We are super excited to bring to you our first installment in our new BrewView series called “BREWERY SPOTLIGHT”! Back in late October 2016, we sent an email to our affiliate, BELGIAN-STYLE ALES, to advise them of our BrewView schedule for December. They made the suggestion of doing a BrewView for the SPENCER TRAPPIST HOLIDAY ALE. We made the suggestion of featuring THE SPENCER BREWERY as the choice for the “BREWERY SPOTLIGHT” for December. It was a mutual agreement.
Instead of re-writing something for the the first American Trappist brewery, we decided to utilize portions of our previous BrewView from March 27, 2014, highlighting Spencer’s first Trappist beer released on the market in January of that year. There are some tweaks to reflect current information, but the majority of what you read is reposted. And for good reason- the original BrewView had a tremendously positive response from our readers back then.
However, now that The Spencer Brewery’s beers are available all over the United States thanks to our good friends at Belgian-Style Ales, we thought a repost of much of the original BrewView would be beneficial for those newly acquainted with the Trappist brewery. (See the info at the bottom of this BrewView on how to have The Spencer Trappist ales shipped directly to your doorstep from Belgian-Style Ales!)
THE ANNOUNCEMENT- A NEW TRAPPIST BREWERY IS COMING
When the October 26, 2013 announcement went out about the 9th Trappist brewery starting up, we scrambled to find anything that we could on this new brewery and it’s ale. We immediately found a few things here and there on the internet, but nothing concrete. Then… on Thursday, December 19th, 2013, the Spencer Brewery website went live, along with their Facebook page. The anticipation of this new Trappist ale was phenomenal; never had we seen such excitement for a new beer to be released! The number of likes that their Facebook page had gained was incredible right from the start. Early reviews of the beer from Massachusetts residents were good, thus we sought out how we could get our hands on this new beer.
Upon visiting the website on the opening day, we saw that The Spencer Brewery had its own long-stemmed Trappist snifter glass for sale… we immediately placed an order for one. We received an order confirmation right away, and then…. the patient wait began. We figured that there was going to be a massive rush for orders for their new glass, so we decided to let some time go by. It was after all, right before Christmas!
After a delay with the glass manufacturer, we finally got our Spencer Trappist glass on January 28th! The search for getting the actual beer that this glass was meant to be paired with, began. Even the pictures we posted soon after (of the glass by itself) on our Facebook and Twitter pages received lots of likes and re-tweets!
After a little over a month of trying to get our hands on this new Trappist creation through typical wholesale / retail channels, we decided to step up our efforts on getting our hands on a bottle. We put out an appeal, and several people responded. The person who we decided to work with was our new friend John D. from Worcester, Massachusetts. After some communication, we received our shipment on March 22, 2014 of not just one, but two bottles of Spencer Trappist Ale! A photo shoot immediately ensued upon opening the boxes…
So without further ado, we’d like to offer a quick history of Trappist Monasticism, to the history of the founding of Saint Joseph’s Abbey (with its roots linking to Trappist monks from the Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Westvleteren) to the present-day life at Saint Joseph’s and Spencer brewery.
THE HISTORY OF MONASTACISM
SAINT BENEDICT OF NURSIA AND “THE RULE OF SAINT BENEDICT”
Benedict of Nursia (Norcia in Italian) was born (estimated) in the year 480, in the latter part of the decline of the Roman Empire. As a young man, he found himself desiring a more contemplative life, seeking GOD, thus moving away from Rome at the tender age of 19 or 20. The big city was a haven for those who lived an ungodly life, something he was not destined for.
Those seeking a life serving GOD did not find the atmosphere near Rome during its collapse hospitable, due to the fact that Christians were partially blamed for the downfall since they were more interested in serving the LORD JESUS CHRIST, rather than a pagan emperor. There were other theories for the downfall of the Roman empire- (social decay owning to general malaise, monocausal decay, etc.) GOD had much greater plans for the young Benedict.
During his time serving GOD and wanting to please the HOLY FATHER, he developed a way of life in his latter years now known as The Rule of Saint Benedict. His work is a result from the internal and external struggles he faced while living in the community at Subiaco, Italy, and finally at the end of his life at Monastery Monte Cassino, Italy.
The phrase “Ora et Labora” (Pray and work) can be seen as an adherence to the scripture, “Make you complete in every good work to do His will, working in you what is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (Hebrews 13;21) Whether the work was Spiritual or manual labor, according to the 73 chapters of the Rule of Saint benedict, it must all be done for the Glory of GOD.
