Mass. monks brewing beer like European brothers
By DAVE MARTIN The Associated Press January 22, 2014 5:42PM
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo Father Damion, Abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey in Spencer, Mass., stands in the community's library. St. Joseph's is a community of 63 Trappistine monks. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Updated: February 24, 2014 1:12PM
SPENCER, Mass. — For more than a century, Catholic Cistercian monks known as Trappists have been brewing and selling what many beer lovers consider some of the best in the world. Eight monasteries — six in Belgium and one each in Holland and Austria — produce the only beer recognized by the International Trappist Association as authentic Trappist beer.
And starting Thursday, the 63 brothers of St. Joseph’s Abbey — about an hour’s drive west of Boston — will join them, selling the first Trappist beer brewed outside Europe.
Their ambitious venture was hardly met with enthusiasm by their exacting Trappist brothers in Europe.
After all, for nearly 60 years the monks in Spencer, Mass., had been selling jams and jellies to help support their community. Now they were interested in the real family business: beer.
The journey from jams to beer started almost five years ago when St. Joseph’s sent two monks on a fact-finding mission to the Belgian Beer Fest in Boston. Within hours, their European brothers were alarmed to learn of the inquiries.
“The original skepticism was because we were outside of Europe... and Americans,” said Father Isaac Keeley, the bald, jovial former potter who has been at St. Joseph’s for 35 years and now directs the brewing. “And the fear we would go too big too fast.”
The European monasteries made three strong recommendations: To brew beer of Trappist quality they must build a state-of-the-art brewery, hire a skilled brewing engineer, and brew just one kind of beer for the first five years.
The European brewers, wanting a beer that wouldn’t damage the Trappist brand, agreed to help the Americans develop a good recipe.
After more than 20 trial batches, the monks in Massachusetts settled on the recipe for what would become Spencer Trappist Ale, a “refectory ale” of 6.5 percent alcohol. The cloudy, golden beer is all-American yet rooted in European tradition with sweet, yeasty notes familiar to fans of other Trappist ales.
With the Europeans on board, a U.S. distribution deal was signed. Sales will only be in Massachusetts at first, but plans are to expand nationally and someday, internationally.