Brewery Visit: Spencer Trappist Brewery

Spencer Trappist Brewery at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer. MA

Spencer Trappist Brewery at St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer. MA

You may have heard of Spencer Trappist Brewery; it’s the first and only Trappist brewery outside of Europe and the first and only Trappist brewery in the United States. Fortunately for me, it’s also the first and only Trappist brewery in my home state of Massachusetts.

This past Saturday (8/6/16), the monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, MA opened their brewery to the public for the first time. A perfect excuse for a drive out to Western Mass for a beer-related excursion.

The event was a subdued affair as brewery openings go, though I suppose that’s not all surprising given the humble hosts. The monks of St. Joseph’s Abbey were gracious and attentive, working almost every aspect of the event without much outside help. Monks checked our ID, applied the 21+ bracelets, answered questions, poured and distributed samples, and handled sales. The only missing task was brewing.

Good advice.

Good advice.

Control Room

Control Room

The brewery is a massive, state-of-the-art facility capable of producing 40,000 barrels per year. Absolutely huge for a brewery that’s only been open for 2+ years. The monks don’t produce nearly that much (5,000 over the first two years before expanding their lineup), but that doesn’t make the 36,000 square foot facility any less impressive. It was – by far and away – the most immaculately clean brewery I’ve ever seen.

If cleanliness is next to godliness, then my homebrewery is probably an affront to God.

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The public event also served as Spencer’s launch for their feierabendbier (which I’m told is pronounced fire-ah-bend-beer), a Pilsner-style “after work” beer, and the first Pilsner ever brewed by Trappist monks.

The monks were selling this new brew alongside their relatively new IPA. Inside the brewery there were also kegs and pallets of their Holiday ale and Imperial stout. I didn’t notice any of their Trappist Ale, but that might be because I was partially blinded by brewery-envy.

Truth be told, I wasn’t crazy about the feierabendbier. I’m not usually much of a Pilsner drinker to begin with, but this one lacked the crisp, dry finish and noble hop kick that I expect from the style. There’s a Belgian-ish character that doesn’t do it for me.

The Trappist IPA is a more reserved take on the style (again, not really surprising), that is certainly drinkable but probably not in line with what most American craft beer drinkers would expect for an IPA. There’s a strong caramel flavor that overpowers the hops.

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Their other beers (Holiday, Spencer Trappist Ale, Imperial Stout) are all quite good, with the Spencer Trappist Ale remaining my favorite. As the production has increased, Spencer has been able to cut the rather hefty price down on that beer. Great news for my wallet and for people who haven’t had a chance to try it, or were steered away by the high price.

All in all, a great experience. Hopefully the monks will do it again some time in the near future.

Mistakes 

If we learn from our mistakes, then I am well on my way to a PhD in homebrewing. 

I talked last time about Hustle and Swagger, a concept so dumb only I could think it up (and hope it would work). Unsurprisingly, this beer isn’t the greatest IPA to ever be brewed.

But, perhaps surprisingly, it isn’t the worst either.

I made two major mistakes with Hustle and Swagger. The first I somewhat expected but chose not to avoid, and the second I should’ve expected but didn’t. First, I threw way too many hops I was unfamiliar with into this beer. The result is a pretty muddled mess, but not undrinkable. There’s hints of the exotic citrus, fruit, melon and whatever-else flavors from the Zythos, Pekko, and Equinox hops, but none of them really shine through. In fact, they’re hindered by my second mistake.

My second mistake was dry-hopping in the keg. This, in and of itself, isn’t a mistake, but I used stainless steel tea infusion balls instead of muslin bags. This allowed a lot of the hop particles to escape into the beer and therefore into the glass. The result was a strongly bitter flavor with some green, grassy flavor notes. The bitterness and grassiness overpower the sweeter, fruitier flavors.

All that said, the beer isn’t a total bust. It has a strong, pleasant aroma that showcases more of the fruit and citrus than the grass. The bitterness becomes more subdued after the first few sips and more of the flavors start to appear. It’s also kind of a pretty beer:


Ironically, before the in-keg dry-hopping this beer was crystal clear:


The yeast was also a bit of a failure. Despite building up a robust starter, the beer never fully attenuated. Given the high charge of bitterness from the hop floaties, that’s probably a blessing in disguise. The residual sweetness helps make the beer less biting.