CISTERCIANS AND TRAPPISTS
In 1098, Benedictine Abbot Robert of Molesme, left his monastery in Burgundy with around 20 supporters, who felt that the Cluniac communities had abandoned the rigours and simplicity of the Rule of St. Benedict. The monastery church of Cluny Abbey, the largest in Europe, had become wealthy from rents, tithes, feudal rights and pilgrims who passed through Cluniac houses on the Way of St. James. The massive endowments, powers and responsibilities of the Cluniac abbots had drawn them into the affairs of the secular world, and their monks had abandoned manual labour to serfs to serve as scholars and exclusively “choir monks”. On March 21, 1098, Robert’s small group acquired a plot of marshland just south of Dijon called Cîteaux (Latin: “Cistercium”. Cisteaux means reeds in Old French), given to them expressly for the purpose of founding their Novum Monasterium. (Source: Wikipedia)
Trappists, or The Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.: Ordo Cisterciensis Strictioris Observantiae) is a Roman Catholic religious order of cloistered contemplative monastics who follow the Rule of St. Benedict. A branch of the Order of Cistercians, they have communities of both monks and nuns, commonly referred to as Trappists and Trappistines, respectively.
The order takes its name from La Trappe Abbey or La Grande Trappe, located in the French province of Normandy. A reform movement began there in 1664, in reaction to the relaxation of practices in many Cistercian monasteries. Armand Jean le Bouthillier de Rancé, originally the commendatory abbot of La Trappe, led the reform. As commendatory abbot, de Rancé was a layman who obtained income from the monastery but had no religious obligations. After a conversion of life between 1660 and 1662, de Rancé formally joined the abbey and became its regular abbot in 1663. In 1892 the reformed “Trappists” broke away from the Cistercian order and formed an independent monastic order with the approval of the Pope.
The 48th chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict states “for then are they monks in truth, if they live by the work of their hands”.
Following this rule, most Trappist monasteries produce goods that are sold to provide income for the monastery. The goods produced range from cheese, bread and other foodstuffs, though they are most famous for their beers, which are unique within the beer world, and are lauded for their high quality and flavor. As the order does not require abstention from alcohol, some monasteries produce and sell alcoholic beverages. Monasteries in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany, brew beer both for the monks and for sale to the general public. Trappist beers contain residual sugars and living yeast, and, unlike conventional beers, will improve with age. (Source: Wikipedia)
THE HISTORY OF SAINT JOSEPH’S ABBEY
After the French Revolution in 1803, a group of 20 Cistercian monks from La Trappe sent by Father Augustine de Lastrange, wanted to escape European persecution and hostility in the hopes of establishing a Trappist monastery in America. For eleven years these Trappists struggled financially to settle, and eventually returned to France after Napoloeon’s defeat. By GOD’s divine intervention, one monk, Father Vincent de Paul merle (1768-1853) stayed behind to in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1815. In 1825, he founded the abbey of Petit Clairvaux.
Up until 1857, the abbey struggled to expand its member base due to the fact that the overall challenges of life at that time in America paired with the stringent Trappist way of life were not especially appealing to members of secular society. The fathers of Petit Clairvaux appealed to the abbeys in France for support to build their base, but were unsuccessful.
THE INTERVENTION OF SAINT SIXTUS ABBEY
In 1857, the abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren, Belgium responded to the appeal of Father Xavier Kaiser (1785-1862). The next 5 years saw the abbey of Saint Sixtus sending a total of 18 Flemish speaking monks to help with the struggling Petit Clairvaux monastery. The Flemish monks helped with the development of the land, and to assist with the overall needs. In this period of time, the Westvleteren monks helped brew the first batches of beer there.
FROM ASHES TO BEAUTY
The next 30 years, Petit Clairvaux grew in numbers of monks serving and enjoying the Trappist way of life. Then on October 4 1892, a catastrophe happened. A fire burned a major portion of the monastery to the ground along with all of its writings, artifacts, books, etc. Miraculously, none of the monks were injured in the fire. From ashes to beauty, and with inner resolve to see GOD get the Glory, the monks began to rebuild Petit Clairvaux in 1894. However, in 1896, the monk’s temporary quarters and barns were destroyed in yet another fire. To have 2 fires so close to one another took a heavy toll on the monastery community. Many of the monks from Saint Sixtus returned to Belgium dejected. By the end of 1898, all but twelve monks left Petit Clarivaux.
If the monastery wanted to survive, it was clear that a new location was needed. Under Diocese direction and financial help from the abbey of Notre Dame du Lac in Montreal, Petit Clairvaux received permission to move from Nova Scotia to Cumberland, Rhode Island. For the next 50 or so years, Petit Clairvaux survived well even through the difficulties of both World wars.
IF GOD IS FOR US, WHO CAN BE AGAINST US?
On March 21 1950, one more fire consumed Petit Clairvaux. After all was said and done, it was discovered that it was financially prohibitive to begin rebuilding efforts that were needed to bring the monastery back to its pre-fire state. To the monks delight, the late part of the 40’s decade in America saw a resurgence towards the Trappist way of life, hence providing hope that their membership numbers could be replenished one day. Petit Clairvaux sought out new land in 1949 to accommodate its growing community. Looking at GOD’s dynamic rather than looking at the fire as being something demonic, the monks took the Godly view and attitude of, “This is simply GOD’s way of expediting His plans for us to move.” Before the March 1950 fire, the monks purchased the Alta Crest farmland in Spencer, Massachusetts for their new home.
