Beer Break: Mass. monks to begin brewing
About an hour’s drive east of the Valley lies the town of Spencer. The small town (pop. 11,700) is home to St. Joseph’s Abbey, one of 17 abbeys in the country under the Catholic “Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance.”
Within the abbey walls, the monks produce the Trappist brand of preserves you often see lining the shelves at the grocery store. Soon, however, the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey will start producing something new, something that will immediately make them part of something very special. St. Joseph’s Abbey is slated to become home to the world’s ninth officially designated Trappist brewery, and the first outside of Europe.
The Cistercian Order of the Strict Observance was originally set up in La Trappe, France in the year 1098 — which is where the name Trappist originates. Since the beginning, the monks and nuns that form the order have been performing various kinds of manual labor, often having to do with food and drink. This is in accordance to one of the fundamental tenets of the order, which requires the monasteries to be self-supporting.
Brewing beer has been done within abbey walls for hundreds of years. The oldest current Trappist brewery is Rochefort, which has had a working brewery since 1595. The newest is Engelszell, which opened just last year in Austria.
At St. Joseph’s Abbey, construction of a 50,000 square foot brewery is underway with guidance and assistance from the monks’ Belgian brothers at Chimay, one of the largest of the eight existing Trappist breweries. Once it’s completed, the monks will need to adhere to a number of strict requirements in order to produce beer designated as an official Trappist product. These include requirements such as brewing the beer within the confines of the monastery, not brewing it for profit, and having the quality of the beer closely monitored. Following these rules will allow the brewery to include the official Trappist designation on their labels, something seen on incredibly well-respected beers from breweries such as Orval, Chimay, Achel, Westmalle, and Rochefort.
The first beer that the monks plan to market, simply being called Spencer, will be a Belgian-style Pater. The approved label describes the 6.5 percent ale this way: “Inspired by traditional refectory ales brewed by monks for the monks’ table, Spencer is a full-bodied, golden-hued Trappist ale with fruity accents, a dry finish and light hop bitterness.” A release date has yet to be announced but hopefully it won’t be too far off. Thankfully, in the meantime, we can celebrate with quite a few Trappist beers that are currently being imported to the US and are available at package stores throughout the Valley.
Here are three to get you started:
Orval (Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Orval) – since 1931 Orval has produced just one beer that bears its namesake. That beer is a unique 6.2% golden ale that has some bitterness coming from dry hopping and a good amount of yeasty aroma and flavor. When the beer is bottled the monks add brettanomyces, which after about 7-10 months in the bottle gives the beer a bit of a dry funky flavor. This beer ages wonderfully and is a great candidate when it comes to comparing vintages from different years.
Westmalle Tripel (Westmalle Abbey) – first brewed in 1934, this “Mother of all Triplels” is also considered one of the best. The term Tripel was originally used to denote the strength of the beer, this one comes in at 9.5% ABV. A strong, golden-colored pale ale, Tripels have now been brewed by countries worldwide, but if you want to try one of the originals this is definitely a great choice.
Chimay Blue (Scourmont Abbey) – one of three available beers produced by this Trappist brewery, Chimay Blue is also known as Grand Reserve. This is the most popular of the beers and perhaps the most complex. A strong, dark ale with notes of dark fruits and slight hints of cracked black pepper make this 9% ABV beauty one to sip and enjoy slowly. Also, if you can find the cheese that the monastery also produces it goes very well with their beer.