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The town of Spencer in central Massachusetts is about to become a really big deal, at least in beer-drinking circles. Spencer is home to a Trappist monastery which has just become one of the ten official Trappist breweries in the world. Reporter Katherine Perry has this tour of St. Joseph's Abbey where monks are making the first American Trappist beer.
KATHERINE PERRY, BYLINE: Call up your idea of a Trappist monastery. If it's a stone abbey full of robed monks who start chanting before the sun comes up, you're actually right.
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FATHER DAMIAN CARR: It starts at 3:30 in the morning in church. We're heading into the monastic cloister.
PERRY: That's Father Damian Carr, the abbot of St. Joseph's. The monks generally don't allow the public inside the monastic enclosure. In fact, that chanting you hear is a recording they made and they don't get out much.
CARR: We're not in parishes, we don't teach schools, we don't go to the missions, et cetera. But along with that it's self-supportive.
PERRY: And they've supported themselves for more than 60 years by making religious garments and preserves, jams and jellies. But Father Damian says it's not enough to he looked into brewing and was surprised at what he learned.
CARR: I've only come to understand the beer world, getting involved in this, but apparently the Trappists have a reputation for quality in their products.
PERRY: That's something of an understatement. Many of the other beers with the authentic Trappist product label are regulars on lists of the world's best.
MARTHA PAQUETTE: I think it's a once in a generation thing that's happening. There's never been an official Trappist beer produced in North America or indeed anywhere outside Europe.
PERRY: That's Martha Paquette, co-founder of Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project in Sommerville, Mass. Years ago, one of the monks called for help with an impossible-sounding task: building a world class brewery while knowing nothing about brewing, or even drinking, beer.
PAQUETTE: They'd maybe drunk some Budweiser. So, we had a lot of fun with the monks introducing them to hops, introducing dark beers and richer, stronger beers.
PERRY: Learning to drink beer was the easy part. To learn to brew it, the abbey sent two monks to train at Belgian monasteries and hired a professional Belgian brewer. The monks wouldn't say how much, but they got some major financing and now, five years from conception, behind the stone abbey, there's a sleek, state-of-the-art building.
FATHER ISAAC KEELEY: You know, it's a 36,000-square-foot building.
PERRY: Father Isaac Keeley is the brewery's director. He walks through the surprisingly quiet stainless steel, mostly automated brew house.
KEELEY: There's also a mash tun, a lauter tun, then back to the mash tun for boiling and then a whirlpool.
PERRY: Father Isaac says they wanted to create a new Trappist beer that didn't taste like old Trappist beers. They tried all the classic sweet, high-alcohol styles, but found they liked what was being made just for the monks' personal consumption: a lower-alcohol type called a refectory ale.
KEELEY: The recipe allows monks to drink them on occasion and still go on and do monastic things. Ours is a golden-hued, full-bodied ale. It has a nice aroma, which kind of whets your appetite.
PERRY: To get the official label, the monastery must conform to the rules of the International Trappist Association, one of which is that the brewery must be part of the private grounds. Father Damian, the abbot of St. Joseph's, says he thinks that mystique will help them compete and they've had great luck so far.
CARR: No door is closed and they could've at any one point and I knew that and that would've been, to me, a sign, OK, this isn't what God is asking us to do. But the doors didn't close and here we are.
PERRY: Spencer Trappist Ale will be available by the middle of next week in retail stores in Massachusetts, but Father Damian says they hope to expand soon - God willing. For NPR News, I'm Katherine Perry.
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