10 of the Country’s Most Interesting Breweries
Spencer Trappist Brewery
When Larry Littlehale wants to brew a new beer at the Spencer Brewery at St. Joseph’s Abbey, the only Trappist Monastery outside Europe, he must consult a higher power—the International Trappist Association.
While Littlehale is not a monk, he does have to brew like one and follow a several-month-long process that almost no other brewery in the U.S. has to deal with. The ITA has to approve every single product—beer or otherwise—that features the Trappist association trademark.
“That’s a six-month process,” says Father Isaac Keeley, director of the Spencer Brewery. “Once we have a recipe, we have to fill out a 15-page application form and send it to them. Then, I have to fly to Belgium and present the plan. If they approve it, I come back, we brew it, and then I go to the next quarterly meeting where they taste it before they vote on it. If they approve it, we can sell it.”
The Spencer Brewery is typically run by Littlehale and three monks who have trained as brewers. They have brewed six beers since opening in 2014—ranging from the original Spencer Trappist Ale (a golden ale) to an Oktoberfest-inspired lager.
The only beer the ITA took issue with was the Feierabendbier, a German-style pilsner, Keeley says. Apparently, Trappist brewers disliked pilsners after they became popular in Belgium, and as a group, once vowed not to brew a “Trappist pilsner.”
“There was a tremendous opposition to the pils—the idea of the beer was so difficult to them,” says Keeley. “They tasted it, and they said it was too good not to approve it, but they made restrictions. We can never export it to Europe, and we can’t use the word ‘pilsner’ on the front label.” So, instead of calling it the Spencer Brewery Pilsner, they called it Feierabendbier, which translates from German to “closing-time beer.”
Despite the process, which would seem odd to most U.S. brewers, Keeley says it’s for the best.
“It helps us support one another and to maintain a level of excellence in brewing,” he says. “I would never present a beer that I didn’t think was good enough to be approved.” –Norman Miller