“Why Trappist ale tastes better”

At the UK’s best Catholic weekly, the Catholic Herald – PRINT edition [subscribe!] – there is a great piece about the Trappists of St. Joseph Abbey in Massachusetts who make great beer.

There are some stories in the print edition that you can’t get online.  This is one of them.   It touches all the bases: work, prayer, beer… peace.

Why Trappist ale tastes better

by Michael Davis

The Trappists of St Joseph settled in Spencer, Massachusetts, in 1950, on the site of an old farm. The soil was rocky, but that suited the monks just fine. One by one they pulled the stones from the barren earth and used them to build a monastery.

Driving down the winding road to St Joseph Abbey, I think of that arresting line from Paradise Lost: “autumnal leaves that strow the brooks, in Vallombrosa”. I’m sure Milton enjoyed the view, but Vallombrosa Abbey is in Tuscany, whereas everyone knows New England has the finest autumns. I’m visiting St Joseph in those brittle weeks before winter, when the last yellow, frost-bitten leaves still cling to the branches.

I’m greeted by Fr Dominic, the prior.

He was originally a Dominican, but felt irresistibly drawn to monasticism. “My superiors told me to spend a while with the Trappists, to get it out of my system,” he laughs. “Here I am, still trying to get it out of my system.”

We hop into my old Toyota and make our way to the brewery. We’re met by the director, Fr Isaac, and we set off on a tour. It’s quite a sight: two monks, in their black and white habits, gliding around stainless-steel brew vessels and the glass-enclosed control room used by the brewhouse team. Fr Isaac tries to explain how all the tanks and fermenters feed into each other, but he loses me pretty quickly. “Did you study brewing?” I ask, dazed. He shakes his head and grins. “Theology. And pottery.”

Now we come to the tasting, where I have a bit more expertise. It was their beer, called Spencer, that made me reach out to them. St Joseph is the only producer of authentic Trappist ale outside of Europe. The International Trappist Association was sceptical about Americans’ ability to match their quality, so they gave them a little advice: “Do only one beer, and do it perfectly.”

So they did. What makes Trappist ale so unique, Fr Isaac tells me, is that the ale undergoes two fermentations, one in the stainless steel tank and a second fermentation in each bottle. The live yeast culture in each bottle naturally carbonates the ale and gives it a unique flavour profile. (American glassmakers typically don’t make bottles strong enough to contain the pressure from the carbonation, so they have to import their bottles from Germany.) It’s a malty ale with fruit and spice aromas and a dry finish – remarkably refreshing on a hot day. Fr Isaac put it more poetically: “The full malt body provides a home for the hops.”

Today they have eight varieties, including an Imperial Stout and an IPA. The original is still my favourite, but I haven’t tried the Peach Saison yet, which was released on February 12.

I asked Fr Isaac if Spencer is available in Britain. Alas, it isn’t: British alcohol taxes are too high. (That’s why you only get dreadful, generic American beers.) But Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire is starting up its own brewery, so England will soon have a Trappist ale of her very own. [YAY!]

 There’s no doubt that Spencer Brewery is a professional operation. But the monks manage to keep their work within the ancient traditions of monastic life. The brewery staff gather every Friday for their feierabendbier, which roughly translates as “beer after work”. Cistercian monasteries are usually self-sustaining, and for centuries have brewed beer to revive themselves after a long day in the fields. (In the US, the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists, usually only indulge once a week at their silent Sunday evening supper.)

After the brewery we head over to the cannery, which is Fr Dominic’s domain.

It’s here they make Trappist Preserves – a staple of New England breakfasts for generations. I mention to Fr Dominic that I grew up eating their jams, and he chuckles: “I used to get them in my stocking for Christmas.” Now he runs the operation.

The cannery is much older than the brewery, but that only makes the output more remarkable. They cook 1.5 tons of fruit every morning and churn out 80 jars per minute. And they work in silence.

The monks are so perfectly in sync with one another that they don’t need to ask or offer help. “Everyone has an eye on his brother,” Fr Dominic says.

