As huge crowds gathered to see Pope Francis last month, with loud cheers, cell phone pictures and hashtags, the monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, celebrated in silence with no Wi-Fi connection.
These monks don’t usually watch TV or use the internet, but an exception was made for the Pontifice. Their celebration wasn’t very lively, though: Trappists rarely exchange words. But they do brew one helluva beer, and get to enjoy some of it during an hour of levity and relaxation every Sunday.
St. Joseph’s decided to begin brewing a few years ago to finance the monastery, when costs rose beyond income from selling jams, jellies, liturgical vestments and tourist swag.
“When we put it to a vote, we had the biggest majority of any vote we've ever had—87% were in favor," said Father Isaac Keeley, Director of Spencer Brewery, who forgoes the vow of silence to act as a spokesman for the organization. "The brew house lends itself to quiet, to a certain amount of mindfulness and prayerful atmosphere. There's a point when liquid has to come to a rest … so there's even a contemplative moment in the process."
Luckily, the day-to-day life of a monk in the middle of Massachusetts is not all that expensive. Food is pretty basic and robes, which can be worn for years, run $125 apiece. But like other ordained Catholics, these monks are also getting older. As such, their health-care costs are pretty high.
Shelter can also be expensive. The 55 monks at St. Joseph’s live in an aging monastery, which sits on 2,000 acres of land. It was built, originally as a farm, in the early 1900s, so maintenance is pricey. There's also the cost of running the brewery itself. It required loans to build, which now have monthly payments. Then there are regular costs of packaging, equipment maintenance, paying brew masters and other overhead.
Father Keeley would not provide revenue and expense figures for the monastery or the brewery, nor would other representatives. Because it’s a tax-exempt organization, St. Joseph’s finances aren’t public.
"Imagine what health insurance costs for a family of four and multiply that out to 55 monks and add a really large monastery building to maintain and you get a sense of some of the expenses," Father Keeley said.
Doing some back-of-the-envelope calculations, Spencer Brewery produces roughly 36,600 bottles of beer each year. At $3.50 a bottle, that amounts to about $128,100 in annual revenue, which isn’t much.
Father Keeley said the brewery isn’t expected to earn a profit for at least a decade. And, in any case, the International Trappist Association requires all members to abide by rules that limit revenue to the needs of the monastery and its charities.
"There's an 100 year framework… we're inventing the base for the economy of the monastery for the century,” he said. “We are really driving down the first block."
Spencer became the first Trappist brewery outside of Europe only a couple of years ago, but it follows a long line of monk brewers earning money from alcohol.
Over 300 years ago, a French Benedictine monk by the name of Dom Perignon was a pioneer in winemaking. Yes, that same $200 bottle of Dom Perignon popped in music videos is named after a monk. And that Chimay beer you see at the local beer-snob bar has been on tap for 150 years, also thanks to monks.
"Manual labor is actually a part of the Rule of St. Benedict that stresses the importance of ‘ora et labora’—‘pray and work’—and where ‘idleness is the enemy of the soul,’” said Father Keeley.
The monks at St. Joseph’s belong to the most extreme order of ordained Roman Catholics: the Cistercians of the Strict Observance, or Trappists. They take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience like others, but they also follow the rule of St. Benedict (which is actually a whole bunch of rules) very closely.
They pray seven times a day, starting at 3:30 a.m. They know when to eat, when to sleep and when, specifically, to say “Alleluia.” Contrary to popular belief, they are not completely mute, but they do not engage in frivolous banter.
As the monks try to sell more beer, they’re running into a dilemma: with strict observances and limited communications, how can they promote their brew to the outside world?
"Most of us wouldn't have—what do you call them? Smartphones,” said Father Keeley. “We generally don't participate in social media. It's a bit of a liability for brewery.”
They are gradually trying to adapt, though. The brewery itself does have Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. They are updated somewhat infrequently, but have gotten some buzz going about the brewery and its marquis product: Spencer Trappist Ale.
It’s a reddish-gold Belgian ale, with 6.5% ABV. The official flavor description details “fruity accents, a dry finish and light hop bitterness.” Jason and Todd Alström, who co-founded the beer review web site BeerAdvocate.com, describe Spencer Trappist Ale as “dry, yeast, bubblegum, crackers” and rate it 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Next month, the brewery will release its second beer, a holiday ale, and a Russian stout will follow in 2016.
As a startup brewer with only a couple of beers in production, I asked Father Keeley what he thought about consolidation among big brewers, including the proposed $100 billion-plus merger between beer giants AB Inbev and SABMiller.
“As a small brewer, we’re always in favor of enough diversity so the beer market remains competitive,” he said.
Beer isn’t the only product that monasteries across the U.S. make to earn money: Carmelite monks in Cody, Wyoming, make Mystic Monk Coffee, as well as tea and candy; nuns at Our lady of the Angels in Crozet, Virginia, make cheese; Benedictine monks at St. Andrew's Abbey in Valyermo, California, make ink and toner for print cartridges, while those in St. Joseph Abbey in Louisiana make honey and caskets.
In fact, Jack M. Ruhl, a professor at Western Michigan University who has studied financial reporting at Catholic dioceses, said he had never heard about America’s only monk-brewed beer. But in his visits to monasteries across the country, he has found many that resort to selling goods to make ends meet.
“The monks,” he noted, “are not paid even minimum wage.”
(Editor's note: story has been updated with Father Keeley's comments on the potential AB Inbev-SABMiller merger.)