Article

American Trappists

Spencer inside

Trappist beers have long been associated with tradition, excellence, and the monks who brew them in European monasteries. That changed in January when Spencer Trappist Ale — the first Trappist ale brewed outside of European borders — hit store shelves. Brewed by the monks of Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts with the blessing of — and assistance from — their European brothers, Spencer Brewery is the 10th Trappist brewery certified by the International Trappist Association (ITA).

St. Joseph’s Abbey is a contemplative monastic community located about an hour west of Boston where 63 monks of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance (commonly referred to as Trappists) live a quiet life of prayer, meditation and manual labor within the monastery. One of the fundamental rules of Trappists is self-sufficiency. This way of life explains the thinking behind the new state-of-the-art 36,000-square-foot brewery in a time when the aging population of St. Joseph’s fight to keep up with the rising costs to maintain the abbey’s cobblestone buildings.

The first American Trappist brewery has been a long time coming; it was 2009 when planning for its conception began. But Trappist monks are not ones to rush into anything (in fact, they’re quite well known for contemplation). The idea to build a brewery at the monastery that sits on more than 1,000 acres of rolling farmland was first met with hesitation by the other Trappist breweries. Their reluctance was to be expected, as the Trappist name in the beer world is held in high regard and just one poor example could damage the Trappist brand. Plus, constructing a Trappist brewery outside of Europe had never been attempted before. However, those concerns were eased as two monks from St. Joseph’s moved to Belgium for a year and learned the family business while dividing their time between the six Belgian Trappist abbeys that brew beer.

“They made two requirements of us. They said, one, ‘if you’re going to do this, we’d like you to commit to brewing one good beer.’ Then they said, ‘no, one very good beer,” says Father Isaac Keeley, the Director of Spencer Brewery who has been involved in the process from the beginning.

The second requirement from the ITA was to spare no expense on the brewery. “It was the Belgian monasteries that asked us to do the state-of-the-art brewery because they maintain that their position in the world beer culture is not just because of the tradition, the knowhow, and the expertise; it’s also because they have state-of-the-art facilities and they’re continually upgrading their facilities. So when we had the discussions about this project, that was one of the things they asked of us if we were going to use the name Trappist, because we all rise and fall together.”

A three-person delegation from the ITA (which was founded in 1997 by the eight existing Trappist breweries at the time to protect the use of the Trappist name) inspected every facet of the brewery from equipment to quality control and management operations last November. The final step was for the beer to be approved, which happened with unanimous consent on December 10, 2013. With that approval, Spencer was granted the right to print the “Authentic Trappist Product” logo on the label, which signifies that the beer is brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, that the monks brew or oversee the brewing process, and that profits provide for the needs of the monastic community and its charitable outreach.

The monks decline to share what the price tag of the new facility is, however it is the costliest investment in the abbey’s history. In addition to high-end brewing equipment, the bottling facility is a model of efficiency in which every step of the process is automated — from the time empty 11.2 oz. bottles are loaded onto the conveyer belt through each step in which they are washed, purged with CO2, filled, capped, labeled and boxed.

To help the five monks who carry out the day-to-day brewing operations, the monastery has hired Brewing Engineer Hubert de Halleux, who has spent much of his lifetime working in brewhouses across Europe and Africa, to assist them for the first three years. “He brings a tremendous amount of knowledge to this endeavor,” Keeley says.

Spencer Brewery — named in monastic tradition for the town the monastery is located — is not open to the public, but during a media tour the monks’ enthusiasm over the project is obvious. Keeley’s excitement is particularly apparent when he begins explaining the science behind the reactions the barley undertakes in the mash tun, the impact just a few degrees can have on fermentation, and when he explains how the yeast is cultured. In speaking with him, you quickly realize the monks are not simply the public face of the brewery, but that they are vested in all facets.

When asked the question, “Do you enjoy your work?” Keeley throws his head back and erupts in jolly laughter, managing a few words between chuckles. “I do, I do. I hope it’s obvious!”

Spencer Trappist Ale

trappist copy

Long before being granted approval, the monks of St. Joseph’s had to come up with a recipe to call their own.

Among Trappist breweries “each beer is distinct, so the expectation was that we would do a distinct beer,” says Keeley, who is draped in the traditional black and white Trappist robe even on brew days. “We don’t need a Rochefort 11, so what we (considered) was, how did they all begin? They all began brewing beer for the monks, so we said the first beer from a new Trappist brewery should be a beer monks drink. That’s how we ended up doing a refectory ale — an ale that could be served in our refectory, our dining room, that our monks would really like.”

