The town of Spencer, in central Massachusetts, isn't well known for ... well, anything, really. But it's about to become internationally famous — at least in beer-drinking circles.
Spencer is home to St. Joseph's Abbey, where robed monks are busy brewing the first American Trappist beer. If all goes as planned, Spencer Trappist Ale will be available in Massachusetts retail stores by the middle of next week.
The monastery became one of only 10 official Trappist breweries in the world — and the first one outside Europe — in December.
"I've only come to understand the beer world [in] getting involved in this, but apparently, the Trappists have a reputation for quality in their products," says Damian Carr, the abbot of St. Joseph's.
That's a bit of an understatement. Many other beers bearing the Authentic Trappist Product label are regulars on lists of the world's best.
In some ways, the monks at St. Joseph's might seem like odd candidates to open up a world-class brewery. They don't get out much — "we're not in parishes, we don't teach schools, we don't go to the missions," the abbot says.
What they are is self-sufficient. For more than 60 years, the monks at St. Joseph's have supported themselves by making religious garments and preserves, including jams and jellies.
Still, that wasn't enough, so several years ago, they started looking into brewing.
But there was a problem: The monks knew nothing about brewing — or even drinking — beer. So, one of the monks called up Martha Paquette, the co-founder of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project in Sommerville, Mass., for help.
"They'd maybe drunk some Budweiser," Paquette says. "So, we had a lot of fun with the monks introducing them to hops, dark beers, richer, stronger beers."
Learning to drink beer was the easy part. To learn to brew it, the abbey sent two of its monks to train at Belgian monasteries and hired a professional Belgian brewer.
The monastery also received some major financing — the monks wouldn't say how much — for a sleek, state-of-the-art brew house. Now, the 36,000-square-foot, stainless steel building sits behind the stone abbey and is mostly automated.
As for their recipe, Rev. Isaac Keeley, the brewery's director, says they wanted to create a new Trappist beer that didn't taste like old Trappist beers. They tried all the classic sweet, high-alcohol styles, but found they liked what was being made just for the monks' personal consumption. What they settled on was a lower-alcohol type called refectory ale.
"The recipe allows monks to drink them on occasion and still go on and do monastic things," Keeley says. "Ours is a golden-hued, full-bodied ale. It has a nice aroma, which kind of whets your appetite."
The brew has already passed one major taste test: To get the official "Authentic product label," Spencer Trappist Ale's first had to win approval from the International Trappist Association.
"We tasted the beer the day we gave the approval," says ITA spokesman Francois de Harenne, and it was considered a good product — deserving to bear the logo."
Indeed, so far, says Abbot Damian, their brewing venture has had great luck. And while Spencer Trappist Ale will be for sale only in Massachusetts for starters, he says the monks hope to expand soon.
The Web version of this story includes reporting by Amy Guttman.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The town of Spencer in central Massachusetts is about to become a really big deal, at least in beer-drinking circles. Spencer is home to a Trappist monastery which has just become one of the ten official Trappist breweries in the world. Reporter Katherine Perry has this tour of St. Joseph's Abbey where monks are making the first American Trappist beer.
KATHERINE PERRY, BYLINE: Call up your idea of a Trappist monastery. If it's a stone abbey full of robed monks who start chanting before the sun comes up, you're actually right.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FATHER DAMIAN CARR: It starts at 3:30 in the morning in church. We're heading into the monastic cloister.
PERRY: That's Father Damian Carr, the abbot of St. Joseph's. The monks generally don't allow the public inside the monastic enclosure. In fact, that chanting you hear is a recording they made and they don't get out much.
CARR: We're not in parishes, we don't teach schools, we don't go to the missions, et cetera. But along with that it's self-supportive.
PERRY: And they've supported themselves for more than 60 years by making religious garments and preserves, jams and jellies. But Father Damian says it's not enough to he looked into brewing and was surprised at what he learned.
CARR: I've only come to understand the beer world, getting involved in this, but apparently the Trappists have a reputation for quality in their products.
PERRY: That's something of an understatement. Many of the other beers with the authentic Trappist product label are regulars on lists of the world's best.
MARTHA PAQUETTE: I think it's a once in a generation thing that's happening. There's never been an official Trappist beer produced in North America or indeed anywhere outside Europe.
PERRY: That's Martha Paquette, co-founder of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project in Sommerville, Mass. Years ago, one of the monks called for help with an impossible-sounding task: building a world class brewery while knowing nothing about brewing, or even drinking, beer.
PAQUETTE: They'd maybe drunk some Budweiser. So, we had a lot of fun with the monks introducing them to hops, introducing dark beers and richer, stronger beers.
PERRY: Learning to drink beer was the easy part. To learn to brew it, the abbey sent two monks to train at Belgian monasteries and hired a professional Belgian brewer. The monks wouldn't say how much, but they got some major financing and now, five years from conception, behind the stone abbey, there's a sleek, state-of-the-art building.
FATHER ISAAC KEELEY: You know, it's a 36,000-square-foot building.
PERRY: Father Isaac Keeley is the brewery's director. He walks through the surprisingly quiet stainless steel, mostly automated brew house.
KEELEY: There's also a mash tun, a lauter tun, then back to the mash tun for boiling and then a whirlpool.
PERRY: Father Isaac says they wanted to create a new Trappist beer that didn't taste like old Trappist beers. They tried all the classic sweet, high-alcohol styles, but found they liked what was being made just for the monks' personal consumption: a lower-alcohol type called a refectory ale.
KEELEY: The recipe allows monks to drink them on occasion and still go on and do monastic things. Ours is a golden-hued, full-bodied ale. It has a nice aroma, which kind of whets your appetite.
PERRY: To get the official label, the monastery must conform to the rules of the International Trappist Association, one of which is that the brewery must be part of the private grounds. Father Damian, the abbot of St. Joseph's, says he thinks that mystique will help them compete and they've had great luck so far.
CARR: No door is closed and they could've at any one point and I knew that and that would've been, to me, a sign, OK, this isn't what God is asking us to do. But the doors didn't close and here we are.
PERRY: Spencer Trappist Ale will be available by the middle of next week in retail stores in Massachusetts, but Father Damian says they hope to expand soon - God willing. For NPR News, I'm Katherine Perry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.