We head out back to the warehouse, where pallets of jams are waiting to be shipped. I comment on the label: the black-and-white figure of a monk churning a  cauldron of fruit. “It’s relatively new,” Fr Dominic remarks. “Brother Anthony designed it. He used to work for a record label in New York doing illustrations for album covers.” Anyone I would know? “Probably.” Fr Dominic scratches his chin. “Barbra Streisand, for one.”

The last leg of my visit is to the monastery itself. This 70-year-old abbey looks almost Tudor, with its tented spires and prominent dormers. Rather a sad thought: the English Cistercians were wiped out by Henry VIII.

Fr Dominic and I walk through the long hallways. The smell is striking: cold air, old stones, musty books, rough wool, and – well, men. My guide shrugs. “That’s the smell of a monastery.” Indeed. And Fountains Abbey would have smelled the same way in 1539 when the Cistercians closed its doors for the last time.

He takes me to the library, where the brothers study. Twice a year, on the day after Christmas and on New Year’s Day, they’re allowed to eat supper there and speak. “It’s always the same meal,” says

Fr Dominic: “Tuna fish sandwiches and pickles.” He surveys the room affectionately. “But we look forward to it.”

The Trappist diet – vegetarianism,  with frequent fasting – is demanding. But there have been changes over the years. Fr Dominic had to eat plain bread for breakfast when he first arrived; the abbot has since granted permission to use a toaster.

We spend a half-hour chatting in Fr Dominic’s office. It is, of course, a plain room: no computer, no decoration. Just a few hardback chairs and a writing desk.

He uses it mostly for spiritual direction.

At one point he lets slip that he’s nearing his 69th birthday, and my jaw hits the floor. “You don’t even look 50,” I say.

He nods. “We age slower. It’s the regularity of the lifestyle”: work, fast, pray. This,  Fr Dominic notes, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 17th century, men only survived about 10 years in a monastery. Today, they often live another 70 on top of that.

Fr Dominic also gives credit to their freedom from the news cycle. “We used to only read the local paper, but after 9/11, we decided to branch out,” he explains. “It’s important to know what’s going on in the world so we can be compassionate – so we know whom to pray for.” Now they subscribe to two newspapers: the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And that’s plenty. “It’s hard enough keeping up with the Word of God!” he laughs.

Then the bell tolls, and we shuffle off to Vespers. There’s a stained-glass window depicting Our Lady (the “Salve” window) and a recess behind the altar adorned with fleurs-de-lis. Otherwise, the chapel is plain. I’m seated in the back with a few laypeople who are on retreat in the abbey’s guesthouse. The monks chant the Psalms in English, their deep voices trained only by repetition. It’s a gripping and humbling experience for a ritualist like me.

Night fell some time during the prayers. There are no artificial lights as far as I can see. Presumably the fallow fields are somewhere out ahead of me, rolling into the frost-bitten woods. It takes me an hour to drive home, kick off my shoes, and crack open a bottle of Spencer. Somehow, this one tastes even better.

Michael Davis is the Catholic Herald’s
US editor

At this point I also want to remind you of the fantastic beer brewed by the fine, traditional Benedictines in Norcia, Italy.

Their monastery was destroyed by earthquakes, but they are rebuilding.  You can subscribe to have their beer delivered each month.  This is a good way to support them.


QUAERITUR:  Does Trappist ale taste better?

It certain does taste better than most beer.

But this is quite the claim.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Atra Dicenda, Rubra Agenda says:

    As a homebrewer, I approve this blog post.

    And I love trappist ales.

  2. AndyMo says:

    The Trappists in Spencer also make fantastic jam.

    They also run the Holy Rood Guild, a purveyor of decent (if expensive) vestments.

  3. S D Molokai says:

    I liked the line where the Trappist “felt irresistibly drawn to monasticism”. I am feeling irresistibly drawn to the TLM and this line helped make it clearer to me that I should move my family to such a parish an hour away. If anything we can try to “get it out of my system” for a while or longer.

