With only nine Trappist breweries in existence, beer brewed by monks carries with it high expectations. For a time, Westvleteren XII, a beer brewed by monks at the Abbey of Saint Sixtus in Belgium, was rated as the number one beer in the world on Beer Advocate’s website. The beers from Chimay Brewery, perhaps the Trappist brewery with the biggest footprint overseas, are marketed as premium products in this country.
The monks at St. Joseph’s Abbey were aware of those lofty goals when creating their recipe. Many commercially successful Trappist beers are big, boozy Belgian Tripels or Quadruples; Westvleteren XII is 10.2 percent alcohol by volume. Spencer Brewery settled on what it’s calling a “refectory ale,” named for the dining hall in which the monks take their meals. At St. Joseph’s, the monks will be allowed to drink the beer with Sunday dinner.
The beer is a simple Belgian Ale of 6.5 percent alcohol by volume. Most of the ingredients — there are only four — come from the United States: water from a well on the property, malted barley from New York state, 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.
It’s the yeast that gives Belgian beer distinctive notes of banana as well as hints of pepper and other spices.
Poured into a glass, Spencer Trappist Ale shows an effervescent golden color with a stubborn white head.
Brother Isaac Keeley, director of the brewery, 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 Father Damian Carr. “It was very well received.”
For now, Spencer ale will be sold in 11.2-ounce bottles, though the brewery has the capacity to bottle the beer in a 750-milliliter (25.4-ounce) container and ship it to bars and restaurants in kegs.