Beer on the Road: Central Mass

 

In October 2016, I was traveling to Central Massachusetts for business. As usual, I wanted to try and bring back some local beer. New England has certainly put themselves on the map as a beer-geek destination. What would be my fate this time? Hopefully I could bring back some Trillium but what about Tree House Brewing? You can plan, but those plans don't always come to fruition.

With the use of some of my favorite beer finding techniques (BreweryMap, Untappd, Beer Advocate forums) I discovered three places I definitely wanted to make a stop. Yankee Spirits, a bottle shop in Sturbridge MA with an excellent rating, the Abbey at St Joseph's in Spencer MA and Tree House Brewing, a trendy brewery that has gathered quite a reputation in the last few years. With some flexibility in my path and calendar, I could potentially hit all three.

St Joseph's Abbey

I love Belgian beers. As a group, these include many of my favorites, whether from Belgium or the Belgian-style. I like most everything about them, how they are made, the history and the taste. Well, actually, most Belgian beers. I still have a think about sour beers.

After learning of the first American trappist brewery, Spencer Brewing, being established at St. Joseph's Abbeyin Spencer, MA, I was excited to learn more and taste their beer. On a trip to Western Maryland I stumbled upon their ale in a local bottle shop. Since then I had a few of their others including their Trappist Imperial Stout and Trappist Blonde Ale at Savor 2016.

From the photos of the abbey, the bucolic grounds and stone cathedral and residences, I wanted to walk the grounds and perhaps take a tour of the brewery. I quickly learned, that as close as I would be allowed to get was the gift shop. First, this is a reclusive place for the monks. They request to be void of tourists like me, and I certainly understand that. I also discovered that they do not sell their beer at the abbey but I was directed for the short ride to nearby a bottle shop in town. There, I found their Trappist Feierabendbier and Trappist Festive Lager. beer. At the abbey gift shop I was able to purchase some of their incredible wine preserves — Burgundy Wine Jelly, Port Wine Jelly and Sherry Wine Jelly. These are highly recommended and will forever change your relationship with morning toast.

WHAT IS TRAPPIST

If you give much time to good beer you'll read about Trappist, Abbey, Belgian and variations of these terms. But really, what does this mean and how do they differ?

There are three cardinal rules for Trappist certification: (source, Spencer Brewing)
1. Products which carry this label are produced within the walls of the monastery or in the vicinity of the monastery.

2. The monastic community determines the policies and provides the means of production. The whole process of production must be in accordance with the business practices proper to a monastic way of life.

3. The profits are primarily intended to provide for the needs of the monastic community and for outreach to disadvantaged communities, groups and individuals.

An Abbey is Not Trappist

Of all the beers in all the world, only twelve can be may carry the name “Trappist”. Most trappist breweries are in Belgium — Achel (B), Chimay (B), La Trappe (B), Orval (B), Mont des Cats, Rochefort (B), Westvleteren (B), Westmalle (B), one in France — Mont des Cats (F), one in Austria — Stift Engelszell (AU), one in the Netherlands — Zundert (NL), one in Italy — Tre Fontane (IT) and one in the United States — Spencer, Massachusetts (USA).

The designation "abbey beers" was originally used for any monastic or monastic-style beer. After the introduction of an official Trappist beer designation by the International Trappist Association in 1997, it came to mean products similar in style or presentation to monastic beers.  In other words, an Abbey beer may be: Produced by a non-Trappist monastery—e.g. Cistercian, Benedictine; or produced by a commercial brewery under an arrangement with an extant monastery; or branded with the name of a defunct or fictitious abbey by a commercial brewer; or
given a vaguely monastic branding, without mentioning a specific monastery, by a commercial brewer.

Trappist communities observe the counsel of the Rule of St. Benedict, a 6th century guide for monastic life, that stresses the importance of ora et labora or “pray and work.” Monks are encouraged to be self-supportive and offer charitable assistance to others by producing and selling goods to the public.

With the blessing of the abbot, we embarked upon a two-year data-gathering mission. We visited each Trappist brewery to learn everything we could from our European brothers. Beginning at the Abbey of Westmalle, we slowly made our way around Belgium, staying at the monasteries and making friends, receiving good advice and drinking some of the world’s best beer. The final stop of our first trip was the Abbey of Sint Sixtus, brewer of the acclaimed Westvleteren ales; by the end of our second trip and more detailed discussions, we were confident that we had put together a realistic plan for a new brewery. Following monastic tradition, the monks voted and confirmed the project by an overwhelming majority – we would build America’s first Trappist brewery.

Observing Trappist tradition we have named the brewery, and the beer, Spencer after our beloved town of Spencer, MA.
— Spencer Brewery

Yankee Spirits

I had some flex time on my way north and Yankee Spirits, in Sturbridge MA, was in my path and seemed like a good stop — and it was. Score! I found Wicked Weed from North Carolina, Trillium (limit one 4-pack) from Massachusetts, Off Colored from Chicago and sundry other excellent local beers. As I often do when looking for beer in an unfamiliar region, I find a staff member and plead my case — fellow beer geek from out of town — and I have never been disappointed with the results. This helps cut through the clutter of the mountain of beer boxes and quickly directs me to the real treasures. 

Tree House Brewing

My reconnaissance, with the help of the Beer Advocate forum, said Tree House Brewing produces some highly rated beer. The BA webpage confirmed this and did some beer-geek friends. A closer look and I realized it was right on my flight plan. Now, the question would be if they would be open during my windows of opportunity — north or south. Their website indicated that they were only open Thursday through Saturday. I would be traveling through on Monday (eck) and back on Thursday (hope), but noonish rather than their scheduled opening time of 5pm. I had to send my plea, I need some of your beer. Can't you open a back door just for me? My answer was, "Well we might open at 4pm if the lines get too long." Hum, I'm a beer geek but that is beyond even the limits of my patience. It's interesting, too, that every time I mention where I was I get the same response — did you get some Tree House. Next time!

Finale

It was a good trip with many treasures to carry home. I'm still enjoying the beer I picked up and have either gifted or consumed most of the Trappist preserves. While I did find good success, there certainly is plenty more beer in Massachusetts to discover and enjoy. I'll be back!