Beyond rows of vendors’ wooden wall hangings and costume jewelry, and tucked inside a side room of the bustling Young building on The Big E grounds in West Springfield, Mass., a monk and a bottle of beer await you. On all four walls: stained glass windows and sand-hued brick, adhesive coverings that have transformed the room into the Saint Joseph’s Abbey dining hall.
The Abbey, located farther east in Spencer, is home to Spencer Brewery, the first and only certified Trappist brewery in the United States. This year, abbey monks decided to share their Sunday evening supper with Big E attendees, engaging them in a unique beer-drinking experience.
“‘A lot of people come to the Big E, but they’re never going to visit your monastery because you’re so cloistered,'” Father Isaac tells a Friday evening group of the Big E’s invitation for an exhibition this year. “So they said, ‘Can you bring some of your monastery with you?”
Along with the hall replica, Father Isaac brings a centuries-old, European tradition in brewing that challenges American norms.
“We’re not monks named after beer; it’s beer named after monks,” Father Isaac clarifies.
Trappist refers to a particular order of monks who live together, separate from the world, to concentrate on monastic community life. So as to not distract from prayer, readings, meditation and the maintenance of abbey grounds, visitors are often not welcome.
“Ours is a full life and a constant stream of visitors could diminish our focus,” reads the Saint Joseph’s Abbey webpage.
For over 60 years, monks at the Abbey have made a living by cooking and packaging Trappist Preserves jams and jellies. In 2000, Father Isaac, along with other brothers, decided the monks needed another source of income to support themselves.
“Another brother and I had an idea. If we were to brew a Trappist beer and give it to the other brothers as a Christmas gift, we were going to win them over,” Father Isaac says and smirks. “Then they turned us loose.”
The monks embarked on a two-year journey in research across Belgium, gathering inspiration for their own brew. After community discussion of the prospective project, the monks organized a vote.
“We got the biggest majority that we’ve gotten on any project that we know if in the history of our monastery.”
The four-ingredient Spencer Brewery ale recipe is inspired by a traditional Belgium ale, patersbier – or ‘father’s beer’ in Flemish. It contains:
- Water from freshwater streams, rivers and underground lakes drawn from protected wells on abbey land
- A hops variety grown in Washington state’s Yakima Valley
- Blend of malted barley, what monks call ‘Spencer Malt Mix’
- Unfiltered, unpasteurized yeast propagated at the monastery
“You don’t use your ears when you’re drinking, ordinarily,” Father Isaac begins the tasting, “But for the next thirty seconds, you’re going to.”
He instructs the group to open the bottle of ale, served at forty degrees – an uncommon practice in America – and to listen for a clear, crisp pop. He attributes the release to the ale’s live yeast culture, which produces CO2 while inside the bottle. Compared to most American beers, with about two grams of CO2, this Trappist ale contains between six and eight grams.
Next, the pour.
“Most Americans do not want a lot of foam in their beer, ” Father Isaac says. “[But] this is a different story; foam is part of the aesthetics.”
He leads the group in the pour, holding the bottle directly above his glass, with a laser-etched bottom that allows the CO2 to continuously generate bubbles and release a variety of aromas. The vertical pour, he says, helps to release the CO2 – the higher you raise your hand above the glass, the more foam you’ll pour.