American Trappists Are Here
For more than a century, Catholic Cistercian monks known as Trappists have been
brewing and selling what many beer lovers consider some of the best in the world.
Eight monasteries - six in Belgium and one each in Holland and Austria - produce the
only beer recognized by the International Trappist Association as authentic Trappist
beer. But now the 63 brothers of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, MA - about an
hour's drive west of Boston - will join them, selling the first Trappist beer brewed
That in itself is a transforming change for the St. Joseph monks since for nearly 60
years they have been selling only jams and jellies to help support their community.
Now they were interested in the real family business: beer. Interestingly, the Spencer
monks do not drink much beer. As part of a Roman Catholic religious order started in
1825, they pray seven times a day, live without many modern amenities, such as
television, and forgo personal possessions.
They don’t hold individual bank accounts, but they still have bills to pay. The abbey,
built in the late 1940s on the site of an old dairy farm, is in need of expensive
improvements to its roofs, copper plumbing, and distinctive stone exteriors.
At the same time, the monks’ numbers are shrinking, meaning fewer contribute to the
upkeep and work that support the community. Home to more than 150 monks in the
1950s, the monastery houses 63 today. The average age is 70. With fewer monks
and rising expenses, the Trappists convened a task force of monks and lay people
from the community about a decade ago to seek answers to their financial challenges.
They are forbidden by the order from fund-raising, but Trappists in monasteries
across the United States sell products from honey to bourbon-infused fudge to pay
their expenses. None of the Trappists in the United States has undertaken beer
brewing, though in Europe, Trappists have brewed for centuries, making some of the
most prized beers in the world. However as the Trappist fame spread the monks
continued to abide by the requirement that all profits from their venture be used to
cover their living expenses and the maintenance of monastery buildings and grounds.
The journey from jams to beer started almost five years ago when St. Joseph's sent
two monks on a fact-finding mission to the Belgian Beer Fest in Boston. Within hours,
their European brothers were alarmed to learn of the inquiries. Their mission was met
with great skepticism was because of their American origins and location. Despite
such resistance the two monks remained in Belgium to see how their European
brothers brew - and to convince them that they could properly produce an
American Trappist beer.
The European monks weren't the only ones who needed convincing. Back at St.
Joseph's, a robust debate among the brothers was underway. Some were concerned
about starting what would be the most expensive enterprise ever undertaken by the
abbey. But everyone agreed the aging monastery buildings were getting
increasingly expensive to maintain. In the end, more than 85 percent of the
American brothers voted for the project.
"We see it as a 50-100 year project. (Just) as we're standing on the shoulders of
those who came before us and built these building and supported the way of life,
hopefully future generations will be able to stand on our shoulders, what we are
doing - and we see the brewery as part of that," said Father Damian Carr, head of St.
The European monasteries made three strong recommendations: To brew beer of
Trappist quality they must build a state-of-the-art brewery, hire a skilled brewing
engineer, and brew just one kind of beer for the first five years. The St. Joseph's
monks set to work and built a multi-million-dollar brewery that would be the envy of
almost any microbrewery in the world.
Securing their bank loan - an amount they won't disclose - was made easier by the
success of the monks' previous business venture, "Trappist Preserves" and by the
fact that the European brewers, wanting a beer that wouldn't damage the Trappist
brand, agreed to help the Americans develop a good recipe.
After more than 20 trial batches, the monks in Massachusetts settled on the recipe
for what would become Spencer Trappist Ale, a "refectory ale" of 6.5 percent alcohol.
The cloudy, golden beer is all-American yet rooted in European tradition with sweet,
yeasty notes familiar to fans of other Trappist ales.
The final step was bringing the beer to their European brothers for approval. They
gave it unanimously. After that a U.S. distribution deal was signed which currently
offers the beer for sale only be in Massachusetts, but soon that will be expanded
nationally and eventually internationally.
On New Year's Day 2014, at their annual holiday party, the brewery team tapped a
keg of the final product for the whole St. Joseph's community - the first time many of
the brothers tasted the beer that will soon be synonymous with their monastery.
There are eight Trappist monasteries with breweries in Belgium, Holland, and Austria,
according to the International Trappist Association, a Belgian nonprofit that certifies
the authenticity of products made by the monks. For a time, one of the beers of
Westvleteren Brewery at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Belgium was ranked as the top
beer in the world and received one of the highest ratings ever given at
beernexus.com - SPECIAL REPORT
USA gets its own Trapppist Brewery