Monks of St. Joseph’s: Trappist Beer in America
Beer enthusiasts will remember that a few years ago the United States became home to the first Trappist brewery located outside of Europe. St. Joseph’s Abbey in Massachusetts, about an hour outside of Boston, began operating the Spencer Brewery in 2013. And next month, just in time for the holiday season, the brewery will be releasing a new beer: Spencer Trappist Holiday Ale. To help you enjoy this special beer, here’s a brief history of Trappist brewing and some background on St. Joseph’s Abbey and the Spencer Brewery.
“Trappist” doesn’t denote a style of beer or a type of brewery, but rather is an appellation — a legal designation similar to a trademark that indicates a product is made under the direct supervision of monks on monastic property. The Trappist designation isn’t just limited to beer. Trappist monks sell everything from soap to ceramics under the Trappist appellation. Monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey, for example, made jelly prior to getting into the beer business a few years ago.
The artisanship protected by the Trappist appellation is directly related to the daily life of the Trappist monks and the financial success of the Trappist monastery. Trappist monks belong to a special order of Roman Catholic monks, the Cistercians of the Strict Observance. In addition to the standard Catholic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, these monks also live by the rules of St. Benedict, of which there are 73 separate chapters.
The daily life of the Trappist monks can be summed up by the motto “ora et labora” or “work and prayer.” They pray 7 times a day and engage in daily labor, the fruits of which are used to support the monastery.
Those Trappist monasteries that brew beer use the proceeds from the beer’s sale to cover the operating costs of the monastery, take care of the monks, and support different charities. These costs can be substantial in a monastery with a growing population of elder monks. St. Joseph’s Abbey, for example, houses 63 monks with an average age of 70. Health care costs make up a third of the monastery’s expenses. “The health costs are huge,” the Abbey’s ranking number 2, Father Dominic Whedbee, told the Huffington Post. “Our infirmary is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That way we can take care of all our men for the rest of their lives, which is our commitment.”
Given the remarkable growth in demand for a variety of new and innovative beers in the United States, it’s no surprise that St. Joseph’s Abbey would turn to beer-making to help support itself and its members. Indeed, it isn’t the only monastery to recently turn to commercial brewing. The number of monastic breweries holding the Trappist appellation for beer has increased from seven to 11 in the last five years. Starting a brewery can be a smart long-term investment for a Trappist monastery. Other Trappist monasteries are raking in an excess of $50 million per year — all of which goes to support the monastery and associated charities — from the sale of beer and other products, such as cheese.
The monks at St. Joseph’s certainly have a long tradition of brewing to draw on. There are Trappist breweries in Europe that were founded before the first settlers landed in Jamestown. Widespread commercial production and refinement of the current styles offered by Trappist breweries didn’t really begin until the 19th and 20th centuries. But these monks have been brewing beer for hundreds of years. Luckily for the monks at St. Joseph’s, Trappist brewers also have a long history of helping out their fellow monks. The monks at St. Joseph’s toured the brewery at Notre-Dame de Scourmount, which produces Chimay. Not wanting the new brewery to damage the Trappist brand, European Trappist brewers helped the brothers at St. Joseph’s develop a good recipe for their beer.
One can imagine no better teacher for the art of brewing than a Trappist brewmaster. It just so happens that if you devote your entire life to only work and prayer (and your work is brewing beer), you end up making some pretty damn good beer. The beers produced at Trappist monasteries are nothing less than world class. The highly sought-after and impossible to pronounce (or procure) Westvleteren XII consistently ranks in the top ten on BeerAdvocate and as the best beer on RateBeer. And it receives accolades by beer reviewers from Randy Mosher to Garrett Oliver. The Chimay Red and Westmalle Tripel are archetypes of the abbey style. And Orval is as unique stylistically as the bowling pin-shaped bottle it comes in.
Almost all of these Trappist breweries also produce a beer that is made exclusively for consumption by the monks themselves called “Patersbier” or “father’s beer,” named for the monks who drink it. Patersbier isn’t usually sold to the public but, lucky for us, it’s the first beer that the brothers at St. Joseph’s Abbey have produced under the Spencer Brewery name. Patersbier is a blonde session ale that clocks in around 6 percent. Admittedly, it’s not the most interesting of the beer styles produced under the Trappist appellation, but Spencer Patersbier earns a solid 80 points on BeerAdvocate and an even better 94 points on RateBeer. And they’ve only been brewing for a few years.
According to Father Keeley, who runs Spencer Brewery at St. Joseph’s Abbey, the brothers have plans to expand their beer style offerings. According to one newspaper’s back-of-the-envelope estimate, Spencer Brewery’s current production of 36,600 bottles a year will earn them about $128,100 per year. That seems to indicate a lot of room for growth for a monastery with bills to pay.
But Father Keeley has cautioned the public that the Abbey thinks in terms of the next hundred years and only produces enough to support itself and its charities. They plan on only producing 310,000 gallons a year by the end of the next decade, just enough to support the monastery over the course of that time. In other words, we shouldn’t expect rapid expansion from Spencer Brewery.
The brewery’s next beer release will be a beer that’s undeniably Belgian. Spencer Trappist Holiday Ale will be a strong, dark Belgian beer available in November. Father Keeley says after that, the monks will brew a beer that’s popular with American craft brewers, the world’s first Trappist Russian Imperial Stout (and in case you forgot, it’s popular with War on the Rocks readers too). “Our original business plan was that we’d do this one beer, maybe it would take five years to get national distribution, and then we’d do a second Trappist classic,” Father Keeley told the Boston Globe. “It turns out that plan was really flawed. It didn’t take sufficiently into account that the American market right now turns on what’s new, what’s a limited edition.”
The decision to make a stout is undeniably breaking the mold of the typical Trappist brewing tradition that is largely dominated by Belgian styles and yeast strains. In fact, the Spencer Patersbier uses a mid-20th-century Trappist yeast strain, similar to ones that are available for home brewers. Many of the fruit and spice flavors that tend to characterize Belgian beer styles are specifically derived from esters and phenols produced by the activity of Belgian yeast strains. These flavors are especially common in the Abbey styles that most Trappist breweries produce, and stand in contrast to other beer styles, like lagers, where the yeast produces very little fruit and spice flavor.
American hopheads will be pleased to know the monks are using Williamette and Nugget hops from the West Coast. Those hoping (as I do) that Spencer will become the first brewery in history to make an American Imperial IPA with a Trappiste appellation, should say a rosary.
Frank Swigonski is a recovering bartender. He is originally from Arizona but currently lives in Washington, DC where he works on energy policy.
Photo credit: Adam Barhan