Jan. 20, 2014 -- For nearly 60 years, the brothers of St. Joseph's Abbey have led a simple life devoted to prayer and preserves, producing a successful line of condiments, such as damson plum jam and port wine jelly, out of their monastery in Spencer, Mass.
But beginning this week, that business will be joined by a new enterprise, one that shares a legacy with the monks' European brothers. Raise a glass to Spencer Trappist Ale, the first certified Trappist beer made by monks in the United States.
"The conversation about brewing a Trappist ale actually began five years ago," a spokesperson for the brewery told ABC News. "There was a brother who had brewed beer in college who was interested in it, and he prompted the discussion."
After some internal debate, the monks decided to pursue the idea, naming Father Isaac Keeley as brewery director. Keeley and another brother then traveled to Europe to sample various beers and gain insight into the production process from their fellow Catholic Cistercian monks, popularly known as Trappists.
There are just eight other Trappist breweries in the world: six in Belgium, one in Holland and another in Austria. In accordance with the International Trappist Association, all beers bearing their label must be brewed within the confines of a monastery, produced in keeping with the practices of a monastic life, and sold for the sole purpose of supporting the maintenance of the monastery. All surplus proceeds are donated to charity.
While overseas, the brothers of St. Joseph's Abbey were advised to build a state-of-the-art brewery, to hire a skilled brew engineer and to focus on a single beer for the first five years in order to ensure quality of product.
The result is made from 100 percent American ingredients but emulates an old world flavor profile.
"They visited all of the Trappist breweries," said the brewery spokesperson. "But it was in the monastic dining room, where they served the simpler beers, that they found the one they liked best."
Since then, the brothers at St. Joseph's have spent the last few years building their brewery, hiring Hubert de Halleux as master brew engineer, and working to develop the perfect recipe for what is described as "the traditional refectory ales known as patersbier (“fathers’ beer” in Flemish)" on the Spencer Brewery website.
"It's light enough but full bodied," described Joe Salois of Atlas Distributing, which will be handling distribution of Spencer Trappist Ale throughout central Massachusetts. "The nose has yeasty, banana notes, then it finishes with a little peppery flavor but not overpowering. And it's just 6.5 percent ABV [alcohol by volume], so that makes it very enjoyable and drinkable."
Salois said that the response to the beer has been overwhelming, with a considerable number of pre-orders from groceries, bar and restaurant establishments even before many had gotten a taste. The beer is currently only available in Massachusetts, and only in bottles. Kegs will roll out to taverns in mid-February.
"The history and the tradition of being a Trappist beer is pretty special," he said. "If you're a big beer drinker, then you're welcoming this with open arms."
But while the monks have been delighted by advance buzz surrounding their ale, their lives will not drastically change, said a spokesperson.
"The monks pray in church seven times a day, the first service is at 3:30 a.m. and the last one is at 7:40 at night," she said. "This work supports their life of prayer."