de poulet maison reads, “Back in the 1980s, Br. Donald was fortunate enough to study with the legendary Jacques Pépin at the French Culinary Institute. Made with Cognac, sherry, fresh sage and plenty of butter, this pâté is a product of that experience.”
There’s also a tremendous lobster roll, made with a superlatively fresh 1/3 pound of meat. “The lobsters were literally swimming 48 hours before,” Brother Paul says, explaining that they’re fished in Stonington, Maine, processed in Bucksport, Maine, and purchased day-of for the restaurant. Brother Paul’s explanation of why the aforementioned roll is served with a side of mayo perhaps tells you all you need to know about the taproom’s dining ethos.
“If you ask for drawn butter, we know you are a Flatlander who doesn’t know how to eat lobster roll… it’s heresy,” Brother Paul says. “I can almost guarantee you’re from Connecticut or some other godforsaken hellhole on the east coast.” He adds, “You can quote me on that. It’s been a while since I had hate mail.”
Kimberly Dionne, the only server at the taproom, isn’t a part of a religious order—“I jokingly call myself the resident pagan,” she says—but is nonetheless devoted to the cause. She and Brother Paul have 80 years of restaurant experience combined, which perhaps explains why the restaurant not only can operate with a small staff but sometimes pull in $3,000 worth of business in a day.
One last thing to note about Friars’ Brewhouse Taproom: Cell phones are forbidden, which means that strangers often start talking to each other at adjoining tables.
“We encourage people to get unplugged for the one and a half hours they’re here,” Brother Paul explains. Banning phones also solves another problem. “The rudest thing in the world is to walk up to someone and stick a camera in their face, like ‘here’s Friar Tuck making sandwiches.’ I’m not a Disney character,” he says.
Dionne runs interference for him—and people get kicked out for breaking the rules. When she sees the phone coming out, “I tell them, don’t even think about it; you’re not going to get lunch.” And that would be a sin.
Last Updated: June 6, 2023