  4. LeeGilbert says:

    Here the other day I quoted a long passage from “On the Sanctity and the Duties of the Monastic State” by Abbe Armand-Jean de Rancé, abbot of La Trappe in the late 17th c. It is a long story, but de Rancé managed to revive, preserve and hand on the much threatened charism of the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, in effect becoming a second St. Bernard. Every monastery of the Strict Obsrvance in the world traces to la Trappe and to him. Lamentably, although every Cistercian Abbey of the Strict Obervance in the world yet enjoys what cachet the name Trappist confers as indicating the height of monastic life, de Rancé imself is now persona non grata in the order he preserved. His writings and spirituality are similarly unwelcome.

    In fact, I obtained the book I was quoting from on the used book market. It bore the markings of Gethsemane Abbey and had obviously been tossed out in the cultural revolution that swept through the Church, probably in the seventies. One only has to tour Cistercian websites to discover how deep is the antipathy both to Rancé and his spirituality. It is not subtle. It is an hostility that de Rancé scholars have noted. From the Q&A page of one such website:

    “The form of life known as Trappist represents an overly severe interpretation of Cistercian life with a heavy accent on penance, mortification and austerity. Most of the Trappist forms have been replaced since Vatican II by a more genuine interpretation of traditional Cistercian life.”

    As Daniel Bell, medievalist, friend of the Cistercians and de Rancé scholar says, they should know better.

    Perhaps Bell had in mind this or a similar passage from the life of St. Bernard by William of St. Thierry:
    “In his own days as a novice . . .he had spared himself nothing, but insisted on mortifying, not only the concupiscences of the flesh (Rom 6:12; 1 John 2:6; Gal. 5:24), as actualized through the bodily senses, but even the very senses through which the actualizing occurred.

    Given the current Cistercian insistence on contemplation as the goal of monastic life, the very next sentence of that passage from that first biography of St. Bernard is very suggestive:

    “He thus insisted because, with his own inner senses enlightened by love, he had begun, often and most enjoyably, to experience the sweetness that breathed down to him from above.”
    It would seem, then, that St. Bernard, quintessential Cistercian, himself had “a heavy accent on penance, mortification and austerity” as the sine qua non of contemplation.

    However, most regrettably, the order and its monks have long decided that they are Cistercians now and not Trappists. This identity crisis has been unfolding for a very long time, and by now it is superabundantly clear that the order has utterly abandoned the specifically Trappist notes. Among these are the 1:30 AM rising, strict enclosure, strict silence, taking the Friday morning discipline, the chapter of faults and libraries largely restricted to Scripture and the Fathers of the Church. To illustrate how mitigated is this last desideratum of de Rancé, at least one monastery of the order boasts,

    “Our library has about 28,000 books including a couple thousand works of the finest fiction, classical and current, about 75 periodicals and two daily newspapers, three Catholic weekly newspapers. We may go to the local public library for other books, or obtain them through inter-library loan. The community library is like the living room of the Abbey where monks read together in an atmosphere of silence and beauty.”

    Year by year the logic of mitigation eviscerates the Trappist ethos. Here as in an auto-immune disease, one wonders what could have precipitated this on-going self-annihilation, not only the gradual abandonment of corporate identity and hence existence, but a determined hostility to what one could reasonably call the soul of the order. For commercial and public relations purposes, evidently, these monasteries retain the name “Trappist, “ but at this point it is stolen valor. They have the habit and the buildings, but they have decidedly abandoned the Trappist charism.

    This has been a very gradual business, and by this point it is doubtful whether most of the men wearing the habit ever heard of de Rancé or have ever had a taste of Trappist spirituality. The beer, however, sounds very authentic.

  5. Jenson71 says:

    But don’t drink too much or you may end up too soon in a Trappist casket.

  6. Charivari Rob says:

    Glad to see you writing about the Spencer Trappists, Father. I’ve mentioned them in combox here once or twice. The ale and jam are both very good.

  7. Semper Gumby says:

    A raised glass to these excellent monks for putting to good use God’s bounty.

    GK Chesterton wrote somewhere that he “hoped the Four Rivers of Eden flowed with milk, wine, water, and ale. Sodawater appeared after the Fall.” Fair enough. Though on the upper slopes of Mt. Moriah, not far from the threshing floor of the Jebusite, there might have been a hidden spring bubbling with cold Coke.

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