Here's how it all began: Some 700 years after the Roman Emperor Constantine switched from pagan to Christian, and almost 600 years after St. Benedict formed what would become the Benedictine order of monks, a monastery was founded in the region south of Dijon, France, known as Cistercium, or in French, Citeaux.
The location gave the new tradition its name: Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance.
The order spread across Europe. In France the monks made wine to support their monasteries, but as they moved north it was too cold to grow grapes. So, what was a northern Cistercian to do?
Make ale, of course.
It was out of this tradition that the great Trappist ales of Belgium developed.
Until this year, if you wanted to drink a Trappist ale you could do one of two things: buy some that had been imported, such as Chimay, which is readily available in around here, or travel to Belgium or Holland to have it at the source, the great abbeys that have been producing it under strict regulation for centuries.
I say "until this year" because beginning in 2014, you don't have to go to all the way to Europe. You can hop in your car and make a day trip to Spencer, Mass., where the first Trappist brewery in the New World is now up and running at St. Joseph's Abbey.
Several years ago, one of St. Joseph's monks expressed an interest in bringing some of that European ale tradition to America; he did some research and training at a local craft brewery. Several more monks became interested; over time, they traveled to Europe and visited each Trappist brewery to learn all they could about the making of a great Trappist ale, beginning at the Abbey of Westmalle. They also spent a considerable amount time at Chimay.
They studied and learned about the monastic tradition of what's called "patersbier", literally "father's beer" in Belgium. It's known in English as a "refectory ale," a lower alcohol beer weighing in at about 4%abv that is served to the monks at meals (refectory being the monastery's dining room). As all craft beer lovers know, The Trappists produce ales of higher alcohol content for sale outside the monastery walls. The monks of St. Joseph decided to split the difference between the 4% refectory ale and the 8-9% ales for public sale to create a 6.5% abv brew bearing their name, Spencer Trappist Ale. Though they studied in Europe, they made commitment to use as many local ingredients as possible.
Recently, I had a tour of the brand new brewery led by the gracious Father Isaac, who oversees the operation and who was obviously excited about their accomplishment. The brewery covers some 36,000 square feet and has the capacity to brew 40,000 barrels annually. At the moment, just getting off the ground, they have started some limited local sales in stores and will be making the beer available for local restaurants and pubs. As production increases that territory will expand.
Lastly, before we look at the beer itself, a few details for craft beer lovers: the beer is unfiltered and unpasteurized. The water comes from the mineral-rich underground aquifers created by the melting of the glaciers that covered Spencer during the last ice age.
The hops all come from Washington state's Yakima Valley. They call their barley the "Spencer Malt Mix," a blend of two-row and six-row malted barley, along with a caramel Munich specialty malt from Wisconsin. The monks planted their own barley in September of last year and when it's ready it will become part of the process.
At the bottling the beer undergoes a process similar to that of making champagne, in which a little yeast and little bit of sugar are added to the bottle, which is then capped and proceeds to undergo a second fermentation, deepening the flavors.
In the European Union there are lots of rules and regulations covering what can go on a bottle label, plus there are the Belgian monks to contend with. In order to be legitimately called a "Trappist Ale" the monks of Spencer had to have their ale approved by the Trappist brewers of Belgium. Their first bottles went through a tasting by their Belgian counterparts. Father Isaac reported the vote was unanimous and ended with a round of applause from their Trappist brothers. That was the green light to go ahead with production.
So:Spencer Trappist Ale, 6.5% ABV, $17.98 for a four-pack. The ale comes in a heavy 11.2-ounce bottle. Father Isaac told me that they were two reasons for this: First, it's a standard European size, and secondly the bottle had to be made of a heavier, sturdier glass. When the abbey approached bottle makers about regular 12-ounce bottles, the second fermentation process gave them pause. They were concerned the standard 12-ounce bottles might explode, creating mayhem for your refrigerator, cooler, or dining room table. Instead, the monks went with the heavier, stronger bottle to withstand the tests of time and pressure.
Does the beer also withstand the test of comparison with other Trappist ales? Yes, and beautifully. It has an off-white frothy head over a rich amber-colored beer with a nose of citrus and fruit at the start. The palate is rich, with low malt and good hops bitterness, alcohol that is well-integrated in a profile that mirrors and extends the nose with citrus, lemon, clove and orange. The palate is dry with medium acidity, good sustained carbonation, medium body and weight and a smooth texture on the pallet. The flavors are rich but held in balance, and the flavor profile continues to the finish.
In short, they've done it. Spencer Trappist Ale will easily hold its own against the great Trappist ales of Europe.
Contact Jim Beauregard at firstname.lastname@example.org.