Sad, worrisome news to report today from a particularly difficult niche of the U.S. craft beer world, as the monks of Spencer, Massachusetts’ Spencer Brewery announced that the only Trappist brewery in the U.S. would cease operations. It’s yet another depressing beer headline from an industry that hasn’t had many positive stories to report since even before the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“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 the Spencer Brewery,” said the brewery via a press statement. “We want to thank all our customers for their support and encouragement over the years. Our beer will be available in our regular retail outlets while supplies last. Please keep us in your prayers.”
The monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey are a community of Catholic Cistercian monks who first took root in Spencer in 1950. Like similar abbeys in Belgium, they sought to bring the monastic beer brewing tradition to the U.S. as a means of supporting the operations of the abbey—traditionally, Trappist breweries produce only as much beer as they need to sell to cover the abbey’s operation, living expenses and improvements. After years of preparation, they opened the 36,000 square foot Spencer Brewery on the monastery grounds back in 2014, to much fanfare as they became the only certified Trappist brewery operating in the United States. Core beers included flagship Spencer’s Trappist Ale, along with Holiday Ale and Monk’s Reserve.
Perhaps unexpectedly, it was never the beer that seemed to be an issue for Spencer—it was received pretty warmly by the craft beer community, and seemed to perform well in tastings against the Belgian classics after which it was modeled. Rather, the brewery seemed to struggle more with marketing itself in an ultra-competitive U.S. market, especially when saddled with a notably high price point. In the U.S., breweries such as Allagash and Ommegang had already long since pioneered a less expensive brand of Belgian-style ale, and the classic Belgian Trappist brands such as St. Bernardus, Rochefort and Westmalle have long existed as pricey, “ultra premium” imports. With a price point similar to the latter beers, but without the rich history and European credentials, it feels like the Spencer brand may have been trapped in the middle between more affordable American alternatives, and beers with 200 years of history behind them. Spencer Brewery had reportedly been receiving help more recently from Northeastern University in developing new advertising campaigns, but it seems safe to say that this was too little, too late for the viability of the business.
It’s a shame to think that the U.S. will lose its only Trappist designated brewery. We hope that the monks of St. Joseph’s will find a new revenue stream to otherwise continue their operations as they see fit.