Cistercian monks, experience design, William Randolph Hearst, Spain, beer, and champagne corks

Why use a champagne cork on a $3.50 330 ml bottle of beer?


At the risk of “diluting the brand” (Postcards from Spain) allow me to turn all “beer blog”  and touch on some subjects that are near and dear to my heart: beer, Spain, and experience design.

I started Postcards from Spain as a place to share some of the thousands of photographs I’ve taken during my years of travel in Spain. What’s more, rather than just a place to post pictures (there are better venues for that) I wanted to tell stories with photographs, in a venue that encourages you to stop and pause for a moment  (something that social media sites actually discourage with the urgency created by knowing that there is another post just below, one which demands that you scroll down to “see what happens next” in a literal race to the bottom that can never be won).

I want Postcards from Spain to be a place to create a sense of place and time, to convey an experience, not to be an exercise in speed scrolling. To that end, I often post a short narrative along with the image(s) to give some background, but more importantly to set a scene, to try to impart a sense of place or time to a photo and to try to convey some sense of what I felt when I took the photo. In that sense, Postcards from Spain is my attempt at, on a very limited scale,  experience design.

Experience design is a difficult discipline. The designer has no control over the intended audience’s state of mind on entry, common understanding of the subject, perception aptitude, etc. The best the designer can do is make assumptions and work to them. Success is fleeting and hard to measure. In fact, almost every single interaction between the audience and the designers work will never be seen or evaluated by the designer, with practically  zero feedback  the designer can use to evaluate the effectiveness of their work.

Occasionally one encounters a “designed experience” in an area of interest dear to one’s heart. The shared understanding,  common ground and shared interest allows one to fully understand the designers intent in a way that the general public might not. Formula One Paddock-scented Man Candles might be an example. To the non gear-head, a race day scented candle might just “smell like gas”. But to the initiated, those who have spent time on or near the hallowed grounds of Laguna Seca or Le Mans, the addition of a slight hint of the essence of hot rubber to the mix of oil and petrol will immediately be perceived by the intended audience and (assuming it has been properly technically  executed by the candle manufacturer) the product is a success.

OK – back to beer and experience design, but first we need to take a quick detour to the ruins of an abandoned monastery 150 kilometers North East of Madrid. The monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila. Trust me I’m going somewhere with this.

In the late 12th century, Cistercian Monks erected a monastery on a plot of land near what is now Azañon, about 150 kilometers northeast of Madrid, on land recently wrestled from Moorish control. The Christian Castilian rulers followed a policy of granting land to parties that declared an interest in holding newly re-conquered land under Christian rule. Many of the recently established Catholic religious orders (the Cistercians included)  grew rapidly in stature as a result.

The monastery thrived and grew for the next 400 years, but toward the end of the second millennium began to fall into a state of decay. Civil wars,  Napoleonic invasion, and a misguided anti-clerical populist decree all contributed to the ultimate decline and abandonment of the monastery by the beginning of the 20th century. Enter American Media Tycoon William Randolph Hearst.

In the 1930’s, Hearst and his chief architect Julia Lewis traveled to Spain to assess the feasibility of disassembling and transporting the monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila to the United States for reassembly. Morgan had already overseen the construction of Hearst castle on the central California coast, but apparently Hearst was after something a little more “authentic”. Deals were struck with the local Spanish officials and money changed hands. State officials were “encouraged” to look the other way while Spanish cultural heritage protection laws were ignored. Santa Maria de Ovila’s time in Spain, as it had stood for hundreds of years, had come to an end. In July of 1931, 11 ocean-going freighters passed through the Panama Canal with the stones of the ancient monastery in their holds. They put in to the San Francisco Bay and unceremoniously disgorged their commoditized , palatalized,  stones onto the docks and headed back out to sea. Plans for the new, rebuilt structure were drawn up and approved. A site was planned and preparations made.

