Spencer monks bring Trappist brewing to U.S.

Date: 9/11/2014

SPENCER – Rich tones echo between sprawling fieldstone walls and across scenic green rolling hills as the bells hanging high above in a tower standing out against a blue sky and framed by soft white clouds toll.

It’s shortly before 2 p.m.

Two or three at a time, men in cloaks filter into the church. Once assembled, they begin to pray in unison, one of the seven times, not including the morning Vigil, they will do so between 3:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., when they retire and the Great Silence begins.

The midday prayer is short, but boasts depth of feeling, the faultless illustration of the conviction the men feel for their vocation.

These are the Trappist monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey, a group of 60 men ranging in age from 28 to 99, who have devoted themselves to the Order of Cistercian Life of the Strict Observance, which places an emphasis upon faith, work of the hands and self-sufficiency.

“Trappist life and Cistercian life is a contemplative form of monastic life. That means it’s dedicated to the quiet life. I have a friend who refers to it as ‘low-impact living,” Father Isaac explained. “It’s a life dedicated to prayer and meditation and to, balance that off, manual labor is pretty important and we have a longstanding tradition of finding a way to support ourselves through that work. We don’t go out to do ministry; we don’t do outreach but people do come visit us for counsel.”

It’s a simple existence, but one that requires the highest level of conviction. It’s one that harkens back to eras gone by in the same way the buildings themselves do, with intricate craftsmanship, high arching ceilings and stone faces, surrounded seemingly by nothing but nature in any direction.

Down the road, just beyond the psalms and stone, lies a sleek building, gleaming with metallic brilliance and computer automation, seemingly unbefitting in a place where custom and ritual reign supreme. It’s here that the Trappist monks of Spencer are melding old ideas with modern times.

In short, the monks are making beer.

Father Isaac explained the Trappists traditionally got by selling dairy products. However, since their move to Massachusetts in 1950 after a fire at their Rhode Island monastery in 1949 displaced them, odds are the work of these men’s hands you have sampled has been spread on toast. For more than half a century, the Trappist monks of Spencer have helped sustain themselves through the sale of jellies, jams and preserves.

The Holy Rood Guild has also provided vestures for clergy since before settling in Spencer.

Until recently, these endeavors helped the monastery remain essentially self-supporting, but in recent years, Father Damion, monastery abbot, now in his fourth six-year term as prime decision-maker for the community, explained that a host of factors, ranging from changing economic climates to a drop in the number of men and women interested in Catholic vocations, compelled the monks to look in other directions for income.

That’s when the monastery’s council looked across the Atlantic to their Trappist brethren in Europe, who have been extremely successful with the brewing of beer, Father Isaac explained. For years – some dating back as far as the 1500s, Trappist monasteries in Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria have utilized the art of beer making as a means of remaining self-sufficient. However, the practice had never been tried in the U.S.

“For a variety of reasons we were looking at options, specifically a less labor-intensive way to generate income to be able to carry on what we intend to do here. Brewing represented that option,” he said.

In order to be accepted by the International Trappist Association (ITA), the brewery had to meet a series of standards, he explained. The brewery must operate within the confines of the monastery, yet be of secondary importance. The proceeds from the sale of the beer must be utilized for the upkeep of the community and not kept for profit.

After extensive research on the subject was performed, Father Damion called for a vote and 87 percent of the community supported a proposal to build a Trappist brewery.

“It had to go to a vote because it was something that would affect every man in this community,” Father Damion said. “I was so glad it received the support that it did because it showed that there was a strong belief this could work for us.”

Father Isaac, a potter by trade, was selected as the brewing director.

“I believe [the monastic community] recognized I had a creative mind as a potter,” he said. “I also have my undergraduate degree in science, so it was a pairing that made sense.”

That point was no clearer than when standing in the lab, where Father Isaac spoke with enthusiasm about the nurturing and reculturing of the specific yeast, a type unbeknownst to the public due to ITA conditions, utilized in the making of the beer, discussing the science of the process with an artistic mind – “We make the wort, but the yeast makes the beer,” he said.

In the brew room, the system is nearly completely run by computers with the formula digitized. While one person can run it, the monastery ensures that at least two are present in the interest of safety. In creating such a unique system, Father Isaac explained he felt the community had successfully reached its goal and the ITA’s requirement of maintaining monastic life as the primary focus.

“We want to be a monastery with a brewery, not the other way around,” Father Isaac said.

While the process of brewing beer is complex in nature, Father Isaac and Brother Jonah, who assists with the brewing operation, agreed that preparing the beer for distribution has proven to be the most difficult part of the process, right down to the glass.

“The beer undergoes refermentation in the bottles and with the high level of carbonation, we found that glass bottles made here in America weren’t strong enough,” Brother Isaac explained. “The last thing we want is exploding bottles, so we have had to bring bottles in from Germany.”

Spencer currently offers four-packs of 11.2 ounce bottles as well as kegs. Plans for a 750 mL bottle were in the works and “are still on the drawing board,” Father Isaac said, but have been put on hold for the moment. Part-time employees who work with the monks making preserves help with the packaging.

“It gives us extra hands and helps give some part-time workers full-time work, so it’s mutually beneficial,” Father Isaac said.

Outside of the brewing and packaging process, the biggest thing standing in the monastery’s way of making the brewery a success was making sure people know about it. After all, with limited outreach to the community and lifestyle of solitude, garnering interest en masse would be difficult.

“We know from Trappist preserves and from the Rood Guild that we aren’t good at handling distribution and marketing in public, so part of our original business plan was to outsource those aspects,” he said. “We have a history of being able to do a really fine product, but on the other end our lifestyle is so antithetical to what you need to do for that.”

He continued with a laugh, “Even this is a bit of a stretch,” referring to allowing media access to the monastery and brewery.

A small company, called 1098 Distribution Inc., doing business as Spencer Brewery Distribution, was developed, with a great mind at its helm.

“They actually created one small company to handle our product. Their owner is the intelligence behind Chimay’s distribution and marketing,” he said. “Chimay, as you know, probably has the largest footprint of Trappist [beer] in the U.S.”

For more information on Spencer Trappist Ale, visit http://spencerbrewery.com. To learn more about the St. Joseph’s Abbey and the community of Trappist monks, visit www.spencerabbey.org.