There is nothing quite like beer made by monks—real monks, or as I like to call them, the Drunk Monks. Monks have been brewing beer for centuries: there are records across Europe of monasteries brewing their own beer, either to support themselves or to feed the local community.
However, in the 1600s, the Cistercian Order took the craft to the next level. In an attempt to rid the Order of its more liberal tendencies, the Abbot at La Trappe monastery in France invoked an edict that, among others things, required Cistercian abbeys to be self-sufficient. This decree—unintentionally and ironically—entrenched brewing as a way to sustain the monastery. The term Trappist Ale comes from this original monastery.
Today, 11 monasteries are allowed to carry the official Trappist designation (a carefully guarded mark). To receive designation the brewery must be run by the monks, be non-profit and secondary to the monastic life, and meet quality standards. All produce Belgian-inspired beer; the Trappist name is often associated with a particular range of styles, including Dubbel and Tripel.
Unsurprisingly, most Trappist monasteries are in Belgium, along with two in the Netherlands and one each in Austria and Italy. What most people don’t know is that, as of 2013, there is also an official Trappist monastery/brewery located in the US: St Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. Even more surprising is that its single beer, Spencer, is available in Alberta.
Spencer is designed as a Belgian Blonde, a toned-down style of Trappist Ale. It pours medium orange with a noted haze and develops a consistent but moderate white head, leaving some lacing. Make sure not to pour out the whole bottle as it has substantial sediment. The aroma is golden grain, honey, meadow flower, light fruit and a delicate pepperiness. I pick up soft malt with touches of Belgian yeast spice.
The taste begins with honey-laden grain and offers floral character and soft sweetness. The middle sharpens a bit with some carbonation prickliness and a raw barley character. The yeast spicing picks up in the middle and begins to carry the beer near the end. It never gets overpowering but adds a rustic, peppery, clove-like dimension that hangs around in the linger.
This is an enjoyable, drinkable golden ale with a Belgian twist: not too overpowering, but flavourful. It is like a gateway beer for Trappists, offering the unique spicy character but without getting too bold, so that people new to the style can get used to it.
One can almost imagine the monks gathering around the table after a long day of praying and brewing, sipping on Spencer and, through its effects, getting a little closer to God. V
Jason Foster is the creator of onbeer.org, a website devoted to news and views on beer from the prairies and beyond.
Spencer Trappist Ale
Spencer Brewery / St Joseph’s Abbey
$31.90 for six-pack