GOD ALMIGHTY – an American-made Trappist beer?
That’s the news that stunned beer drinkers last month, as St. Joseph’s Abbey, about an hour west of Boston, revealed that its Spencer Trappist Ale had been certified as the first Trappist beer brewed outside of Europe.
The monastic brewery will carry on the ancient Benedictine principal that monks should “live by the work of their hands.”
It all seems so quaint and holy, especially considering the near-sacred regard for other Trappist beers, including Chimay and Orval.
We’ve come a long way since the days when a community of beer-making Catholic monks in western Pennsylvania were a national scandal.
The episode, nearly forgotten, took place at the tiny St. Vincent’s Archabbey, outside Pittsburgh, in Latrobe, Pa., long before there was a Rolling Rock beer. The monastery was founded in 1846 by a Bavarian priest named Boniface Wimmer, whom the abbey calls “the pioneer of Benedictinism in the United States.”
Like his European counterparts, Wimmer found it necessary to brew beer because, as he explained to one bishop, “always being obliged to drink fresh water and nothing else, is a thing which no religious orders, even not the Trappists, Carthusians and Paulans, are obliged to do.”
By 1856, the monastery had built a small brewery – not just for its growing population, but for locals, too. Selling beer by the barrel, Wimmer knew, was a good source of income.
St. Vincent’s brewery was not a large operation. According to Pennsylvania brewery historian Rich Wagner, at its peak it produced only about 2,500 barrels a year (about the size of today’s Twin Lakes Brewing, in Delaware) and earned $40,000 a year.
Nonetheless, it did not go unnoticed as the American temperance movement began to surge. By the second half of the 19th century, Father Theobald Mathew, the Irish teetotaler priest, had swept the nation, attracting huge Prohibitionist crowds calling for “total abstinence.” In a few years, Carrie Nation would be sharpening her ax.
Although most ethnic Catholics opposed Prohibition, the church hierarchy found itself bending under pressure. Drunkenness was decried as unholy and the saloons were sinful dens of iniquity.
American priests and bishops began to speak out against the brewery. One in particular, Father George Zurcher, of Buffalo, distributed pamphlets decrying the “foreign ideas” of the St. Vincent Arch Abbey monks.
“Instead of laboring for the cause of sobriety, on which the welfare of the church in this country so greatly depends,” the “beer monks,” as he called them, “are actually gaining revenue from the spread of intemperance.”
The monastery reminded its critics that Pope Pius IX himself had given the brewery a special dispensation. Recalling a biblical passage, the Holy See had reasoned that Paul advised Timothy that “he should take a little wine for his weak stomach, and so [the monastery] must have something.”
In 1895, St. Vincent’s defenders wrote in a letter to the New York Times that its beer “is a pleasant, healthy, invigorating and popular beverage.” Monks had historically brewed beer, they continued, because “they knew that good, pure beer, with bread as an accompaniment, would nourish them and furnish sustenance enough for a full day’s hard labor, while cold water and crackers made but a gruesome meal.”
Zurcher and others railed on, calling the monks “traitors” who betrayed hardworking Catholic followers. Others whispered that barrels marked “O.S.B.,” for Order of St. Benedict, actually meant “Order of Sacred Brewers.”
In 1898, the monastery finally gave in, halting public sales of its cherished beer. With passage of the 18th Amendment in 1919, it stopped brewing altogether. A few years later, fire destroyed the brewery.
Today, the brewery is but a vague memory at the monastery. It earns funds from a gristmill and general store that sells flour, corn meal and grits. There’s no beer, but the monks do sell their own Saint Lazarus Blend of coffee that, they promise, is “bold enough to wake the dead!”