The bottle-conditioned, unfiltered and unpasteurized ale has a golden hue and checks in at 6.5% alcohol by volume with just a hint of hop presence. It was inspired by traditional refectory ales, also known as patersbier (which translates to “fathers’ beer” in Flemish), that are customarily brewed as sessionable beers for the monks to have with dinner. Many Trappist breweries make a patersbier for the monks that is only available at the monastery.

Keeley describes the beer as crisp when it first hits the palate. As it rolls across the tongue, he identifies two significant tastes: Spices, which include clove and pepper (especially when young), and delicate fruit notes such as apricot, mandarin orange, and fresh peach. Most public reviews also identify banana, but Keeley says he doesn’t pick that taste up so much. On the backend, the beer finishes dry. Many of the beer’s complex flavors are true to the signature yeast characteristics of Belgian Trappist beers, which is predictable because the yeast is a “family strain” from another monastery. With a friendly smile, Keeley politely declines to elaborate on which monastery when asked.

“I can tell you one more thing about the yeast. Listen, this is fun,” Keeley says, grinning from ear to ear with exuberance in his voice like a child explaining the intricacies of how his new toy works. “When we were trying to decide what beer we were going to make, in the beginning we just naturally assumed we were going to use family yeast. About half way through, both ourselves and some of our Trappist brothers in Belgium said, ‘you know, yeast is so identifiable with a brewery; maybe a new brewery should do a new yeast. At first we thought, ‘that’s crazy,’ then we thought, ‘wow, that’s interesting.'” In search of the perfect yeast, Keeley and his small research team visited a Belgian university with a leading brewing science program where a professor picked out three yeast strains with degrees of genetic overlap with the “family yeast” at 40, 60, and 80 percent to taste against the family yeast. “We provided the wort and then the university did brews … and then we had a blind tasting with my little crew. None of us knew what was what and we all picked the same beer, and then we emailed the professor to find out what was in what bottle. It turned out to be the family yeast (that was chosen), and we said, ‘that’s it.'”

Keeley describes the recipe for Spencer Trappist Ale as remarkably simple — it consists of just three grains, two hop varieties, water and yeast. That’s not to say the ingredients just fell into place; contrarily, the existing recipe is the twenty-fourth take on the original and is the result of rounds of small-scale brewing sessions and tastings that led to minor alteration after alteration.

The complexity of the flavor, Keeley says, comes from the precision in the brewing process. The water also adds a distinct character. During the last ice age, Spencer was covered by thousands of feet of glacial ice. The ice sheet began melting some 18,000 years ago and left freshwater streams, rivers and massive underground lakes in its wake. These ancient, mineral-rich glacial waters drawn from protected wells on the abbey’s land add another layer of complexity to Spencer Trappist Ale.

Spencer Brewery

spencer brewery

For the past 60 years St. Joseph’s Abbey, which moved to Spencer in 1950 after a fire destroyed their
previous monastery in Rhode Island, has relied on profits from religious vestments and homemade jellies for income. But as expenses grow, so too must the thinking, says Father Damian Carr, Abbot of St. Joseph’s Abbey. “One of our first business meetings with outside advisors was a banker and he asked me, ‘Why are you doing this?’ I thought a few minutes and I said, ‘survival,'” he says. As is the case for all decisions within the abbey, the brewery was designed with long-term goals in mind.

“Our real commitment is to the brewhouse. We want to be able to say the monks really brew this beer. We see that as something we’ll most likely be able to do for the long run. We know we’re probably always going to need some help in the packaging hall, but we have this principle of living by the work of our own hands, so that’s why we’re particularly interested in the brewery,” Keeley says.

Additionally, the monks have planted barley over a 10-acre plot that they will tend to and then harvest in the summer. With that plot, Spencer Brewery meets the state designation as a Massachusetts Farmer Brewery — a distinction that requires the brewery itself to grow or buy a percentage of the ingredients from within the state.

At the request from the Belgian Trappists to start slowly, the monks will brew just 4,000 barrels (roughly 56,000 cases) this year. The brewery only operates twice a week to meet that requirement. In five years, Keeley says they hope to expand production to 10,000 barrels a year, which would require brewing four days a week. “That would help us to realize our financial goals.”

Even then, the brewery will be underutilized compared to the 40,000 barrels it has the capacity to brew each year. Whether Spencer Brewery will ever meet capacity depends on future needs of the abbey. “The production has to be sized to the economic needs of the monastery and its charities. So we don’t want to be a big powerhouse brewery. We want to brew really high-quality beer that is great to share with family and friends,” Keeley says. Unfortunately, that means Spencer Trappist Ale may not be sold outside of Massachusetts in the near future.

