The Spencer Brewery, founded by the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in 2014 and the makers of the country’s only officially recognized Trappist beers, is closing.
The brewery announced the impending closure on social media last week, saying in part: “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 it is time to close.
Reached by telephone, William Dingwall, director of Spencer Brewery, said: “It seems to have taken people outside the community by surprise, and that’s understandable, but it’s something we’ve been thinking about for some time. years.
Spencer Brewery arrived to much fanfare in 2014. While the concept of monks brewing and selling beer was new to the United States, there’s a long history in Europe, where Trappist beers like Chimay, Orval and Westmalle are made. Perched on a hill on a 2,000-acre pastoral estate in Spencer, Worcestershire, St. Joseph’s Abbey vibrated well with that tradition.
The beer, at first, was also traditional, the flagship being a Belgian-style strong golden beer with restrained, fruity notes characteristic of other Trappist beers.
“The purpose of the brewery was originally to provide a new source of income,” says Dingwall. “It was a way of supporting us in our contemplative life here.”
Traditionally, the monks of St. Joseph have sold canned goods, as well as religious items like books and devotional items, in an on-site gift shop. When those sales dwindled, Dingwall said the monastic community, which now numbers 44 members, found the idea of the brewery “exciting”.
“It generated a lot of interest,” says Dingwall. “But at the same time – I spent a lot of time thinking about it and it’s still a personal opinion, but it reflects what we’ve been through – the beer market in the United States started to change drastically. We we stood out when we opened, but craft breweries started popping up all over the place.
“Even though the story of the arrival of a Trappist brewery was big news at the time, history began to repeat itself across the country in other ways. . . . We’ve become just another kind of flavor in this ever-expanding and ever-changing world.
The brewery has tried to keep up, releasing other styles of beer like an IPA and an Imperial stout in a series of moves Dingwall calls “reactionary.” Although Spencer’s manager wouldn’t say whether or not the brewery was losing money, he says “it wasn’t working and it looked like it wasn’t going to work for the foreseeable future.”
One of the major impediments to the performance of the brewery was the lack of a tap room. While craft brewing remains a competitive business, the ability to pour and sell beer on-site allows some brewers to earn higher profits. On store shelves, it can be difficult for any beer – even Trappist brewed by a monk – to stand out.
Dingwall says adding a faucet room was not an option at Spencer.
“The brewery is in the middle of the property, a few hundred meters from the monastery and the church. The brothers were not in favor of adding this kind of business to the entrance of the monastery.
Dingwall says the monks met with consultants of all kinds, including craft beer venture capitalists, to weigh their options. Their conclusion: it is not financially viable to keep the brewery going, and it is not acceptable to sell the business and have someone else run it locally. While it’s a disappointing ending, it’s not one that was undertaken without serious thought.
“It’s not a shock,” Dingwall said. “All of our activities that we do are to support our prayer lives. The beer was a particularly interesting and engaging activity, but we’re not here for the beer.
Spencer Brewery has already ceased production and will auction brewery equipment and all remaining raw materials. The company’s beers are expected to be available on store shelves in Massachusetts for a few more months.
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