Father Isaac Keeley, Director of Spencer Brewery

Last Call by | Sep 2014 | Issue #92

AP Photo / Stephan Savoia

“Monks don’t like change,” explains Father Isaac Keeley of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Mass. So it took some convincing on his part—and then, a lot of test batches—before it all came down to a high-stakes tasting of their 6.5-percent Belgian Golden Ale in December of 2013, when monks from six Belgian Trappist brewing abbeys gathered in Brussels to sample Spencer Brewery’s beer. A unanimous approval made Spencer the first American brewery to earn the title of “Authentic Trappist” brewers—a coup for the monks, and, as one Copenhagen brewer told Father Isaac, “yet another symbol that American brewing had come of age.”

How did you come to suggest that the abbey start brewing?
Brewing is a very traditional monastic form of work. Now that we are brewing, I can easily see why monks like this kind of work. It’s quiet, thoughtful, deliberate, rather contemplative, and results in a really great food/beverage. So some of us thought it should be a very natural fit for us.

What was holding you back before?
Our usual approach is to do more of what we already know and do well. But we finally won over the “ear” of the monastic community when the monks could clearly see the other options were not going to work for us—e.g., more Trappist preserves, more vestments at The Holy Rood Guild, wind turbines on the flight path to the Worcester Airport, etcetera.

What’s surprised you about brewing?
Brewing has turned out to be a remarkable marriage of art and science for us, not unlike what it takes to live a monastic life in the 21st century. There is an art to becoming a monk and living a monastic life, but a lot of knowledge and life skills (the “science” of living successfully today) are requisite also. So we are finding work in our brewhouse surprisingly compatible with our monastic way of life. Now that we are on the far side of our Sabco system and are working in the new brewhouse, we are happily surprised by how contemplative brewing can be. It is increasingly clear to us why brewing has been such a traditional monastic occupation.

What’s next for Spencer?
Our identity is “Trappist brewery”—American Trappist brewery, and that is distinct from American craft brewery. It’s the craft beer movement and the cultural shifts it is inducing that in part make it possible for us monks to undertake our project, and we are very grateful to American craft brewers for their very significant contribution to world beer culture. Nevertheless, we have two different expressions of creativity. Traditionally and typically, Trappist breweries brew between one and three beers in all after decades, and often enough, centuries of brewing experience, whereas craft brewers create new beers and even beer styles relatively frequently. The monk typically expresses his creativity by working to perfect even more the one or two brews his brewery has come to call its own. So Spencer is going to keep refining Spencer Trappist Ale, brewing ever more consistently, fine-tuning what we believe is a classic Trappist refectory ale. In the process, we will be training more monks for the brewhouse, the cellar, the lab and the packaging hall, and growing step by step a beer culture within the monastic community. 

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