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HomeArticleAmerica loses its only Trappist brewery, amid competitive beer market 

America loses its only Trappist brewery, amid competitive beer market 

America loses its only Trappist brewery, amid competitive beer market 

null / Courtesy of Spencer Brewery

By Kevin J. Jones

Denver Newsroom, May 24, 2022 / 17:27 pm (CNA).

The first and only certified Trappist brewery in the U.S. has said that it will close, citing a lack of financial viability. The monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts say they will find other ways to support their life of contemplative prayer.

“After more than a year of consultation and reflection, the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey have come to the sad conclusion that brewing is not a viable industry for us and that it is time to close the Spencer Brewery,” Spencer Brewery said on its Facebook page May 14.

“We want to thank all our customers for their support and encouragement over the years,” the brewery added. “Our beer will be available in our regular retail outlets while supplies last. Please keep us in your prayers.”

The brewery was launched in 2014 to help provide a new source of revenue for the monks. It is just one of St. Joseph’s Abbey’s endeavors.

The Trappist monks are formally known as the monks of the Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance, an order more than 900 years old. They follow St. Benedict’s counsel that stresses the importance of both prayer and work.

“All our activities that we do are to support our lives of prayer. Beer was a particularly interesting and engaging activity, but we’re not here for the beer,” Spencer Brewery’s director, Father William Dingwall, told The Boston Globe.

The brewery launched in 2014. Its peak production was 4,500 barrels of beer, about 60,000 beer cases, its website reports. The brewery had hoped to expand to produce 10,000 barrels of beer annually.

Its beers were distributed domestically in Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, Ohio, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia. Foreign distribution reached eight countries.

Dingwall said that it’s understandable the brewery’s closure announcement has surprised those outside the community, but “it’s something we’ve been mulling over for the past couple of years.”

While the brewery generated “a great deal of interest,” Dingwall said, he thought the beer market “started to change radically” and the abbey’s brewery faced more competition from craft breweries.

The monks were not willing to open a tap room, a profitable effort for many brewers. Dingwall said the brewery was located in the middle of their abbey property just a few hundred yards from the monastery and the church.

“The brothers were not in favor of adding that kind of business at the entrance to the monastery,” Dingwall told the Boston Globe.

Brewery production has ceased and Spencer Brewery will sell its equipment and any raw materials at auction. Its beers could remain on store shelves for a few months.

The Spencer Brewery website explains the monks’ approach to prayer and to work: “As Trappists, we seek to live somewhat separate from the world so that we may engage fully with our monastic community life of work and prayer. This prayer encompasses liturgies open to the public, as well as our individual prayer time, spiritual reading, study and meditation.”

St. Joseph’s Abbey hosts guests at its small retreat house and has a gift shop. It produces other products to support its 44 community members. These products include fruit and wine jellies, jams, and preserves. Its Holy Rood Guild makes and sells liturgical vestments.

The community has six brothers in initial formation, according to the abbey website.

The Cistercian order was founded in France in 1098. The Trappist community at St. Joseph’s Abbey has roots in a group of monks that arrived in North America in 1803, in the wake of the French Revolution. Its monks founded a monastery in Nova Scotia. After suffering two major fires in the late 1800s, the community moved to Rhode Island.  Another major fire in 1950 made 140 Trappist monks homeless, at which point they moved to Spencer.

The International Trappist Association has about 20 abbey members and seeks to help members produce goods and ensure high-quality products. Its website lists 13 abbeys that sell their own beer. However, the list includes both Spencer Brewery and Achel, which ceased to be a Trappist beer in 2021.

The Trappist association website also lists three abbeys that produce their own liqueurs and two that produce their own wine. Other Trappist products include bread, cheeses, olive oil, chocolate, cookies, honey, liturgical vestments, skin care products, and household cleaning products.

“Any economic enterprise undertaken by member communities is marked by prayer, an attitude of responsibility, and silence,” International Trappist Association said. “The Trappists, both monks and nuns, participate in management as well as production.”

In Belgium, the beers produced at Achel Brewery no longer bear the Trappist label after the monks of Achel Abbey left in early 2021. Its last monks left for Westmalle Abbey, which also runs a brewery. At the same time, the Achel beers are still brewed under Trappist supervision and the monks have invested in a larger brewhouse.

The International Trappist Association says it will certify beer with its brand if it is brewed within the abbey grounds by the monks or under their supervision, “with business practices proper to the monastic way of life.” The brewery must not take priority over the monastery’s primary work and way of life, and should be non-profit. Any funds gained through the beer will be used for the monk’s living expenses, charitable causes, or for upkeep of the monastery itself.

Cistercian monks at Mount Saint Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire became the first Trappist brewery in U.K. history when they first started beer sales in 2018.

Trappists aren’t the only monks to try their hand at brewing.

A community of mostly U.S.-born Benedictine monks at the Monastery of Saint Benedict at Norcia, Italy began brewing in 2012. They launched their own Belgian-style beers under the name Birra Nursia and expanded sales to the U.S. in 2016. In 2017 a major earthquake killed hundreds of people and was soon followed by a major tremor that destroyed the Benedictines’ historic home, the Basilica of St. Benedict. However, their brewery was left mostly intact. They have continued to sell beer to fund the building of their new monastery.

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