The last bit of not-so-bad news: as the beer slowly ages, all its flaws are starting to mellow. It’s become gradually a better and better beer over time. Obviously there’s a point of diminishing return when aging an IPA, but more importantly there’s a point of diminishing return of leaving a beer in a needed homebrew keg.

I don’t foresee too many issues finishing this IPA, though I do wish it had turned out better. Live and learn. 

Getting Back After It

It’s been a busy month around here, but unfortunately not much of it has been spent brewing. Earlier this month, I traveled to Baltimore for Homebrew Con. Shortly after that I celebrated Harpoon’s 30th anniversary with some beer writers and tenured Harpoon employees (I’ll have an upcoming article on this for the Dig). And this past weekend was Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp at Boston’s City Hall Plaza. So as I start to sober up and finish up the kegs from Beans N Brew, I realize it’s time to start brewing again.

I think it’s time to officially dub 2016 the Summer of IPA, because outside of a rebrew of Nelson’s Saison aka Classy AF, I’m focused on brewing a couple more IPAs in the near future. So IPA #3 and #4, what will they be?

IPA #3 will be a New England-style IPA, based on this recipe from Ed Coffey, brewed for a Brulosophy exBEERiment. The grain bill is fairly straight-forward: ~80% pale malt and 20% flaked oats, but with a fairly complicated hopping/dry-hopping regiment. I’m interested in trying the double dry-hopping technique again (I haven’t tried this in a while); I’ll probably alter the hops used but I’ll follow this recipe pretty closely (before I inevitably decide to fuck with it).

SWAG

SWAG

IPA #4 already has a name: Hustle and Swagger. This will be yet another variant on my Hustler recipe, using a lot of the free “swag” hops that I got from Homebrew Con. There’s some interesting hops in this recipe thanks to the good folks at YCH Hops and Yakima Valley:

  • Zythos – tropical (pineapple) and citrus tones with slight pine characteristics
  • Equinox – unique berry-and-fresh-pepper character
  • Pekko – clean, pleasant, floral, citrus, mint, herbal, mellow, pineapple, thyme, saaz-like cucumber, sage, touch of lemon

I’ll probably have to build up a starter for the Hansen Ale Blend from White Labs that I used for IPA #2. It’s been a while since I harvested the yeast from the starter, so I’m hoping it’s still viable. If not, I’ll augment it with some of the free yeast I received at Homebrew Con, probably Mangrove M44 West Coast yeast. If I’m using swag hops, might as well use swag yeast too, right?

I’ll post recipes along with the brew day recaps soon. I’m hoping to brew IPA#3 on Friday.

Sláinte!


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Homebrew Con 2016 Recap

Alternate Title: A Bunch of Pictures of Me, Hugging Dudes

Mash Holes - President JD, President of Vice Vinny, and Scotty No Nickname

Mash Holes – President JD, President of Vice Vinny (me), and Scotty No Nickname

Intro

What follows is what I did what I remember of the 2016 Homebrew Con in Baltimore. I’ve bolded some key words and phrases to make this easier to skim through and read the stuff that interests you. Or if you’re like me reading these things: searching for your name. You vain sonuvabitch.

Day 1 – Which I Believe Was a Wednesday

My flight landed in Baltimore around noon, while my Mash Hole cohorts were en route via car from Boston. I took the train straight down to the Convention Center, and since I had plenty of time, wandered the whole 100ft to Pratt Street Ale House. I had roughly one taster-sized glass of Oliver beer for every 10 of those feet I walked (and a pretty good chicken sammich) before heading over to the Convention Center to sign in and pick up my swag-bag.

As members of our Club started trickling into the city, we made our way to the Brewing Network’s 11th anniversary party at Peabody Heights Brewery. We took a (surprising long) school bus there, and I met up with three of my local friends and two of their lady-friends that I’d talked into hanging out. The best beer of the bunch was Peabody Height’s Bourbon Obscura. After a few poor showings of cornhole and a lot of beers, I bid adieu to my friends and hopped on the not-short bus back into town.

The Mash Holes had set up camp at Heavy Seas’ tap house, and I was determined to go join them. So I walked through a part of town I’m pretty sure was part of The Wire for a beer, before heading back and finally crashing for the night. Not a bad start, but the main event was to come.

