This week, beer from the first Trappist brewery in the United States began to hit Massachusetts store shelves. The monks at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer are known for making preserves, but around five years ago they put into action a plan to build a 36,000-square foot brewery in the hopes of securing their finances to support the aging facility and the community within. Brother Isaac Keeley, who oversees brewery operations, says the monks plan to brew and sell 4,000 barrels of Spencer Trappist Ale in 2014. They have the capacity to brew 40,000 barrels annually.
Only 11 monasteries worldwide are certified to brew beer under the Trappist label. St. Joseph's became the ninth active Trappist brewery in the world selling beer to the public (there are currently 10) and the first outside of Europe. Despite their modest lifestyle, or maybe because of it, the monks at St. Joseph's have generated quite a bit of hype for their new product.
For a beer to be certified as Trappist it must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery by or under supervision of the monks themselves. There are no stylistic requirements, but because six Trappist breweries are located in Belgium, many of the beers produced, including Spencer Trappist Ale, are Belgian-style ales.
Several weeks ago I visited Saint Joseph's with another reporter and talked to several of the monks involved in preparation for a Globe story on the brewery. I left with a four-pack of the beer. Here's how that brew stacks up against four other well-known but very different Trappist brews.
-- Westmalle Trappist Tripel
9.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV)
When people think of Belgian beers they often think of Tripels. Highly alcoholic but light in color and flavor, the style is accessible and smooth. This is a fine example; hints of ripe pear and banana in the nose don't fully reveal the complex secrets cloistered in this beer's taste. Bright apricot, spice, and warming alcohol blend together well. The mouthfeel points toward the champagne side of effervescent. A hint of vanilla, which the brewery's website says develops in 75-cl bottles, is also evident.
-- Spencer Trappist Ale
6.5 percent ABV
The monks at St. Joseph's took careful consideration in crafting their debut beer, brewing a golden "refectory ale" to drink with Sunday dinner. A Belgian family yeast strain developed for other Trappist breweries in the middle of the 20th century gives the brew delicate banana and spice notes. Smooth and easy to drink, this honeyed brew is never cloying on the palate. Provided people will pay upwards of $17 for a four-pack, it has all the makings of a hit.
-- Chimay Red Cap
7 percent ABV
Chimay brews several styles, but the Premiere or Red Cap was the first beer brewed by the monks at the Notre-Dame de Scourmont Abbey in 1862. It's a Belgian style Dubbel smelling of brown bread and sweet cherries. The taste is malt forward and a bit cloying, even for the style. A slightly bitter finish seems out of place given how this beer starts. There are a lot of good Dubbels out there (Allagash makes a great reserve Dubbel); this one is not my favorite.
-- Orval Trappist Ale
6.9 percent ABV
This is the Trappist Ale that breaks convention. It's dry, slightly sour, and a little bit funky, three polarizing qualities in a genre of beer that's usually sweet and easy to drink. Poured into a glass, my bottle of Orval formed a structured head that would not go away. I stick my nose in and get lemon and a stinky, horse blanket smell that would give any drinker some pause. This beer's bark, however, is louder than its bite. It doesn't taste as sour or funky as it smells. The finish is dry and peppery. I'm reminded more of today's American Saisons than the other beers in this category. This is truly a standout beer.
-- Westvleteren XII
10.2 percent ABV
The most celebrated Trappist beer is also one of the hardest to get. Outside of a one-time release to the United States to raise money for monastery repairs (that's where my bottle came from), Westvleteren XII is only available by pulling up to St. Sixtus in Belgium and loading a 24-bottle crate into the back of your car.
Westvleteren XII is a Belgian Quadruple, high in alcohol but darker than a Tripel. Plums, candied sugar, toffee, and other seductive flavors form a wonderfully complex brew. What sets this one apart is that it manages to avoid being sticky or sweet despite the flavor profile and alcohol content. Once ranked as the No. 1 beer in the world, it's certainly right up there.