arly in 2014, to much fanfare, Spencer’s Saint Joseph’s Abbey opened the first certified Trappist brewery outside of Europe. The monks built a gleaming, 36,000-square-foot facility in a setting in which the word “bucolic” doesn’t do justice. They brewed one beer: a bright, peppery Belgian ale the monks themselves now drink with Sunday dinner. Saint Joseph’s has long sold preserves, but brewery sales were meant to significantly shore up the community’s finances for years to come.
It’s worked — to an extent. Over 5,000 barrels of Spencer Trappist Ale have sold in nearly two years, according to Father Isaac Keeley, who runs the brewery. First-year sales were 90 percent of what was expected, but have fallen off in Year Two. A change in brewers has also limited production. “For the first beer, we hoped to do something that the monks were going to drink,” says Keeley. “But we found out you don’t really brew for yourself in the long run.”
After talking to retailers, Spencer has decided to expand its product line. In addition to the abbey ale, the brewery will release Spencer Trappist Holiday Ale in November. Trappist Russian Imperial Stout will follow early next year. “Our original business plan was that we’d do this one beer, maybe it would take five years to get national distribution, and then we’d do a second Trappist classic,” says Keeley. “It turns out that plan was really flawed. It didn’t take sufficiently into account that the American market right now turns on what’s new, what’s a limited edition.”
To get the new beers approved, Keeley traveled to Belgium to meet with representatives from the world’s other nine Trappist breweries. The holiday ale, a Belgian strong ale, falls in line with Trappist tradition, darker than the current Spencer brew but undeniably Belgian. The stout is inspired by popular American craft-beer style, something both local and European retailers said they’d be interested in purchasing from the only Trappist brewery in the United States.
Another thing that has dogged Spencer is pricing. Keeley admits initial pricing on Spencer Trappist Ale was too high at $17.99 for a 4-pack. The brewery has already dropped the suggested price of that beer to $13.99, and plans to price the new beers with cost in mind.
As for how the brewery has fit into monastic life, Keeley compares the first two years to a start-up schedule he hopes will normalize. The monks meet regularly to give feedback on the brewery, and have enjoyed the Sunday beer drinking. “Nobody’s shy about telling us what they think,” he says.
Spencer Trappist Holiday Ale available in November at Craft Beer Cellar, Braintree (781-428-3283) and Redstone Liquors, Stoneham (781-438-9265)