Day 2 – Thursday. All Day Special: Thursday, All Day

Oh baby. Things got off on the right foot with a shot of bourbon, and a trip to Miss Shirley’s for breakfast. This place doesn’t fuck around (and the prices show it). While most of the boys and gal opted for Bloody Marys, I went straight for a can of Union’s Duckpin Pale Ale with my coffee and chocolate chip pancakes. This was one of the best beers and easily the best meal I had all week.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions

I skipped the morning sessions and opted to check out the Homebrew Expo, and holy shit am I glad I did. I was handed more free stuff than I knew what to do with. Over the course of the Con I filled up two bags worth of swag, including:

  • Roughly a pound of free hops (Zythos, Cascade, Equinox among them)
  • Enough dry yeast for about 10 batches of beer
  • A metric buttload of stickers which now adorn my keezer
  • Five pairs of sunglasses
  • Bottle openers, pens, pins, a bandana
  • And a trucker hat I won from correctly identifying raw hops

I also got to try beers from Bell’sDevil’s Backbone, Sam Adams (who brought so sour stuff), and a myriad of homebrewers. Free stuff and free beer? Win-win. I also got to meet brewing legends like John Palmer and John Blichmann

Frodo and Gandalf, I mean, me and John Palmer

Frodo and Gandalf, I mean, me and John Palmer

Me with John Blichmann (with two N's)

Me with John Blichmann (with two N’s)

Thursday closed with the Key Note address from Sam Calgione of Dogfish Head. Sam’s a relatively engaging speaker, but I’d been on my feet all day drinking free beer and at about the 20 minute mark of his address, I took a little snooze.

Thursday night was Kick-Off Party featuring Maryland brewers and homebrewers. This was basically the pre-game to Friday night. Speaking of which

Friday – Late to Bed, Early to Rise

The first seminars start at 9am which is a borderline war crime. For those of you who have never been to Homebrew Con, the main attraction are the various seminars on topics related to brewing. Here’s a list of the seminars that I remember attending (a lot of them serve beer, so this list is incomplete):

  • The Chemistry of Mashing – this was a 9am college chemistry class
  • Unlocking the Genetic Code of Brewing Strains – this was a 10:15am college biology class
  • How to Fail at Starting a Brewery
  • Going Pro a Pint at a Time
  • High Gravity Brewing: Hitting a Target Gravity with Precision and Quality
  • Homebrew Bloggers Roundtable – where I learned I’m a shitty blogger
  • Modern Perspectives on Traditional Methods
  • Successful Strategies fro Raising Financial Resources for Your Homebrew Club
  • Growing Up: Building a Lasting Homebrew Club
  • More Than a Hobby: Developing Club Leadership for Long-Term Success
Pipe Dreaming

Pipe Dreaming

As you can tell from the titles, homebrewers are a verbose bunch. Most of the seminars were great and super-informative; some weren’t for me and I’ll have a better idea next year of which ones I should attend. It’s weird to think that you go on vacation to sit in a conference room and listen to a lecture, but if you add beer to your next work conference, I guarantee people will be more interested in attending.

Friday night we hit Max’s Taphouse for dinner. Max’s is one of the best beer bars I’ve ever been to, period. Great atmosphere, great beer list, great service (assuming you don’t lollygag at the bar). Can’t say enough good things, but we’ll return to Max’s later, because the main event is up next…

Friday Night – Club Night

So big and bad, Friday night gets its own header. Yes, Club Night. Where homebrewers from all over the country set up shop to foist their beer upon your unsuspecting liver. If you’ve ever been to a beer festival, it is very similar to that, but with amateur brewers who go all out. What’s all out look like?

El Prez, getting sideways in front of Barely Legal

El Prez, getting sideways in front of Barely Legal

Chris, Chip from Chop & Brew, me, and JD with some photobombers

Chris, Chip from Chop & Brew, me, and JD with some photobombers

Jim from my LHBS, dressed to the nines

Jim from my LHBS, dressed to the nines

Chris, JD, Scott, and me with the well-dressed gents of love2brew

Chris, JD, Scott, and me with the well-dressed gents of love2brew

No caption can do this photo justice

No caption can do this photo justice

That’s not including the pirate ship/mobile tap setup; getting served a beer by former Homebrewer of the Year Annie Johnson; so many of the other awesome costumes and booths; and – oh yeah – the beer. Homebrewed beer is a wonderful thing, because you’re never 100% sure what you’re going to get. It could be the best tasting beer in the world or the worst. But you don’t know until you try and try I did.

