by Gjergji Evangjeli
Trappist ale has long been a favorite with beer aficionados throughout the world. Particularly in the last two centuries, the distinctive ale has gained great notoriety for being one of the few products that has largely remained the same both in recipe and brewing practices since roughly the 1600’s. The name ‘Trappist’ comes from the French monastery of La Trappe in Normandy, where the monks first decided to brew beer which would be sold to the public in order to help support the monastery and to provide them with means to help the less fortunate in their community. Following the great success of the monastery of La Trappe, Trappist monasteries started blossoming throughout Europe. After the French Revolution and the two world wars, however, many of the monasteries were destroyed, damaged, or simply unable to continue their production of the beloved ale.
Until recently, only nine Trappist monasteries were actively brewing beer: six in Belgium, two in the Netherlands, and one in Austria. In December 2013, however, the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA were certified by the International Trappist Association to begin brewing the first Trappist ale in the Americas. According to Trappist tradition, the beer was named after the current location of the monastery. Slightly different than most other ales in production today, Spencer is classified as a patersbier, which usually has lower alcohol content (6.5 % ABV in this case) and live yeast. Historically, this style of ale has not been available to the public and was instead served only to the monks, thus its common nickname refectory ale.
St. Joseph’s Abbey’s history starts in 1811, when, in the aftermath of the French Revolution, a group of French Trappist monks traveled to America under the leadership of Vincent de Paule Merle, with the hope of founding a Trappist monastery in the new world. Eventually, the monks settled in a small monastery in Nova Scotia. In 1900, however, the monks moved to Cumberland, RI after a series of fires caused serious damage to the first abbey. A second relocation was necessary in 1950, after a second fire burned down the abbey, at which time they finally settled in Spencer. In 1954 the monastery started producing jams and jellies available for purchase to the public. Though the monks had been brewing beer for their own table since 1857, brewing beer for sale had seemed an untenable goal until about five years ago, when one of the monks showed interest in brewing, which kick-started a long process of visiting and receiving training from each of the monasteries currently producing authentic Trappist ales in Europe. When all the details had been finalized, the brothers voted by an overwhelming majority to produce the first Trappist ale brewed in America.
Spencer has planned to produce about 4,000 barrels in 2014, though the fact that there is an extensive waiting list currently in place to attain a four-pack of the ale is indicative that the monks may have to increase the amount planned for this year and may perhaps need to have expansion in the back of their minds.
For those BC students of legal drinking age who are interested in trying the beer, it is currently available for purchase at Reservoir Wines & Spirits in Cleveland Circle.