You may have seen in our Wednesday mailer the sad news that the Spencer Brewery in Massachusetts has decided to close up shop. If you haven’t heard much about this producer, it was the only US Trappist certified brewery and one of the most recent additions to the very minimal and select club of only 14 breweries worldwide.
Many of the Trappist breweries have been around for hundreds of years and if there were one business model you’d bet on for longevity, it's the self sustainable ethos of the monks - so the closure is somewhat of a surprise. Is it a bellwether for the ultra competitive US craft beer scene? Or are there other explanations for this sad loss? Here’s a few thoughts…
The Spencer brand nailed the traditional Trappist look. The bottles fit snugly on a shelf with anything comparable from Belgium - but when you position yourself next to branding that has been around for hundreds of years - you’re up against some real competition. Then, if you factor in the current trend for eye-catching modern labelling, you realise that Spencer may have found themselves in a bit of a grey spot - slap bang in the middle of old and new.
Others have suggested that the IPA is to blame? What do you mean by that I hear you cry. Well the IPA is still the popular beer of choice by a long, long way and with so many people aiming for this in the shops - more niche styles (such as the Belgian ones) are getting left behind. Spencer do make a cracking IPA - but interestingly - they call it an Indian Pale Ale - thus aligning with the British interpretation. It’s a subtle point of difference but maybe an important one in the US market. On the flip side, the Spencer lineup included a couple of cracking stouts; a trendy and popular style in the States that would have presumably gone well for them.
What about price? Ok, I’m going to take the fifth on this one… not knowing enough about prices in the US. That said, It’s fair to say that the high abv Spencer beers are not super cheap, but hey, you pay for quality in this day and age and perhaps there is a premium associated with the novelty of a band of brothers doing something radical for the first time in the US. So, maybe it’s not price exactly, but rather that the Spencer range was slanted too far towards the premium high end? If you combine this with the current economy, it’s very possible that an “unviable” brewery really is simply the victim of the pandemic.
I’m sure we’ll hear more from the monks of the St Joseph's Abbey in due course but, for now, let’s make the most of the beers while they’re still available. I’ve gone with the Imperial Barrel Aged Stout again today having written about it a few months back here.
I thought then that it would be worth putting a few of these away to watch them evolve over time and, well, there’s even more reason to do so now…