The best laid plans…

The economic turmoil of the depression forced Hearst to abandon his plans and donate the stones to the city of San Francisco in return for the city paying off the huge bill for storing the thousands of crates housing the stones. Hearst even refused a demand by the newly minted dictator Francisco Franco to return the pieces of the monastery to Spain. The stones experienced various depredations including multiple fires, neglect, and theft. It seemed as if the Monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila had angered the Almighty himself and carried into all affairs a bias toward eradication.

Until (are you following this all?) 2003, when, after years of wrangling, ground was broken on the construction of the Abbey of New Clairvaux in Vina, California. There, Cistercian monks were able to purchase the remaining stones and rebuild portions of the monastery by filling in missing portions with newly fabricated elements. Today the monks work 14.5 acres of prime California land to produce a variety of wines that their 12th century brethren could not have imagined.


OK, so where are we?

Experience design? – Check!

Cistercian Monks? – Check!

William Randolph Hearst? – Yep!

Spain?- Got it!

Ahhh yes…beer!

In 2010, the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company enetered the Belgian style abbey ales market via a partnership with the nearby Trappist monks of the Abbey of New Clairvaux, who inhabit the monastery constructed from the stones of the ancient monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila, now the oldest building in America west of the Rockies and the oldest example of original Cistercian Gothic architecture in the Western Hemisphere.

BAMM! triple whammy of Beer, Spain, and Cistercian monks in one sentence!

OK so what does this all have to do with experience design? Get to the point man!

Well, let’s say that you’re a Californian beer maker and you want to offer a Belgian Trappist Abbey Ale to compete with the amber flood of Belgian Trappist Abbey Ales washing over the beer aisles of American specialty beer shops and premium grocery stores. You can’t just put your product, however awesome it may be, into a standard beer bottle and rely on a catchy label to attract enough attention to differentiate yourself on a crowded shelf and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. It doesn’t matter that your craft beer was made with fruit that was grown and harvested on the grounds of an ancient Spanish Monastery that was originally built on land wrestled from a crumbling Muslim kingdom, that housed Napoleons troops, whose purchase was clouded in intrigue, that was disassembled,  labeled piece by piece, snuck out of Spain on the eve of a revolution, shipped to the US to languish and be set afire!  No – you need to create an identity and an experience for the American beer connoisseur.

And here we are – enter the champagne cork!

Ovila cork 1

For their Belgian Style Abbey Ales, Sierra Nevada has chosen a design that features a heavier than usual dark brown bottle with a champagne style cork, complete with its wire cage “muselet” and heavily rounded lip reminiscent of larger size bottle from Belgium and France. Why go to such trouble and cost on a bottle that only holds 330ml (12 oz)? The user experience.



Say what you want about marketing, but in my opinion, these guys “nailed it” in every choice that went into the design of this bottle. Sierra Nevada has delivered an experience through their choice of the cork and muselet, heavier bottle, rounded mouth and detailed label design, but in a small, single serving form that lends itself to a more frequently enjoyed experience.

Pick up the bottle – it’s heavier than you would expect.

Ovila present 1

Check out that cork – Fancy!

Look at the label. The color and design say “I was drawn by a monk in a 900 year- old candle-lit, stone walled room in an ancient monastery. The die-cut edges look like a ratty old hand-torn piece of paper, while costing only pennies a piece to produce.

label edges label CLAIRVEUAX

Sierra Nevada, the folks that brought “Craft Brew” into the public lexicon in the 90’s have turned their attention to the Abbey Ale market with a love that shows in every detail of packaging execution, creating an experience at every step of engagement with the product.

Tying it all back into the theme of this blog:  sharing an experience with the user through an image that captures and conveys the essence of a place and time, this humble beer bottle has accomplished exactly what I set out to do with photographs, but with glass, wire, paper and cork. It transports the user to another place and time. It looks like it came out of the bodega of a 900 year old monastery and conjures up images of monks toiling in the fields, sitting at the long wooden table, candles and crusty loaves of bread at hand.

And yah – the beer itself is excellent!


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