Five years ago, St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts sent two monks on a fact finding mission. They weren’t seeking relics or theological insight. They wanted to know more about beer.
For years, St. Joseph’s, a monastery in Spencer, Mass., about an hour west of Boston, has supported its community by producing and selling a line of jams and jellies labelled “Trappist Preserves.” But spurred by the dual forces of expensive building maintenance and the American craft brewing renaissance, the monks decided to venture into what the Cistercian order is perhaps best known for (other than vows of silence): Trappist ale.
And so one of the world’s most venerable brewing traditions finally comes to America. Prior to St. Joseph’s, only eight breweries in the world have been authorized by the International Trappist Association to make authentic Trappist beer: six in Belgium, one in Holland, and one in Austria. Accordingly, the European monks who authorized St. Joseph’s were skeptical at first. Father Isaac Keeley, the monastery’s brewmaster, notes that the original skepticism wasn’t just because they were seeking to brew outside Europe, but specifically because they were American; their European counterparts feared that the New Englanders “would go too big too fast.”
After securing a bank loan to finance the venture, the monks perfected their recipe over the course of more than twenty trial batches. The final recipe, to be marketed as “Spencer Trappist Ale,” weighs in at 6.5% alcohol content and is reported boast a cloudy, golden color and sweet, yeasty notes of flavor. (No word on how the monks disposed of the twenty trial batches.)
To get the International Trappist Association’s blessing, Father Keeley packed beer samples in his suitcase and flew to Belgium where he made a PowerPoint presentation outlining St. Joseph’s brewing operations. Then he poured the beer. "They approved it unanimously," he said, "and after the vote there was applause."
With the Europeans signing off on the venture, the Massachusetts monks inked a domestic distribution deal. At the outset, Spencer Trappist Ale will only be available in-state, but the brewers have plans to expand nationally and—someday—internationally.
This past New Year’s Day, the monks tapped a keg for their community, giving many of the monk’s their first taste of the brew. “The keg was pouring beautifully. We had this great head on the beer," Keeley said, tears in his eyes. "The monks were coming back for seconds at least. And it just struck me . . . in a certain sense we have made it."
Image via Wikimedia Commons