The first Trappist brewery outside of Europe has started production of beer that is expected to hit retail stores early next week.
The monks at Saint Joseph's Abbey in Spencer are rolling out bottles of Spencer Trappist Ale brewed in a 36,000 square foot facility on the monastery grounds. The brewery became the 9th Trappist brewery in the world, joining Chimay, Orval, and other well-known brands. Brother Isaac Keeley, who oversees brewery operations, calls Spencer's beer a "refectory ale" in reference to the dining hall in which the monks take their meals. While the 63 members of the abbey community usually eat quickly and read with dinner, they will be allowed to drink beer with their food on Sunday nights.
The monks had help in developing their recipe. One of the monks brewed with Dann Paquette and Martha Holley-Paquette of Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project for two years. Two of them traveled to Belgium. Harpoon's Dan Kenary had early input into the project.
The final recipe chosen is a beer which weighs in at 6.5 percent alcohol by volume. Most of the ingredients in the beer -- and there are only four of them -- come from the United States: water from a well on the property, malted barley from New York State and elsewhere, and Willamette and Nugget hops from the west coast. The key ingredient, Belgian yeast, comes from a family of yeasts cultured for other Trappist breweries in the middle of the 20th century.
Colleague Megan Woolhouse and I toured the facility (below) this week and wrote about it for Friday's Globe. The brewery is massive, with the capacity to brew 40,000 barrels a year. By contrast, Smuttynose brewed 42,000 barrels of beer last year, Jack's Abby 6,000 barrels, and Enlightenment Ales 150 barrels. Spencer Brewery will start out brewing twice a week for a total of 4,000 barrels in 2014, equivalent to 56,000 cases or 1.3 million bottles, before increasing production to 10,000 barrels five years from now. Keeley calls the initial production "a drastic under-use of this facility."
Poured into a glass, Spencer Trappist Ale pours an effervescent golden color with a stubborn white head. Keely spoke about limiting the influence of the yeast on flavor and aroma in test batches of the brew, but the first whiff a drinker gets is of that familiar banana; sniff more deeply for a wave of Fruity Pebbles.
Finding the hop character is always a challenge with Belgian beer. This one is no exception. The beer begins with soft sweetness balanced by white pepper and cloves. It's highly drinkable, the kind of beer that turns so many craft beer newcomers onto more brews.
"We had a keg on New Year's night," says Brother Damian Carr, the abbot at Saint Joseph's. "It was very well received."
For now Spencer Trappist Ale will be sold in 11.2-ounce bottles, though the brewery has the capacity to bottle the beer in a larger 750-ml size and to ship it to bars and restaurants in kegs. Distribution will start in Massachusetts and expand outward. An industry source says the beer is expected to retail for between $17 and $19 per four-pack.
In-state distributors for the beer are Atlas Distributing, Inc., Burke Distributing Corporation, Commercial Distributing Co., Merrimack Valley Distributing Co., and Colonial Wholesale Beverage Co.