The first and only Trappist brewery in the United States has announced its closure. The Cistercian monks of St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts wrote onthe brewery's Facebook page on May 14, 2022: “after more than a year of consultation and consideration, have come to the sad conclusion that brewing is not a viable industry for us and that it is time to close Spencer's brewery.”
“Our beer will be available at our usual points of sale while supplies last. Please keep us in your prayers.”
The monks of Saint-Joseph Abbey are Cistercians of strict observance. They follow the rule of Saint Benedict, characterized by prayer and work according to the motto ora et labora. “All the activities we do are to support our prayer life. The beer was a particularly interesting and engaging activity, but we are not here for the beer,” explained Fr. William Dingwall, director of the Abbey Brewery.
On December 10, 2013, St. Joseph's Abbey was certified by the International Trappist Association to become the first Trappist brewery in the United States. The latter had been launched to provide a new source of income for the monks and supported a maximum production of 4,500 barrels, or 60,000 cases.
The beer was distributed in the United States and in eight countries. But in recent years, it has had to face ever-increasing competition from craft beers. And the monks were not willing to invest more to expand their production capacity.
St. Joseph Abbey also welcomes guests to its retreat house and has a souvenir shop. It also offers for sale fruit and wine jellies, jams and preserves, as well as liturgical vestments.
The Foundation of the St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer
The Cistercian community of St. Joseph Abbey originated with a group of monks who arrived in North America in 1803, sent by Dom Augustin de Lestrange. During the French Revolution, the State confiscated the La Trappe monastery and closed the religious houses.
The monks, commonly called Trappists, then took refuge in Switzerland, Russia, and Belgium where they settled in Westmalle in Flanders. Dom Augustin had planned to swarm in the “New World” to ensure the survival of the order. The monastery of Petit Clairvaux was founded in Nova Scotia, in eastern Canada. Eighteen monks from the Abbey of Saint-Sixte de Westvleteren (Belgium) joined them in 1857.
In 1876, the monastery was elevated to the rank of abbey, and Fr. Dominic Schietecatte was elected Father Abbot. In October 1892, a fire completely destroyed the monastery. The new temporary buildings suffered the same fate in the autumn of 1896. Dom Dominic, weakened and ill, resigned from his office and returned with several Flemish monks to the Westvleteren Abbey.
The Abbey of Notre-Dame du Lac, founded near Montreal in 1881 by the French Trappist abbey of Bellefontaine, sends a new abbot, and helped the Petit Clairvaux community to move to Rhode Island to found the. Our Lady of the Valley abbey there. A third fire in 1950 left the 140 Trappist monks homeless.
Due to the urbanization of Rhode Island, the community had – providentially – acquired in 1949 a large agricultural property in Spencer, Massachusetts, in order to ensure the monks their solitude and their economic stability. The fire of 1950 only brought forward the planned move of the community. The monks set about adapting the farm buildings for monastic purposes while using an abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps camp in northern Rhode Island as a temporary living place.
Despite the austere living conditions, the ranks of the community continued to swell, and a new foundation was undertaken. Thus, on November 18, 1950, thirty-four professed monks and novices embarked for Berryville, Virginia, to found the Abbey of Our Lady of the Holy Cross. Then on December 23, 1950, eighty monks took possession of St. Joseph Abbey in Spencer.
The first stone of the abbey church and the quadrangle of Spencer was laid on March 19, 1952 and barely a year later, on August 15, 1953, the first Mass was solemnly celebrated in the new church. The community then numbered one hundred and fifty-six monks, and increased to one hundred and eighty-six in 1957. Three foundations followed.
On August 1, 1961, Dom Edmund Futterer resigned after having led his community and daughter houses of monks and nuns with extraordinary vision and enlightened zeal for eighteen years during a time of expansion. He will certainly be recognized as one of the most remarkable abbots of the 20th century for his material contribution, but even more so as an eminent teacher of the interior life and a loving spiritual father.
Dom Edmund was succeeded by Dom Thomas Keating (1923-2019). Dom Thomas' abbacy coincided with the Second Vatican Council and its tumultuous aftermath. He resigned on September 10, 1981, after two decades in office, which spanned the troubled 1960s and the troubling reappraisals of the 1970s. Dom Vincent Rogers is currently the community superior.
The “Authentic Trappist Product”
The “Authentic Trappist Product” label, created in 1998 and conferred by the International Association of Trappists, authenticates the origin of beer under three conditions. Production should be kept in the abbey, profits going to the charities of the monastic community, and production should be supervised by monks.
In Belgium, five breweries produce “Authentic Trappist Product” beers: Chimay (Notre-Dame de Scourmont abbey), Orval (Notre-Dame d'Orval abbey), Rochefort (Notre-Dame de Saint-Rémy abbey), Westmalle (Notre-Dame de la Trappe du Sacré-Coeur) and Westvleteren (Abbey of Notre Dame de Saint-Sixte).
Around the world, five other beers also benefit from this label: La Trappe (Abbey of Our Lady of Koningshoeven) and Zundert (Abbey of Our Lady of Refuge) in the Netherlands; Engelszell (Stiff Engelszell, Austria), Tre Fontane (Monastery of St. Vincent and St. Anastasius at Three Fountains, Italy) and Tynt Meadow brewed since 2018 at Mont St. Bernard Abbey in England.