Another decision that will come with time is whether Spencer Brewery ever incorporates additional brews beyond the refectory ale. With the exception of Koningshoeven and Achel, Trappist breweries generally only make one to three beer styles each, which Keeley says is where the monks of Spencer see themselves remaining.

A Change in Culture at St. Joseph’s

trappist

To anyone who is not a historian or beer enthusiast, the idea of monks brewing beer may seem unusual at first; however monastery brewhouses from different religious orders have been around since the Middle Ages. In fact, just two decades after the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance was created in 1664, La Trappe in Soligny, France, had already begun operating a brewery within the monastery. Given the reliance on self-sufficiency, it makes sense that in addition to growing and raising their own food the monks would also brew their own beer; particularly because beer was safer to drink than water at the time.

Brewing — and even beer itself — was, however, very new to the monks of Spencer prior to this endeavor. Previously the brothers only consumed alcohol on the half-dozen or so major feast days each year, and then they mostly stuck to wine. That changed with the opening of their brewery, at which time the abbot allowed the monks to enjoy beer with supper on Sunday evenings. So you may wonder whether the beer is well-received by a group of (previously) non-beer drinking monks. Keeley says there is no doubt about it. The ale was unveiled to the brothers during a New Year’s celebration. “It became really clear pretty quickly that the brothers really liked it because even the non-beer drinkers were coming back for seconds … that was sort of an emotional moment for me because I realized we made it. Not only do we have the brewery, but we have a beer that the brothers really like, and that’s hugely important for me,” Keeley says, beaming with pride.

Spencer Brewery’s greater impact on American Trappists (of which there are a dozen abbeys across the country) will be seen over time. For now, none have expressed interest in following suit. “When they understand what we went through to get to this point, there’s not a lot of people lining up to give it a try,” Keeley says, erupting into laughter.

Recipes

Spencer Trappist Ale clone

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.058 FG = 1.010 IBU = 25 SRM = 8 ABV = 6.5%

Ingredients

10 lbs. (4.5 kg) North American 2-row Pilsner malt
2 lbs. (0.91 kg) North American 6-row pale malt
4 oz. (0.11 kg) caramel Munich malt (60 °L)
6.4 AAU Nugget hops (60 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 12.75% alpha acid)
1.2 AAU Willamette hops (10 min.) (0.25 oz./7 g at 4.75% alpha acid)
1 tsp. Irish moss (15 min.)
Wyeast 3787 (Trappist High Gravity) or White Labs WLP530 (Abbey Ale) yeast
Priming sugar (if bottling)

Step by Step

Use a step-infusion mash starting at 148 °F (64 °C) for 75 minutes, then raise to 162 °F (72 °C) for 15 minutes. Raise grain bed to 168 °F (76 °C) to begin the lauter process. Sparge with enough water to collect about 6.5 gallons (25 L) of wort in the kettle. Boil for 90 minutes, adding the hops and Irish moss at the times indicated. After flameout, chill the wort down to 65 °F (18 °C) and pitch the yeast. You can then place in a warm space to allow fermentation temperature to start to rise to 72 °F (22 °C). Hold at this temperature during active fermentation. When active fermentation begins to settle down (kräusen begins to fall), increase the fermentation to 78 °F (26 °C) to be sure the yeast fements to completion. After all signs of fermentation have dissipated and final gravity has been reached, place the wort in cool storage at 50 °F (10 °C) for approximately 2 weeks. Carbonate to 2.5 to 3.0 volumes.

Spencer Trappist Ale clone

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.058 FG = 1.010 IBU = 25 SRM = 8 ABV = 6.5%

Ingredients

6.6 lbs. (3 kg) Pilsen liquid malt extract
1.2 lbs. (0.54 kg) Pilsen dried malt extract
4 oz. (0.11 kg) caramel Munich malt (60 °L)
6.4 AAU Nugget hops (60 min.) (0.5 oz./14 g at 12.75% alpha acid)
1.2 AAU Willamette hops (10 min.) (0.25 oz./7 g at 4.75% alpha acid)
1 tsp. Irish moss (15 min.)
Wyeast 3787 (Trappist High Gravity) or White Labs WLP530 (Abbey Ale) yeast
Priming sugar (if bottling)

Step by Step

Heat 1 gallon (4 L) of water in a kettle. Place the crushed grains in a muslin bag and soak at 160 °F (71 °C) for 20 minutes. Place the bag in a colander and rinse the grains with 2 quarts (2 L) hot water. Top off the kettle with water to get 6 gallons (23 L) total. Add the liquid and dried malt extract off heat and then bring to a boil. Boil for 60 minutes, adding the hops and Irish moss at the times indicated in the ingredients list. The fermentation and packaging instructions are the same as in the all-grain recipe.