“To console those who mourn in Zion, To give them beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; That they may be called trees of righteousness, The planting of the Lord, that He may be glorified.” Isaiah 61:2-4
THE FOUNDING OF SAINT JOSEPH’S ABBEY
On December 23, 1950, two days before Christmas, 80 monks took possession and founded Saint Joseph’s Abbey. Life was good. In 1954, the abbey began preserving jams, jellies, and marmalades, which are still a part of the abbey’s product offerings today. Like any commercial enterprise, the abbey had its share of minor struggles, but always persevered through them with excellence. At the beginning of the 21st century, the abbey found that many of its members were advancing in age, and their medical needs increasing. In addition, the day-to-day expenses of simply running the monastery found the abbey in a bit of a quandary: what could they do to improve the economic stability of Saint Joseph’s for years to come? The idea of starting a Trappist brewery came to mind, as they saw the financial success of Trappist breweries like Chimay, Westmalle, and the other Belgian Trappists.
THE IDEA OF THE SPENCER BREWERY IS BORN
Originally, one of the brothers expressed interest in beer brewing, and his enthusiasm began to be shared with the other monks in the abbey. They all recognized that beer brewing by Trappist monks had hundreds of years of tradition and history. Once the idea to start a brewery in the abbey was approved, the monks from Spencer embarked on a two-year informational gathering mission. They visited all the brewing Trappist abbeys in Belgium, sampling some of the best beers in the world, gleaning knowledge along the way.
By the end of their second trip, the monks at Spencer felt they had gathered all the insider information and knowledge they needed to put together a realistic plan to construct a brewery on their abbey grounds. The paperwork was drawn up, the permits were submitted, and over time, the brewery became a reality. The abbey named the beer “Spencer Trappist Ale” keeping the Trappist tradition of naming the brewery after the town name where the brewery is situated.
Spencer Trappist Ale meets the rules for certification to call it an “Authentic Trappist Product”:
1. Products which carry this label are produced within the walls of the monastery or in the vicinity of the monastery.
2. The monastic community determines the policies and provides the means of production. The whole process of production must be in accordance with the business practices proper to a monastic way of life.
3. The profits are primarily intended to provide for the needs of the monastic community and for outreach to disadvantaged communities, groups and individuals.
Their original Trappist beer (Patersbier / Trappist Single) is unfiltered, unpasteurized, and bottle conditioned. The yeast in the bottle naturally carbonates the beer and gives it a pleasant aroma and effervescence. The brewery uses mainly American hops and malts. Their Trappist yeast was developed while working with a select Belgian Trappist brewery to create the “Spencer Trappist” yeast strain.
*Do they grow their own hops and barley? The brewery’s director, Father Isaac Keeley (affectionately known as “Father Isaac”) explains: “We have a pest called downy mildew; not a good place to do hops. We have grown experimental barley on ten acres working with UMass Amherst.”
They have produced malting barley that is good enough for feeding animals. But the highest qualities necessary for malting, they are unable to grow on their site.
What grains they need depends, of course, on the beer. Everything needed to brew the Spencer Trappist Ale is sourced in North America. They purchase malt from Country Malt Group in Champlain, NY and great Canadian malting companies, noted Father Isaac. The hops are grown in Yakima Valley in Washington State. The water comes from a dedicated well drawing on aquafers underneath the abbey, formed by Laurentide glaciers 18,000 to 20,000 years ago. Does dedicated mean blessed?
“We have blessed it, but ‘dedicated’ means exclusively for the brewery,” said Father Isaac.
Working on their brewery’s timeline, 4,000 barrels are slated to be brewed by the year’s end. Five abbey members work in the brewery on a regular basis. They are striving towards establishing themselves as serious brewery living up to the Trappist standards of excellence.
To achieve this, they work with a professional, named Larry Littlehale, an American who lived in Germany and earned a double degree from Doemans Institute in Grafelfing, Germany as a brewmaster and maltmaster after he got out of the military. “He was a brewmaster in Germany for 20 years,” said Father Isaac. Their Trappist ‘Feierabendbier’ Pilsner and the Trappist Festive Lager therefore have a German flair and are the world’s first of their kind brewed by a Trappist brewery.*
They have also added a Trappist Imperial Stout, an Trappist IPA, (also world firsts) and a Trappist Holiday Ale to their product portfolio.
THE SPENCER TRAPPIST GLASS
The abbey worked with industry experts to determine and design the perfect glass shape for their Trappist ale. It is a long stemmed snifter, so that when poured correctly, creates a beautiful 2-finger height head that releases the aromatics in the beer. With the elegant Spencer Trappist logo, it is a beautiful accompaniment to any dining table.
OUR BREWERY SPOTLIGHT BREWVIEWS ON THE SPENCER BREWERY TRAPPIST ALES
*Video courtesy of Nick Hiller
BrewView author GORDON A. PONCE is the main driving force behind Belgian Beer Journal.com. Since 1983, Gordon recognized that beers from Belgium were special, set apart from the typical craft beer.
He views beers from Belgium (plus Belgian-style and Belgian Inspired beers from other countries) great examples of the brewer’s art. Gordon and his wife live in beautiful Northern California- a great place to enjoy Belgian beer! Ecclesiastes 8:15