“We really brew, on a practical level, to sustain a way of life. Plus, it kind of brightens up Sunday suppers. (laughs)” — Father Isaac Keeley
St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts has always been known for two things: fruit preserves and Trappist monks in long robes.
For more than 60 years, the humble monks have sold fantastic locally sourced jams and jellies of all varieties (branded as Trappist Preserves) to maintain their monastery and support their quiet way of life. It’s available in many grocery stores throughout New England and also online. But, even stoic monks with kick-ass jelly are susceptible to economic downturns and inflation.
A few years ago, the monks realized that the rising costs and expenses of maintaining an aging monastery slowly exceeded the income from their regional jelly operation. Cutting back on those wildly extravagant jelly parties didn’t seem to help, so the monks started researching other ways to generate income. They eventually settled on a truly legendary and potentially lucrative part of their heritage: beer.
A Rich History
Let’s begin by saying: Trappist monks don’t fuck around when it comes to beer. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years in Europe and keep a close watch on the brewing process. To date, there are only ten monasteries in the world that are legally allowed to brew and label their product as an official Trappist beer. St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer is the only monastery in the U.S. with that privilege. That’s an impressive start. (No pressure, guys!)
In 2010, the Abbey dispatched two monks on a fact-finding mission to get educated on the history of Trappist beer, the art of brewing, and the legalities of distributing on a smaller, regional scale (much like their jelly operation). They rubbed elbows with brewers and distributors at the Belgian Beer Fest in Boston, MA–an event that I attended but only vaguely remember.
Word of the monks’ interest in the real family business traveled fast. Their European counterparts grew concerned. What did jelly makers know about Belgian beer? And, furthermore, what did Americans know about Belgian beer?
Hit The Books, Kid
In December 2010, Father Isaac Keeley, a former potter at St. Joseph’s, and another monk moved to Belgium to learn how to brew directly from their brew-master brothers in the motherland. They also had to convince the Europeans that they were indeed serious, capable, and committed to establishing the first Trappist brewery in America.
Eventually, the Europeans warmed up to the idea of an American Trappist counterpart. However, their initial fear was that St. Joseph’s would go too big too fast and ultimately fail–a common concern for any new business. The Euros offered three key pieces of advice that any brewery (or small business for that matter) should take:
- Identify what you don’t know. New to brewing? Hire a skilled, experienced brewing engineer to oversee the operation. Don’t try to do it all yourself if you don’t know what you’re doing!
- Do it right. Build a modern, state-of-the-art facility. Don’t cheap out on vital parts, equipment, and infrastructure for your operation.
- Baby steps. Start with a single beer for the first five years. Focus on that product, perfect it, build a reputation, and grow slowly but steadily.
Meanwhile, back home, the monks debated over what would be the most expensive project St. Joseph’s Abbey had ever undertaken. Jelly-making was easy and familiar; brewing was an unscouted monster. But, everyone agreed that something had to be done about the aging buildings and condition of the grounds. In the end, over 85% of the brothers voted in favor of opening a brewery.
The First Sip
Thanks in part to the established success of Trappist Preserves, the monks were able to secure a bank loan for an amount they won’t disclose. They built a multi-million dollar brewery in Spencer and hired Hubert de Halleux, a highly qualified Belgian master brewer who has helped breweries across the world, to oversee the operation and offer valuable consultation. Father Isaac became the Brewery Director and currently runs the day-to-day production. He can be seen walking around the brewery in his traditional robes–the rest of the monks on the production staff wear normal work clothes.
Over 20 different test batches later, the monks finally settled on a recipe they are proud to call Spencer Trappist Ale (6.5% ABV)–a slightly cloudy, golden brown, sweet ale that traditional Trappist fans will surely recognize.
In December 2013, Father Isaac returned to Belgium with a suitcase full of freshly brewed Massachusetts beer hoping to receive his brothers’ blessing. He delivered a PowerPoint presentation, answered questions, and poured glasses. Spencer Trappist Ale was approved unanimously and there was even an applause after the vote. It was enough to bring a tear to a slightly buzzed monk’s eye.
Spencer Trappist Ale went on sale this year and is currently only available in Massachusetts. Unlike jelly, alcohol is regulated by the ATF–a government agency notorious for having their underwear tangled up in vicious bunches most days. They get a little grouchy.
The monks plan on slowly expanding in the U.S. with the hopes of eventually selling their beer internationally. It will take steady sales over a few years and some degree of cooperation from the government, but so far, the skies look promising.
For more about the monks, the brewery, and St. Joseph’s Abbey, check out this video from CNN Money.