The Trappists of St Joseph settled in Spencer, Massachusetts, in 1950, on the site of an old farm. The soil was rocky, but that suited the monks just fine. One by one they pulled the stones from the barren earth and used them to build a monastery.
Driving down the winding road to St Joseph Abbey, I think of that arresting line from Paradise Lost: “autumnal leaves that strow the brooks, in Vallombrosa”. I’m sure Milton enjoyed the view, but Vallombrosa Abbey is in Tuscany, whereas everyone knows New England has the finest autumns. I’m visiting St Joseph in those brittle weeks before winter, when the last yellow, frost-bitten leaves still cling to the branches.
I’m greeted by Fr Dominic, the prior. He was originally a Dominican, but felt irresistibly drawn to monasticism. “My superiors told me to spend a while with the Trappists, to get it out of my system,” he laughs. “Here I am, still trying to get it out of my system.”
We hop into my old Toyota and make our way to the brewery. We’re met by the director, Fr Isaac, and we set off on a tour. It’s quite a sight: two monks, in their black and white habits, gliding around stainless-steel brew vessels and the glass-enclosed control room used by the brewhouse team. Fr Isaac tries to explain how all the tanks and fermenters feed into each other, but he loses me pretty quickly. “Did you study brewing?” I ask, dazed. He shakes his head and grins. “Theology. And pottery.”
Now we come to the tasting, where I have a bit more expertise. It was their beer, called Spencer, that made me reach out to them. St Joseph is the only producer of authentic Trappist ale outside of Europe. The International Trappist Association was sceptical about Americans’ ability to match their quality, so they gave them a little advice: “Do only one beer, and do it perfectly.”
So they did. What makes Trappist ale so unique, Fr Isaac tells me, is that the ale undergoes two fermentations, one in the stainless steel tank and a second fermentation in each bottle. The live yeast culture in each bottle naturally carbonates the ale and gives it a unique flavour profile. (American glassmakers typically don’t make bottles strong enough to contain the pressure from the carbonation, so they have to import their bottles from Germany.) It’s a malty ale with fruit and spice aromas and a dry finish – remarkably refreshing on a hot day. Fr Isaac put it more poetically: “The full malt body provides a home for the hops.”
How to continue reading…
This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week
The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection