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Father Isaac Keeley checks the fermentation of the beer at Spencer Brewery in Spencer, MA.

Meet the most unlikely beer maker in North America

Father Isaac Keeley inspects the fermentation of the beer made at Spencer Brewery in center Massachusetts. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

SPENCER, Mass.—Father Isaac Keeley knew nothing about beer. He was a 59-year-old Trappist monk who rose daily at 2:30 a.m. to pray for most of the next four hours. Yet there he was, at a local public house in 2009, discussing plans for the brewery he would build on the 2,000 cloistered acres of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in central Massachusetts.

The talks were interrupted by the arrival of a round of cold ones for the table, further unsettling Father Isaac. He sipped hesitantly from the large, sweating glass.

“It was delicious,” he recalls. “I asked, ‘Is this really beer?’”

Saint Joseph’s Abbey, a monastery of 2,000 acres, is committed to sustaining itself economically through work. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

He tried some more. “If beer can taste this good,” Father Isaac remembers saying, “I’m in.”

So began his journey of experiential learning on behalf of a higher calling. Thirteen years later, with the help of a Northeastern team of professors and students, Spencer Brewery—the abbey’s unlikely startup—is on the verge of launching a social media marketing plan that may propel the brewery toward profitability and the fulfillment of its mission to support the abbey for years to come.

The offer of digital marketing assistance from Northeastern’s DATA Initiative team was, to Father Isaac, “like a dream coming true.” Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“The estimate is that it may take another year to go national,” says Father Isaac, the now-71-year-old director of Spencer Brewery. “Having access to digital marketing is like a dream coming true.”

The voluminous issues facing Father Isaac in his mission to learn and launch a new business relatively late in life were explored last summer in a Wall Street Journal article that detailed the plight of the 11 breweries around the world that are managed by Trappist monks, who follow the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict by dressing and living simply, separating from the outside world, and pursuing lives of quiet contemplation. After the 2014 debut of their initial product, Spencer Trappist Ale, the Massachusetts monks struggled to engage with customers via Facebook, Instagram, and other social platforms.

Father Isaac, who knew nothing about beer before he helped build the brewery (upper left), learned the entire business from the ground up. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“To be candid,” Father Isaac told The Wall Street Journal, “the monastic lifestyle doesn’t attract a lot of people who are skilled at that.”

That quote jumped out at marketing professors Koen Pauwels and Yakov Bart for two reasons: (1) They are huge fans of Spencer Brewery, having accompanied a group of Northeastern professors to a pre-COVID-19 open house that drew 8,000 visitors to the abbey (a number that still astounds Father Isaac); and (2) They are co-founders and faculty directors of the Digital, Analytics, Technology and Automation (DATA) Initiative, an interdisciplinary team that researches and develops methods to help businesses compete in the data-driven world.

Spencer Brewery is one of 11 Trappist beer maker around the world—and the lone such brewer in North America. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“This is so far beyond what I know anything about,” Father Isaac says of the offer of marketing assistance—free of charge—from the DATA Initiative. “If they want to help, I’m willing to learn.”

His community at Saint Joseph’s Abbey, which is committed to supporting itself financially (and sharing the excess money with outside charities), overwhelmingly endorsed the production of beer because bottling it in a semi-automated factory is less labor-intensive than producing jams and jellies, which had been a main source of income since the 1960s. Spencer Brewery has become the lone Trappist beer maker in North America by meeting exacting standards with natural ingredients that result in authentic Trappist classic beers.

Some of the beer at Spencer Brewery barrel aged, including its stout. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The rolling plains of the beer-maker’s abbey are occupied by timeless stone-walled residences and, incongruously, the long, flat, utilitarian factory that embodies the monks’ commitment to earning their keep in the secular world. Indoors, there is a wholesome efficiency to the brewery that is pristine and orderly, the stainless steel of its enormous funnel-shaped tanks and automated equipment as bright and reflective as polished silver.

The brewery’s unique setting and circumstances made the collaboration all the more intriguing.

“We work with companies to leverage the existing data and bring in students to engage in real-life projects,” says Bart, whose team has consulted with the likes of Hubspot (software marketing), Schneider Electric (energy utilities), and McAfee (internet security). “This is a particularly interesting example because Spencer Brewery is not a traditional company.”

“He is the brand,” a DATA Initiative member says of Father Isaac. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

The Northeastern consultants suggested a new focus on advertising via Facebook, which provides feedback enabling the brewery to identify and target specific audiences. 

“The unknown is, how many people want to drink monastic beer in the U.S.?” says Kwong Chan, the DATA Initiative executive director who is described by Father Isaac as “the steady guiding force” of the monks’ partnership with Northeastern. “The known is that by using Facebook we can know how to do this.”

Father Isaac Keeley checks the sugar levels of a beer in the Spencer Brewery lab. The Trappists have exacting standards for beer making, using natural ingredients that result in rich flavors and a higher-than-normal alcohol content. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Hundreds of ad combinations have been tested since July, finding that young people are interested in beer with higher alcohol volume (Spencer Monks’ Reserve Ale is 10.2% alcohol (more than twice as much as a bottle of Budweiser), and that rural markets are more interested in the brewery’s mainstay products than its seasonal holiday brands (including The Monkster Mash, a pumpkin beer developed for Halloween).

“One of the best-performing ads is Father Isaac smiling with a beer in his hand,” says Eric Weiss, the DATA Initiative principal consultant (as well as a Northeastern business and economics student) who led the creation of the Facebook campaigns. “He is the brand.”

Bottles are maintained through the years for observation in the Spencer Brewery “light room.” Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Among the revelations was the open-mindedness of Father Isaac, whose endless curiosity enabled the researchers to unlock a stereotype. The privacy of his spiritual devotion had not shut him off from the world so much as it had encouraged him to explore it with a sense of wonder and courage that is unusual in the commercial world. They found him to be, most unusually, an unselfish businessman.

“I’ve been teaching project-based courses for the last 10 years, and Father Isaac is the most detailed client I’ve ever had,” says Daniele Mathras, an associate teaching professor of marketing whose students developed brand opportunities for the brewery, including a virtual tasting experience with Father Isaac as the guide. “He’s the most giving client in terms of the feedback he gave to the students. And he’s almost embarrassed that people want to hear more from him. He’s a very kind, humble person—and the best salesperson for this beer because of who he is.”

Father Isaac enjoys introducing people to Spencer beer. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Soon, the Northeastern team will be providing Father Isaac with a turnkey solution that he and his team can utilize on their own to fulfill the digital potential of their business. 

“To get to this point, I thought that was a pretty high level of commitment,” Father Isaac says of the DATA Initiative team. “We hope in this current semester to start a very active transition where one of my staff would actually start trying to put together these Facebook ad campaigns and begin to operate them.”

On Sundays, the 49 monks of Saint Joseph’s Abbey are served their homemade beer with dinner, which they experience in silence. Father Isaac admits to being a slow drinker. After the others have gone, he enjoys sitting alone, nursing his beer, perhaps because he knows so well all that has gone into it.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

Father Isaac makes the walk from the Spencer Brewery to the center of the abbey. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

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