Spencer Brewery, founded by the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in 2014 and the makers of the country’s only officially recognized Trappist ales, is closing.
The brewery announced the impending closure on social media last week, saying in part, “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.”
Reached by phone, Father William Dingwall, Spencer Brewery’s director, said, " It seems to have taken people outside the community by surprise, and that’s understandable, but it’s something we’ve been mulling over for the past couple of years.”
Spencer Brewery arrived with much fanfare in 2014. While the concept of monks brewing and selling beer was novel in the United States, there’s a long history of it in Europe, where Trappist brews like Chimay, Orval, and Westmalle are made. Perched on a hill on a pastoral 2,000-acre property in Spencer, in Worcester County, Saint Joseph’s Abbey vibed well with that tradition.
The beer, at first, was also traditional, the flagship a strong, Belgian-style golden ale with restrained, fruity notes characteristic of other Trappist brews.
“The purpose of the brewery was originally to provide a new source of revenue,” says Dingwall. “It was a way of supporting ourselves in our contemplative life here.”
Traditionally, the monks at Saint Joseph’s have sold preserves, as well as religious items like books and devotional objects, at a gift shop on site. When those sales flagged, Dingwall says the monastic community now numbering 44 members found the idea of the brewery “exciting.”
“It generated a great deal of interest,” says Dingwall. “But at the same time — I’ve spent a long time thinking about this and it is still a personal opinion, but it does reflect what we’ve been living through — the beer market in the US started to change radically. We stood out when we first opened up, but craft breweries started springing up everywhere.
“Even though the story of a Trappist brewery coming on the scene was quite big news at the time, the story started being repeated all over the country in other ways. . . . We became just another sort of flavor in this hugely expanding and ever changing world.”
The brewery tried to keep pace, releasing other styles of beer like an IPA and an imperial stout in a series of moves Dingwall calls “reactionary.” While Spencer’s director won’t say whether or not the brewery was losing money, he says, “it wasn’t performing, and it looked like it wasn’t going to perform in the foreseeable future.”
One big impediment to the brewery’s performance was the lack of a tap room. While craft brewing remains a competitive business, having the ability to pour and sell beer on-site allows some brewers to reap higher profits. On store shelves, it can be hard for any beer — even monk-brewed Trappist ale — to stand out.
Dingwall says adding a tap room was not an option in Spencer.
“The brewery’s in the middle of the property, just a couple hundred yards from the monastery and the church. The brothers were not in favor of adding that kind of business at the entrance to the monastery.”
Dingwall says the monks have met with consultants of all kinds, including craft-beer venture capitalists, to weigh their options. Their conclusion: It isn’t financially viable to keep the brewery going, and it isn’t palatable to sell the business and have someone else run it on site. While it’s a disappointing ending, it’s not one that’s been undertaken without serious contemplation.
“It’s not a shock,” says Dingwall. “All our activities that we do are to support our lives of prayer. Beer was a particularly interesting and engaging activity, but we’re not here for the beer.”
Spencer Brewery has already ceased production and will sell brewery equipment and any remaining raw materials at auction. The company’s beers are expected to be available on Massachusetts store shelves for a few more months.