In 2013, the craft beer biz was booming and everybody wanted to open a brewery, including the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey, a community of Catholic Cistercian monks in Spencer, Massachusetts.
The abbey which is located about an hour west of Boston, was founded in 1950 by a religious community that originally fled Europe after the French Revolution, finding refuge in Canada, then Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
St. Joseph’s is Trappist, meaning that it is part of Catholic order which was founded in La Trappe, France in the 17th century, and many of those sects in Europe have built world-renowned breweries famous for their Belgian-style ales. And the Cistercian monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey decided to follow their lead, launching the Spencer Brewery to become the ninth brewery to be approved to use the Authentic Trappist Product label and the first in the US.
After years of preparation, they opened a 36,000 square foot brewery on the monastery grounds in 2014 which was championed by the American journalists and beer writers, who loved the idea more, evidently, than the public. And in February the abbey announced that it would be closing the brewery.
“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,” said the brewery via a press statement. “We want to thank all our customers for their support and encouragement over the years. Our beer will be available in our regular retail outlets while supplies last. Please keep us in your prayers.”
So why the Trappist Brewery fail to catch on?
Some think it was the sheer competition. With more than 9000 breweries currently online in the US it’s hard to become a true beer destination, no matter how good its beers…a place that beer pilgrims visit regularly.
Jim Vorel at Paste magazine thinks that the beers might have just been too expensive to compete with others in the craft beer world…
“In the US, breweries such as Allagash and Ommegang had already long since pioneered a less expensive brand of Belgian-style ale, and the classic Belgian Trappist brands such as St. Bernardus, Rochefort and Westmalle have long existed as pricey, ‘ultra-premium’ imports.
”With a price point similar to the latter beers, but without the rich history and European credentials, it feels like the Spencer brand may have been trapped in the middle between more affordable American alternatives, and beers with 200 years of history behind them.”
But it may also be that true Trappist Ales are just too niche to support a brewery in the US and beer fans obsessed with just about every kind of IPA.
“The beer industry has migrated toward hazy-style IPAs with soft, citrus aromas,” Andy Crouch, publisher of the magazine All About Beer told America. “It’s not a good time for Belgian-style monastic beers. Of America’s 9,500 breweries, only a handful rely on Belgian-style beers. Spencer came along at the wrong time.”
But whatever the reasons Spencer Brewery, the first true Trappist brewery in the US, is no more, the last beers have been brewed and the monks are sadly moving on to other ventures.
(All Image credits: Spencer Brewery)