Saturday – Holy Shit, I’m Still Alive

Ahh, Saturday. The bitter sweet end of Homebrew Con. Despite the end being imminent, this was probably my favorite day of the whole convention. I started off with my only day struggling to get out of bed and ended up at the Homebrew Bloggers Roundtable, featuring Derek Springer, Ed Coffey, Marshall Schottand Matt Humbard and hosted by Chip Walton. I got to find out what a shit-ass blogger I am, which was fun. I also snapped this great photo of Marshall having a bit of a struggle:

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It was an informative panel for a guy who blogs (hey! that’s me!), and a chance to learn from some dudes who do it better than most. What’s better is I didn’t even have to leave the room for Marshall and Malcolm Frazer’s talk on Modern Perspectives on Traditional Methods, aka the Brulosophy seminar. The boys gave a great talk about the methods they use for their experiments exBEERiments, and served the room a 20-minute mash, 20-minute boil hoppy Helles lager that was pretty damn solid, and had none of the flaws you’d expect for fucking around with the beer as they do. I introduced myself to the guys afterwards, because I’m a huge fanboy of their blog but more about that later.

The rest of the day I spent largely with the President of our club, JD, bouncing around to different seminars on how to improve your homebrew club. We picked up a lot of great ideas that I’m anxious to start implementing with the Mash Holes. 2017 is going to be a big year for us, I can already tell. If you’re in the Boston/South Shore area and looking for a homebrew club, hit us up at: metrosouthhomebrewleague at gmail dot com

The day closed with the Awards Banquet, which we were lucky enough to sneak pay to get into. But that’s about where the luck ran out. I cook for myself, so I’ve choked down a lot of bad meals in my time, but this was painful. If the pork chops were any drier you could’ve used them as a wallet. The beers were from Flying Dog, Weyerbacher, and some other local breweries (not Heavy Seas) and they were atrocious. The dessert was stale Cracker Jack and pretzels. I was pretty bullshit about the whole thing.

I think the dinner finally did in the rest of the Mash Hole tribe, but as President of Vice it is my sworn duty to keep the party going (usually well past reason). So when I got a text from Marshall that there was a group at Max’s, I dragged my ass out of the hotel bed and off to meet for “a few beers.”

Conclusion – After the Show, It’s the After-Party

Max’s was fucking hopping when I got there. Among the guest list were:

I got to talk and drink with all these great dudes and a few others whose names escape me due to the copious amount of alcohol I’d been consuming since noon on Wednesday. I literally sat down one-on-one with John Palmer – the man whose book How to Brew literally taught me how to brew – and talk beer and brewing with him. That’s like talking writing with George RR Martin or some equivalent analogy. I talked the ears off the JaDed boys, to the point where I’m now an affiliate of theirs, probably so they’d get me to shut up. I got so drunk I gave what I thought was $5 to a homeless guy, but was actually $20 and then had some street hot dogs before taking one of the most epic homebrew photos of all time:

Fucking Epic

What a fucking trip.

Next year’s Homebrew Con is set for Minneapolis, aka the Windy Apple, and I’m already making plans. My liver and body are still recovering from the onslaught of this year, but I’m hoping that next year will be bigger and better. Maybe there will even be a Mash Holes table for club night? We’ll see…

Cheers!


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Affiliate Program – Homebrew Supply

So you will start seeing the Homebrew Supply logo around the site. Homebrew Supply reached out to me and offered me a spot in their affiliate program, which basically allows me to make a small commission on purchases made using my link. If you click the little folder icon in the upper left corner, you’ll see the permanent site link and I’ll be adding it to the bottom of my posts.

Other than that there’s no other planned changes to content, but I wanted to be transparent about why there’s a fancy logo popping up. So if you’re a homebrewer who enjoys this site and you’re planning to buy your gear online, check out Homebrew Supply when shopping around.

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Dialing in an IPA

With Mother’s Day and some shitty weather on Sunday, I had to push a scheduled brew day to Monday afternoon. It seems that whenever I’m not brewing a beer for a club barrel project or for some competition, I’m constantly brewing IPAs. This isn’t exactly the case but it certainly feels that way. Since I started brewing (and subsequently started blogging about my brewing), I’ve been on a quest for a “house” IPA recipe. If you visit my Brewtoad page, you’ll see dozens of IPA recipe variations that I’ve constantly tried to tweak.

And you know what, I’m getting pretty damn close.

As I’m writing this, I’m drinking a just-finished-carbonating IPA #1 aka Eighty-SixedI’ve started numbering my IPAs this year so that I can pick out what I like/dislike from each one of them and incorporate that into subsequent recipes. I also thought this would be a good opportunity to go over my brewing process and talk about how I got to IPA #2 aka Hustle Harder.

