Why Trappist ale tastes better

St Joseph’s looks almost Tudor, with its tented spires and prominent dormers

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.”

Today they have eight varieties, including an Imperial Stout and an IPA. The original is still my favourite, but I haven’t tried the Peach Saison yet, which was released on February 12.

I asked Fr Isaac if Spencer is available in Britain. Alas, it isn’t: British alcohol taxes are too high. (That’s why you only get dreadful, generic American beers.) But Mount St Bernard Abbey in Leicestershire is starting up its own brewery, so England will soon have a Trappist ale of her very own.

There’s no doubt that Spencer Brewery is a professional operation. But the monks manage to keep their work within the ancient traditions of monastic life. The brewery staff gather every Friday for their feierabendbier, which roughly translates as “beer after work”. Cistercian monasteries are usually self-sustaining, and for centuries have brewed beer to revive themselves after a long day in the fields. (In the US, the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists, usually only indulge once a week at their silent Sunday evening supper.)

After the brewery we head over to the cannery, which is Fr Dominic’s domain. It’s here they make Trappist Preserves – a staple of New England breakfasts for generations. I mention to Fr Dominic that I grew up eating their jams, and he chuckles: “I used to get them in my stocking for Christmas.” Now he runs the operation.

The cannery is much older than the brewery, but that only makes the output more remarkable. They cook 1.5 tons of fruit every morning and churn out 80 jars per minute. And they work in silence. The monks are so perfectly in sync with one another that they don’t need to ask or offer help. “Everyone has an eye on his brother,” Fr Dominic says.

We head out back to the warehouse, where pallets of jams are waiting to be shipped. I comment on the label: the black-and-white figure of a monk churning a cauldron of fruit. “It’s relatively new,” Fr Dominic remarks. “Brother Anthony designed it. He used to work for a record label in New York doing illustrations for album covers.” Anyone I would know? “Probably.” Fr Dominic scratches his chin. “Barbra Streisand, for one.”

The last leg of my visit is to the monastery itself. This 70-year-old abbey looks almost Tudor, with its tented spires and prominent dormers. Rather a sad thought: the English Cistercians were wiped out by Henry VIII.

Fr Dominic and I walk through the long hallways. The smell is striking: cold air, old stones, musty books, rough wool, and – well, men. My guide shrugs. “That’s the smell of a monastery.” Indeed. And Fountains Abbey would have smelled the same way in 1539 when the Cistercians closed its doors for the last time.

He takes me to the library, where the brothers study. Twice a year, on the day after Christmas and on New Year’s Day, they’re allowed to eat supper there and speak. “It’s always the same meal,” says Fr Dominic: “Tuna fish sandwiches and pickles.” He surveys the room affectionately. “But we look forward to it.”

The Trappist diet – vegetarianism, with frequent fasting – is demanding. But there have been changes over the years. Fr Dominic had to eat plain bread for breakfast when he first arrived; the abbot has since granted permission to use a toaster.

We spend a half-hour chatting in Fr Dominic’s office. It is, of course, a plain room: no computer, no decoration. Just a few hardback chairs and a writing desk. He uses it mostly for spiritual direction.

At one point he lets slip that he’s nearing his 69th birthday, and my jaw hits the floor. “You don’t even look 50,” I say. He nods. “We age slower. It’s the regularity of the lifestyle”: work, fast, pray. This, Fr Dominic notes, is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 17th century, men only survived about 10 years in a monastery. Today, they often live another 70 on top of that.

Fr Dominic also gives credit to their freedom from the news cycle. “We used to only read the local paper, but after 9/11, we decided to branch out,” he explains. “It’s important to know what’s going on in the world so we can be compassionate – so we know whom to pray for.” Now they subscribe to two newspapers: the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. And that’s plenty. “It’s hard enough keeping up with the Word of God!” he laughs.

Then the bell tolls, and we shuffle off to Vespers. There’s a stained-glass window depicting Our Lady (the “Salve” window) and a recess behind the altar adorned with fleurs-de-lis. Otherwise, the chapel is plain. I’m seated in the back with a few laypeople who are on retreat in the abbey’s guesthouse. The monks chant the Psalms in English, their deep voices trained only by repetition. It’s a gripping and humbling experience for a ritualist like me.

Night fell some time during the prayers. There are no artificial lights as far as I can see. Presumably the fallow fields are somewhere out ahead of me, rolling into the frost-bitten woods. It takes me an hour to drive home, kick off my shoes, and crack open a bottle of Spencer. Somehow, this one tastes even better.

Michael Davis is the Catholic Herald’s US editor