A new restaurant called Friars’ Brewhouse Tap Room recently opened on Main Street, serving meals that some Mainers may have never seen before.
“The only restaurant that I’ve seen it in has either been in Europe or Canada,” said one of the tap room’s founders, Brother Donald Paul. Brother Donald is one of two friars in residence at the Bucksport-based Franciscan Brothers of St. Elizabeth of Hungary. “I’ve definitely never seen any in Maine.”
The meal he’s talking about is called raclette, a Swiss method of cooking where cheese is heated on a special grill and scraped off onto a dish of boiled potatoes, smoked ham and small pickled cucumbers called cornichons.
If that doesn’t strike your fancy, try the Dutch babies. Never heard of them? They’re a kind of pancake with a crust that rises up out of the skillet like a popover. Brother Donald said the pancakes can be savory or sweet, and stuffed with crumbled blue cheese, pecans, pears and other ingredients.
“The cheese melts in the middle,” said the friar, a Biddeford native who, before he donned his brown habit, spent much of his adult life working in bakeries, cooking in restaurants and hotels and training at the New England Culinary Arts Institute and the Culinary Institute of America.
If all the menu items thus far still sound unfamiliar, perhaps the desserts will ring a bell.
“I went completely old-school with the desserts,” said Brother Donald. “We’re doing Crème brûlée, panna cotta and chocolate fondue.”
Such hearty meals need to be washed down with something equally robust: beer. For the past four years, Brother Donald and his fellow friar, Brother Kenneth Leo, have been hard at work brewing beer in their mountainside friary. Their most popular brews include the Whoopie Pie chocolate porter, a Belgian-style monastery ale, a Saint Nicholas ale for the holiday season and a Black Bock beer for Lent.
There are four taps full of beer at the tap room. The Whoopie Pie porter and monastery ale will always be on tap and the other two taps will change with the season.
The new enterprise is the latest in a long line of leaps of faith the friar has taken throughout his life. Becoming a friar was one of them.
Before they were Brothers, Paul was a music teacher and Leo was a principal at a private school in Salem, Mass. When the school closed in 1994, the pair moved to Mariaville, where they began a new life of service volunteering for local church and community groups. A visiting priest soon gave the pair the idea of forming a religious community in Mariaville. That means a group of friars living together and serving others.
In 1999, the friars opened Friars’ Bakehouse in Bangor. There, they sold a range of breads such as anadama, rye, honey almond oatmeal, pumpernickel, French and sourdough, along with various desserts such as blueberry muffins, cornbread and whoopie pies.
By that time, the friars had moved to rural Bucksport and learned some important lessons about the restaurant business.
“We’ve been there 18 years and I make the same items every morning that I made 18 years ago,” Brother Donald said. “There’s no secret, you use high-quality ingredients, simple preparation and give it to the consumer as fast as you can.”
But the business offers more than just sweets and starch. Brother Donald explained that the mark of Franciscan friars such as himself and Brother Kenneth is to provide “a ministry of presence.”
“You’re just there for people,” the friar said. “People come into the bakehouse all the time and ask to speak with us or they want to chat.”
Brother Donald said he reminds visitors in need of advice that he’s not a counselor, a social worker, a therapist or anything of the sort.
“I’m a guy who knows how to bake bread and brew beer,” he said. “And if you want me to listen to you and pray with you, that I can do.”
Providing that kind of presence for people, Brother Donald said, is what distinguishes monks from friars. While monks live behind the walls of a monastery, friars attempt to leave those walls and engage with the people beyond them.
“It’s a very different sort of understanding of the religious life,” he said.
As mentioned earlier, Brother Donald knows how to brew beer. He first picked up the skill in 2014, after he bought a basic home brew kit from Central Street Farmhouse, right across the street from Friars’ Bakehouse. The friar made an Oktoberfest Amber and was surprised by the results.
“I said, ‘You know, this is not bad, this is really pretty good,’” he recalled.
Every time he brewed a batch, Brother Donald brought his beer to the Farmhouse, where Seth Lundy, the Farmhouse owner at the time, told him he should start selling the stuff.
“‘It’s good beer and it’s a really good backstory,’” the friar recalled Lundy saying. “‘You’re brewing this beer in a monastery on the side of a mountain in Bucksport.’”
Brothers Donald and Kenneth acquired a brewery license, and over time they experimented with new varieties of the drink, leading to the selection they will soon offer at the tap room.
Brewing came naturally to Brother Donald, who already had so much experience working with grain, water and yeast to make bread. But monks and friars also have a long history as brewers. Monks as early as the sixth century encouraged people to drink beer instead of water, because those who drank the former didn’t get sick as often.
Though nobody knew why at the time, the reason was because the brewing process involves boiling water, which kills off all the infectious pathogens within.
“It is through God’s love and man’s sweat that beer entered the world,” the friar said, reciting a quote attributed to St. Arnold of Metz, the patron saint of brewers, who lived in France in the sixth and seventh centuries and encouraged the imbibing of beer.
Brother Donald said he could be related to St. Arnold, since the bishop was the grandfather of Charles Martel, a Frankish prince and military leader.
“Oddly enough, my family name is Martel,” the friar said with a chuckle.
The old monastic brewing tradition really came to a head during Lent, Brother Donald said, when some monks would abstain from food and instead drink three liters of 8 percent alcoholic beer a day.
“If you get up in the morning after not eating in three days and you drink a liter of 8 percent beer, yeah, trust me you’ll talk to the saints as well,” Brother Donald said. “They’ll come down and sit on the edge of your bed and have a full conversation with you.”
Humor and history aside, Brother Donald said brewing and baking provide a religious experience for him.
“When you bake something that’s leavened with yeast or you brew beer, you are recreating — not creating — something that’s alive, it’s a living organism” he said. “To me that’s a prime example of what people now call intelligent design. It’s not accidental that yeast rises your bread. You have to put it together the right way, but it knows what to do.”
The divine experience has come along with the blessing of success. Still, it is a challenge for the friars to run the tap room at this point in their lives. But for Brother Donald, it’s just one more step in a long and fulfilling journey of faith.
“The expression we have at the house is ‘we don’t know what the future holds, but we know who holds the future,’” he said. “That’s what we do, we rely on divine providence. We step out of faith, we solve the next problem when it arises.”
The Friars’ Brewhouse Tap Room is located at 84A Main St. in Bucksport. For more info, call 702-9156 and visit the restaurant’s Facebook page.