Massachusetts Monks’ Brewery Preserves Roots and Helps Others

‘Spencer Trappist Ale’ is getting a lot of attention.

Spencer Brewery director Father Isaac stands in front of cases of Spencer Trappist Ale, the first certified Trappist beer made outside of Europe.
Spencer Brewery director Father Isaac stands in front of cases of Spencer Trappist Ale, the first certified Trappist beer made outside of Europe. (photo: Justin Bell)

SPENCER, Mass. — The new brew from St. Joseph’s Abbey has been highly rated by beer aficionados, earning praise at such venues as

“Spencer Trappist Ale” made its commercial debut earlier this year as part of Spencer Brewery; it is the first certified Trappist beer made outside of Europe.

The certification comes from the International Trappist Association, a group started by the eight Trappist breweries in Europe in 1997 to safeguard the “Trappist” name and establish standards for monastic communities to follow.


Getting Started

So how did these monks get into the beer-making business?

The story started in 2009.

Father Isaac (the Trappists prefer to be known by only their first names) is the director of Spencer Brewery, and he recounted the tale for the Register.

Two monks teamed up with local craft-beer brewer Dann Paquette to create an initial batch. The men presented their concoction at a Christmas party, and it won over the religious community’s board of advisers so much that a contingent from St. Joseph’s took an exploratory tour of the Trappist breweries in Belgium. The Spencer monks hoped the beer endeavor could be the ticket to ensure their long-term ability to stay on their sprawling 1,100 acres in the small town in central Massachusetts. These monks of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance (commonly known as Trappists) trace the beginning of their community to 1825 in Nova Scotia.

Though the monks do not reveal specific numbers of their brewery investment, Father Isaac recounted how the group had to ask permission from the Vatican to seek the size of loan they needed.

Later, when a banker asked Father Isaac and Father Damien, the abbot, why they were doing this, Father Damien told him, “Survival.”

Paquette and his associates were convinced of the project’s feasibility if the monks did it well.

Subsequently, a second trip was made to Belgium, where seasoned brewers advised the Spencer Trappists to focus on brewing “one very good beer” and commit to the quality standard of the Belgian Trappists, who were on board to help the American upstarts.

While there, what caught the attention of Father Isaac was the beer served to the monks at the evening meal in the Belgian refectory. He described the beer, which had a lower alcohol percentage than some of the more renowned varieties, as “humble but elegant — delicious.”

For Father Isaac, it made sense that the first beer from a new Trappist brewery “has to be a beer not that the monks want to serve the rest of the world, but that the monks want to serve to their brethren.”

In the process of bringing the beer to market, the monks and their friends acquired the help of an outside marketing group to help them with the packaging and branding of the beer, as well as the setup of a website and presence on social media. An outside brew engineer, Hubert Dehalleux, also works at the brewery.

Last October marked the first official brew. In 2014, the brewing began twice a week for a projected yearly total of 4,000 barrels — or 1.3 million bottles.

In five years, the monks would like to increase output to 10,000 barrels yearly.

Currently, the beer is only available to purchase in selected Massachusetts stores and on draft at a variety bars and restaurants.

The monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey are brewing beer not only for their own stability, though. They give 5%-10% of the income to disadvantaged groups, families and individuals, as well as to Trappist monasteries in the developing world.


Way of Life

Combining work and charity is part of the way of life at St. Joseph’s, a “sacramental” place, with the buildings and land communicating the way of the monastic life “and the kind of transformation it’s meant to affect in the individuals that make up the community,” according to Father Isaac.

The group moved to their present grounds in Spencer in 1950, with the current church completed in 1953.

Father Isaac called the monastery a “tool for evangelization,” as the central Massachusetts locale serves as a spiritual oasis to visitors near and far and is the lifelong home for the men who follow God’s path here.

Producing goods for community sustainability is not new to the monks of St. Joseph’s; they have been in the fruit-preserve business since the early 1960s, and they also produce liturgical vestments.

Their preserves, jams and jellies can be found at popular grocery stores in Massachusetts.

Indeed, making products serves as a key component in the lives of Trappist monks, who follow the Rule of St. Benedict. The  founder of Western monasticism said, “When they live by the labor of their hands, as our fathers and the apostles did, then they are truly monks.”

Father James, vocation director at St. Joseph’s, echoed the sentiment when he referred to the order’s constitution, saying, “The monks follow a life that is ordinary, obscure and laborious.”

Compared to the average American man, though, a Trappist monk’s life would seem rather out of the ordinary.

A typical day at St. Joseph’s begins at 3:10am, with Psalm vigils at 3:30am. Throughout the next 16 1/2 hours, the monk spends time in personal and communal prayer, Mass, sacred reading, work, rest, communal and other meals, and exercise. The day concludes with the beginning of the “Great Silence” at 8pm.

Sixty monks currently live at the abbey, including those in formation. Men have come to Spencer from a variety of states and from an impressive collection of nations. The monastery’s website has been an effective way to draw people to consider such a vocation.

Father James, who has been vocation director for 11 years, described men considering a monastic life at St. Joseph’s.


Giving Everything

“They’re open to a radical commitment,” he said, “a kind of desperation almost — in the best sense — that they want to give everything.”

“They want to follow Christ, ardently, with a great focus,” continued Father James, adding that part of the monastic life is working to live, so prospects should be available to do what the community needs.

Approaching the abbey with the sole intention of being a monastic brewmaster or with a heart set on jelly-making would be considered “skewed” or off-focus ambitions, according to Father James.

Brother Adam, from nearby Worcester, has been with the community for about 20 years and drives a forklift in the brewery, helping with loading and unloading.

“Except for the fact that there’s a lot of buzz about the brewery, there’s nothing really glorious about driving a forklift, you know,” he said with a laugh, “or anything else going on.”

Father James explained, in reference to the community constitution, “Only a deep love for the person of Christ can sustain the monk in a life that is ordinary, obscure and laborious.”

Brother Adam and Father James spoke of the “rhythm” of monastic life, and the vocation director recalled a by-product of being media-deprived after joining the community.

“My first autumn, I was just blown away by all the color” of nature, said Father James. “It was such a revelation; it was so exquisite.”

These monks — who know how to appreciate work and prayer and everything in between — recognize how well a time-honored craft like beer-making fits with monastic life, just like their European brethren have found.


Seal of Approval

For Father Isaac, the confirming moment of their new endeavor came this past year, when a keg was tapped for a Christmas celebration.

Many of the monks — who are only offered alcohol on Sundays at supper, major feast days and solemnities — have a preference toward wine. But that evening, Father Isaac noticed that the wine-drinking monks returned for refills of the Trappist ale.

“Brewing a beer that these monks will really like and drink and want to share with their friends and family and so forth — that’s the moment where I say, ‘Ah, we’ve made it,’” said Father Isaac, who says the monks will continue to work at their craft so that they remain committed to “the monastery’s way of doing things and still produce a world-class beer.”

Justin Bell visited St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer for this article.

He writes from the Boston area.


Main photo: Spencer Brewery director Father Isaac stands in front of cases of Spencer Trappist Ale, the first certified Trappist beer made outside of Europe. By Justin Bell