Beer lovers were fascinated when the new Spencer Trappist Ale appeared on the shelves in January. Trappist monks are known for their ascetic lifestyle reminiscent of medieval times. They also own a well-deserved reputation for producing high quality products that support their strict monastic life style. This is in keeping with the Rule of St. Benedict, which required monasteries to support themselves by the labor of their hands. By that measure work becomes a form of prayer.
Trappists are especially known for their beer. Throughout Europe, Trappist monks have been brewing beer and ale for hundreds of years, but Spencer Trappist Ale is the first entry from an American monastery.
Spencer Trappist Ale enjoys a 92 percent approval rating on Rate Beer.com, which is saying something when you consider that there are some 2,000 craft beers on the market, and beer aficionados in Massachusetts are known for being fussy. So it is that the Spencer Trappist Ale story is worth telling.
Sixty Trappists, or more properly brothers of The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, live at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, about 12 miles west of Worcester. Contrary to popular belief, Trappists do not take a vow of silence. However, the monks avoid idle talk and restrict speech to when talk is necessary. Trappists do take the vows of stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. Visitors to the abbey often time their visits to coincide with the Liturgy of the Hours so they can sit and listen in the abbey’s two side chapels while the monks chant their prayers at Vigils, Lauds and Mass, None, Vespers, and Compline.
For years the Trappist monastery in Spencer supported itself by producing delicious jams and jelly preserves, by running meditative retreats, and by manufacturing beautiful vestments for use at Mass. However, as the economy tightened, the good Trappists found themselves facing the same budgetary concerns that confront us all. So the community began exploring additional means of income.
At first, the concept of brewing ale met with some skepticism, but the idea became more plausible over time. After all, Trappists in Europe had been brewing beer for centuries. Still, the Trappist name is synonymous with quality and if the monks were to enter the field, that same high level of quality would need to be assured.
So in 2010, monks from Spencer travelled to Europe to visit several successful Trappist breweries, where they learned that they needed to build a modern state-of-the-art brewery, and to acquire a skilled brewing engineer. Their European counterparts also recommended that they brew only a single beer for the first five years. Back at home, the monks presented their findings and, after thoughtful deliberation, the community voted to move forward.
Now, the monks focused on a business plan. New projects take money and the monks were encouraged by officers at the Berkshire Bank in Westborough, who were so impressed with the business plan that they were willing to finance the brewery operation. Given that support, the monks set about the task of building a 36,000 square foot brewery deep within the monastery grounds and modeled after the European facilities. The brewery draws its water from a deep nearby well on the monastery grounds. They brew ale using a type of yeast favored by Trappist monks. The ale contains 6.5 percent alcohol by volume.
Page 2 of 2 – Their ale was produced in small 5-gallon batches until the monks felt assured that they had something special. After months of testing and re-testing, it finally came time to present the final product. As it turns out that the monastery holds a party on New Year ’s Day, so the monks were given the opportunity to sample the new ale. Anxiety must have been running high since monks, at these infrequent celebrations, are more of a wine-tasting crowd than connoisseurs of ale. Yet, as some of the monks tried the ale a good number of them returned for a second helping. Now they knew they had something special. The ale went to market in bottles in mid-January 2014 in central Massachusetts.
And now it’s available on tap: The first keg of Spencer Trappist Ale was tapped at the Black & White Restaurant in Spencer in May 2014 and was followed by several Boston events to introduce the new ale to the public.
Trappists may be wonderful producers, but they are not marketing professionals. Five distributors were then selected in Atlas, Colonial, Merrimack, Commerce, and Burke – and so Spencer Trappist Ale, from the tenth Trappist brewery in the world, was now on the shelves throughout Massachusetts. Since price is set by the distributors, there is a slight variance depending on where the purchase is made.
Father Isaac, who is in charge of the brewery operation, said the Trappists are grateful to the people of Massachusetts for the reception Spencer Trappist Ale has experienced. As the brewery continues to operate, one goal is always to further perfect the ale since this is a typical monastic expression of creativity. Meanwhile, several package store outlets within the MetroWest area report that the demand for Spencer Trappist Ale is outpacing their ability to keep enough of it on their shelves. Distribution will expand beyond the borders of Massachusetts once local demand for the product is met.
Spencer Trappist Ale is really an extraordinary beer, but it’s especially nice to know that the drink in your glass was brewed by monks who live a life where the labor of work is lifted to a form of prayer.
Frank Mazzaglia can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org