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Pray, work hard…Make Trappist Beer in America

Brother Isaac talks beer
Brother Isaac talks beerDon Roine, NE Beer Examiner

By Don Roine with Ben Fuller

Ora et labora (pray and work). These simple words exemplify “The Rule of St. Benedict, a 6th century guide for monastic life”. Anyone who has attempted to make a great beer can relate to this very same rule. Brewing great beer is not easy and prayer often comes into play while awaiting the fermentation process to complete. Brooklyn Brew Shop, maker of homebrewing kits, also has a motto; “if you can make oatmeal, you can make beer”. What’s that booming roar coming down from above? Can it be thunder? No… it’s just the cumulus roar of laughter and tears of mirth raining down from the heavenly gathering of brewers past.

Shortly after my review about the Spencer Ale being brewed by the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey (www.examiner.com/review/trappist-the-usa-spencer-ale) I received an email from Spencer Brewery inviting me and homebrewing extraordinaire, Ben Fuller to take a tour of the brewery and to conduct an interview session with one of the brewing monks. Opportunity knocks!

We gather cameras, gear and notepads and we’re off. We’ll spare you the details of how Google Maps led us off course and directly through Worcester’s busiest traffic snarls. Instead we’ll skip to a much happier place in our journey, to the open country roads

Nestled amongst waves of deep, snow-covered, tree-lined rolling hills in western Mass, lies the sleepy town of Spencer. Way off the beaten track on Route 31, past charming, centuries old farm houses, rustic barns and the occasional tractor and feed store, Ben spots a small road sign for St. Joseph’s Abbey that assures us we are indeed on the right path…the path to some mighty righteous ale.

Just a mile past the small sign, the entrance to St. Joseph’s Abbey appears. A long winding drive through amazing rolling snow-covered vistas leads to several assorted drives leading to an odd assortment of well-preserved buildings and eventually the marvelous stone bell tower and the abbey itself. If you’ve reached said abbey, you’ve taken the wrong driveway. Back down to the first intersection and take a right.

Up yet another drive, past some more farmish-looking buildings and there it is! This brewery is so new, there’s no signage indicating the way. But, if you’ve had a taste of Spencer Ale, you will surely find your way, and we indeed do! Rising up like a monolith through white blankets of snow, the steely blue/grey Spencer Brewery looms large and wide above the landscape. It’s HUGE!!! It’s MODERN!!! It’s a building like no other on the vast estate yet in some mystical way; it most definitely fits into its surroundings.

Ambling in late with our gear, we’re warmly greeted at the entrance by the Manager of Media Relations, Mary Jeffcoat, who informs us the tour is underway, takes our coats and leads us to where we meet Brother Isaac. He stops to personally introduce himself to us, and then us to the group. I add that Ben and I are also homebrewers and Isaac’s eyes light up. Smiles spontaneously combust. We’re all grinning! Obviously, Brother Isaac has a gift of spreading cheer! The group, we find ourselves in, represent the media, as is evidenced by all the notepads, cameras, tripods and lights. Film crews from Belgium, Brazil, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Mass are learning about the fermentation process. The massive, state-of-the-art stainless, Krone fermentation tanks tower over us. It’s so clean and shiny you could drink spilled beer off the floor. That is if there was any spilled beer. I could not find ANY!

Brother Isaac led our group through the brewing process, calmly answering questions from the assembled media, while highlighting the unique ingredients used to brew Spencer Ale and elaborating on the fantastic state-of-the-art, automated equipment that’s so crucial to brewing consistently great ale.

We learn that Spencer Ale is an all USA beer. Grain from New York (they’re beginning to grow their own with assistance from folks at UMass Horticulture), Hops from the Northwest, a specially developed strain of yeast and water from deep glacial wells beneath the property. Spent grains are donated to local farmers. The cows are not only content, they’re quite spoiled! A solar array is in the planning stages. Once installed this will be a truly green facility.

Once back in the tasting room, we find Mary and Brother Damien have created a nice spread of assorted cheeses (Cheeses of Nazareth, perhaps?) and crackers. We’re given the chance to ask more questions. Many of our prepared questions had already been answered during the tour. This wasn’t meant to be a “Stump the Monk” session, but 2 questions about brewing history and its relationship to the church had intrigued me for years. Was there some ancient connection between brewing beer and the Christian religions? After all, we find that Catholics of the Cistercian, Franciscan and Benedictine orders have a history of brewing. King Charlemagne who set out to convert all of Europe to Christianity, completed an enormous brewery, started by his dad, Pepin the Small. The brewery was at the center of his empire. Martin Luther, who had a falling out with the Catholic Church, was a known brewer. My second and more important (to me, at least) question is whether they had any insights about Jesus turning water into beer, not wine, at the wedding feast of Cana. Isaac scratched his head and replied, “We’ll need to consult some historians about that one”. He jokingly added that a person from a previous tour had questioned him about the contradiction between religion and the brewing of alcohol. Isaac replied, “Jesus turned water into wine. We only turn water into beer here”. Gotta love Brother Isaac! The monks at the abbey only partake of their ale for Sunday suppers and a few special holidays. Isaac, of course needs to sample the beer a bit more. “Quality assurance?”, a Belgian reporter prompts. Isaac just grins.

I had to ask, what next? Why brew all beers in the Belgian style? Why not a Barleywine or Baltic Porter?

Isaac’s answer, well not as much an answer as an explanation, was that in addition to following the abbey’s Pray and Work guide, they try to keep things simple. Their way of life works best when their routines and times of prayer aren’t overly burdened with complex issues and tasks surrounding them. And as we can imagine, the very same modern and complex brewery we find ourselves in could only have been brought into operation by straying off the simple path for a while to deal with some mighty worldly obstacles to not only build a brewery of this size and magnitude, but also to develop a business plan, gain acceptance into the Trappist Guild, plus maintain an eye to a sustainable future. Where we might look 10-20-30 years into the future, these guys look 1500 years ahead. AMAZING when you really try to wrap your mind around all that!

The brothers Isaac and Damien man the pouring station while Mary assists. The media are paying less attention to their gadgets and gear and have redirected their focus towards the beer being dispensed.

The ale is amber golden frothy goodness! It’s brewed as “refectory” ale known as Patersbier, Flemish for ‘father’s beer’. It’s a 6.5% ABV ale that’s meant to be a table beer to share with family and friends. Ben managed to get both brothers to himself for a moment to discuss the art of brewing. He finds that Spencer Ale had been through 24 separate tweaks and taste tests by experts in the Belgian Trappist circles before this one hit the mark and was approved. The monks also confide that the well water they use is rich high in calcium and magnesium and needs a bit of softening to be fit for brewing. The natural minerals are left unaltered.

As we’ve all overstayed our allotted time, Ben and I gather our cameras and gear and say our goodbyes, Brother Damien finds just enough space in our full hands to attach a 4 pack for each of us. We step out into the frozen landscape. Hearts warmed, minds opened. We’re grinning!

Cheers & Amen!

Ps I will add a slide show of our tour in the near future