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Massachusetts monks brewing beer like European brothers

Published: Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT
Caption
(AP photo)
Father William purges yeast from the bottom of a fermentation tank as Belgian brewing engineer Hubert de Halleux moves hoses around at the Spencer Brewery in Spencer, Mass. Brewed by the Trappistine monks of St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer Trappist Ale is the only certified Trappist beer brewed in the U.S.
Caption
(AP photo)
Spencer Brewery Director Father Isaac walks down a set of steps after checking on the fermentation tanks at the Spencer Brewery in Spencer, Mass. Brewed by the Trappistine monks of St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer Trappist Ale, is the only certified Trappist beer brewed in the U.S.
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo Spencer Brewery Director Father Isaac tastes a sample of Spencer ale wort, an early stage of fermentation, as Belgian brewing engineer Hubert de Halleux looks on at the Spencer Brewery in Spencer, Mass. Brewed by the Trappistine monks of St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer Trappist Ale is the only certified Trappist beer brewed in the United States. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(AP photo)
Father William, a Belgium trained brewer of Trappist beer, checks the live yeast count in a recent batch of Spencer Trappist Ale at the Spencer Brewery in Spencer, Mass. The monks at St. Joseph's Abbey have been raising money for more than 60 years by selling jams, jellies and liturgical clothing but now they have a new source of revenue, the brewing of Spencer Trappist Ale.
Caption
(AP photo)
Father Damion (left), Abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey, and Spencer Brewery Director Father Isaac walk through their new, state-of-the-art facility in Spencer, Mass. The Spencer Brewery began brewing Spencer Trappist Ale recently becoming only the ninth certified brewery of Trappist beers in the world and the only one outside of Europe.
Caption
(AP photo)
Bottles of Spencer Trappist Ale are seen at the Spencer Brewery in Spencer, Mass. Brewed by the Trappistine monks of St. Joseph's Abbey, Spencer Trappist Ale is the only certified Trappist beer brewed in the U.S. and the only one brewed outside of Europe.
Caption
(AP 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.
Caption
(AP photo)
Father Damion, Abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey in Spencer, Mass., walks through the monks meeting room. St. Joseph's is a community of 63 Trappistine monks, the largest in the U.S.
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo a member of St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey walks through the community's cloister in Spencer, Mass. St. Joseph's has a community of 63 monks in residence. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo a member of St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey dips his fingers into a font of Holy Water before entering the abbey's chapel in Spencer, Mass. The monks of St. Joseph's meet for services seven times a day. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo monks pray during their noon service, also known as office, at the St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey in Spencer, Mass. The monks gather seven times a day between 3:30 AM and 7:40 PM for offices in their chapel. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo members of the Trappist monk community gather for noon service, also known as office, at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo Father Damion, Abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey walks to the community's chapel for noon service, also known as office, in Spencer, Mass. Sixty-three brothers and priests live in community at St. Joseph's making it the largest group of Trappist monks in the United States. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo Father Damion, Abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey walks into the community's new state-of-the-art beer brewery in Spencer, Mass. Spencer Trappist Ale, brewed by the Trappistine monks of St. Joseph's Abbey is the only certified Trappist beer brewed in the United States. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo places for members of the Trappist monk community are marked at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass. Trappist monks think of the beer they brew as food, substance to nourish the body. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo Father Damion, Abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey walks through a gathering room at the abbey in Spencer, Mass. The monks of St. Joseph's have, after four years of planning and preparation, recently begun brewing beer they call Spencer Trappist Ale, the only certified Trappist beer brewed in the United States. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo Father Damion, Abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey, stands in the community's cloister in Spencer, Mass. The monks of St. Joseph's recently opened a brewery where they brew Spencer Trappist Ale, the only certified Trappist beer brewed in the United States. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo a member of the St. Joseph's Abbey walks through the community's cloister near the chapel in Spencer, Mass. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo Spencer Brewery Director Father Isaac stands near the top of the facility's fermentation tanks and looks out a window onto the abbey's grounds in Spencer, Mass. Father Isaac was a potter before joining the Trappist community 35 years ago. He is one of 25 priests living in a community of 63 monks at St. Joseph's. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
Caption
(Stephan Savoia)
In this Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014 photo Father Damion, Abbot at St. Joseph's Trappist Abbey stands near a pair of the abbey's windows in Spencer, Mass. The 63 member monastic community turned to a new source of revenue recently when they completed a four year long project of deciding and learning to brew Spencer Trappist Ale. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

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 the Rev. 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.”

Keeley and another monk from St. Joseph’s packed up and moved to Belgium in December 2010 to see how their European brothers brew – and to convince them that they could properly produce an American Trappist beer.

The European monks weren’t the only ones who needed convincing. Back at St. Joseph’s, a robust debate among the brothers was underway. Some were concerned about starting what would be the most expensive enterprise ever undertaken by the abbey.

Everyone agreed, however, the aging monastery buildings were getting increasingly expensive to maintain. In the end, more than 85 percent of the American brothers voted for the project.

“We see it as a 50- to 100- year project. [Just] as we’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before us and built these building and supported the way of life, hopefully future generations will be able to stand on our shoulders, what we are doing – and we see the brewery as part of that,” said the Rev. Damian Carr, head of St. Joseph’s Abbey.

The European monks, warming to the idea of an American Trappist beer, began giving close counsel to their Massachusetts brothers.

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 St. Joseph’s monks set to work and built a multi-million-dollar brewery that would be the envy of almost any microbrewery in the world.

Securing their bank loan – an amount they won’t disclose – was made easier by the success of the monks’ previous business venture, “Trappist Preserves.”

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 beer in his suitcase, Keeley flew last month to Belgium, seeking his brother monks’ blessing. He first delivered a PowerPoint presentation on the new brewery, then poured glasses of Spencer Trappist Ale for his European counterparts.

“They approved it unanimously,” he said, “and after the vote there was applause.”

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.

On New Year’s Day, at their annual holiday party, the brewery team tapped a keg of the final product for the whole St. Joseph’s community – the first time many of the brothers tasted the beer that will soon be synonymous with their monastery.

Telling the story of that night, Keeley started to cry.

“The keg was pouring beautifully. We had this great head on the beer,” he said. “The monks were coming back for seconds at least. And it just struck me... in a certain sense we have made it.”

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