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Taste Test: America’s First Monk-Made Beer: Alex Van Buren
Photo credit: Spencer Trappist Ale
Photo credit: Nick Hiller, The Spencery Brewery
The beer world was rocked earlier this year by the news that America would soon have its first official Trappist brewery. (For the uninitiated: that’s beer, made on the grounds of a monastery, by monks.)
Considering that Trappist brews, such as Belgium’s Westvleteren 12, often crack the echelons of “Best Beer in the World” lists, this news is enough to make some beer snobs fall right off their bar stools.
According to their media relations manager (yes, monks have those), the brothers at Spencer Brewery, in Spencer, Massachusetts, started investigating brewing as a way to make money when the income from their jam and preserves was insufficient to cover the cost of their housing, clothing and other expenses. Several years ago, one of the brothers went up to Pretty Things, a local craft brewer, to start studying the craft. (Brewing beer is in line with monks’ “pray and work” motto.)
Pretty Things brewer Dan Paquette worked closely with the abbey, introducing the monks both to what good beer should taste like and how to make their own. “These guys didn’t go into the abbey to be brewers; some of them joined when they were 17, 18,” Paquette laughed. After studying with Pretty Things, a couple of the monks went to Belgium, visiting various Trappist monasteries, on a “two-year data-gathering mission” that might sound fairly enviable to those not of the cloth.
The result? A classic Belgian ale Paquette told us is “exactly what you’d expect from an amberish Trappist beer. I’m proud of them.”
Spencer Trappist Ale is sold in shops across Massachusetts, and has been popular enough that, as the rep tells us, it’s become “difficult to obtain; some stores have waiting lists.”
Along with the Trappist mystique, the beer’s taste should share some of the credit. We got our paws on two bottles, and it’s a classic, super-drinkable ale in the Belgian tradition. It doesn’t have too much yeastiness, and is neither malty nor hoppy; as Paquette affirmed, “it has sort of a refined body and overall texture.” Cloudy golden in hue, with a delicate lace (that’s expert speak for the foam) and tiny, sparkling bubbles, this is the sort of beer we can see ourselves getting into over the summer, especially to serve alongside cheese or grilled chicken.
Unfortunately, the demand exceeds the supply… for now. “The monks have been very grateful to the people of Massachusetts” for the enthusiastic response, said the rep, and they are struggling to keep up with the demand. “Right now they’re kegging beer for bars [in Massachusetts], which will roll out within six weeks.” Eventually they’ll expand nationally, market by market. Keep in mind that these aren’t seasoned brewers: “They’re just learning how to do what they’re doing,” the rep laughed. (If you live in Massachusetts, check Spencer’s Facebook page to locate distributors; a four-pack is retailing for about $17.)
As for whether they enjoy the beer they brew, the rep we spoke to noted that the monks pray in church seven times daily, beginning at 3:20 in the morning and ending at 8pm at night. Only at Sunday supper, which lasts only 20 to 30 minutes, and “on major feast days,” do the monks themselves enjoy a glass of the ale they brew. It’s the sort of restraint that wouldn’t come easily to most, especially when the beer is this good.