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IPA #1 aka Eighty-Sixed. Citrus and delicious.

The Grain Bill

11.0 lb
Pilsner (DE)
2.5 lb Maris Otter Pale (UK)
2.0 lb
Munich – Light 10L (US)
0.5 lb
 Munich – Dark 20L (US)
0.5 lb
 Turbinado

I’ve started drifting towards using Pilsner malt as a base for IPAs because I feel it gives the malt a little more character; it adds a cracker character that I think compliments the type of IPA I like without outshining the hops. I prefer it to 2-row, because – honestly – 2-row is bland. Maris Otter is my favorite malt, and I have it included here to compliment Pilsner’s cracker with a bit of MO’s biscuit. The Munich Malts add a little bit of color and sweetness again without being too powerful in their own right, and the Turbinado is meant to give the IPA a dry finish.

The Mash

I mashed these grains at 152*F for 60 minutes, with a little bit of up-and-down to the temperature due to the windy conditions. Over the course of the 60 minutes the mash probably rested anywhere in the range of 148*F to 154*F. I added 3g of Calcium Chloride to the mash water before stirring in the grains. The CaCl is intended to lower the mash pH, but the reason I’m adding it is because it was recommended to me by Russ Heissner of Barrel House Z, after he sampled my amber ale. Knowing the water profile for the area (I live just south of Boston, and most of Massachusetts derives its water from the Quabbin Reservoir, which is noted for high quality, soft water), he recommended dosing with CaCl in the mash and in the boil. His recommendation was 150ppm or roughly 1.5g; this became closer to 2g because I don’t have a very accurate scale and somehow became 3g because I’m still an amateur and don’t often take good notes.

The vorlaufed and pulled just shy of 5 gallons on the first runnings (7.5 gallons mashed), and an additional 3 gallons from the second runnings (3.5+ gallons sparged) at a combined gravity of 1.050, which was right on target.

The Boil and the Hops

I reduced my usual boil time down to 60 minutes for this recipe, which was largely a function of me not wanting to wait the extra 30 minutes. I haven’t had many problems with off-flavors in my beer from the boil, so I decided to keep it short. Starting with just under 8 gallons of wort, I dropped in 1.5oz of Nugget for first wort hopping. Now first wort hopping might just be a total waste of time, but it’s a lot easier for me to drop the first hop charge right in there and if there’s any actual benefits from it, great. If not, *shrug*. I prefer Nugget as a bittering hop for two reasons, 1. I’ve experienced – and heard from others – it as imparting a smooth, even bitterness and 2. I bought a pound of Nugget, because it was on sale.

Chinook and Centennial. 15 min and 0 min additions.

Chinook and Centennial. 15 min and 0 min additions. (Empty space was where the Nugget was)

Because it was quite windy, the boil didn’t start until about 216*F. Here at sea level, it’s supposed to start at 212*F, so when it finally kicked off it was raging. After more finagling with the propane (and a lot of cursing), I got a nice rolling boil going and proceeded to walk the dog. When we got home, the wort was at 214*F but with no noticeable boiling. So I spent the last 30 or so minutes trying to keep it from going dead or boiling over. Despite the wind-shield on my burner, the strong gusts yesterday really fucked with my system. I curse you, Zephyr, to the very depths of Hades!

At 15 minutes remaining, I added 1.5oz of Chinook, 1.5oz of Centennial and the half-pound of Turbinado, along with my wort chiller. In news that will surprise no one, I forgot to add my whirlfloc tablet. The forgotten whirlfloc tablets keep me up at night. At flameout (0 minutes remaining), I added an additional ounce each of Chinook and Centennial after killing the flame, and began recirculating my wort. I placed the flameout hops in the center of my immersion chiller so the recirculated wort would run right through them.

A couple of spare notes on my process. First, I’m a skimmer.

Skimmin' like a villain.

Skimmin’ like a villain.

I try to skim the hot break protein off the top of my wort as it reaches a boil. My reasoning is simple: less hot break in the wort means less hot break in the fermenter.

Secondly, I use tea and spice infusion balls to hold my hops additions. Usually they work great, but for some reason either the heat or the boil or a combination of the two absolutely dissolved the Nugget hops. My other additions were fine, expanding and staying inside their metal prisons, but the Nugget, man…

Where'd you go?

Where’d you go?

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After allowing the flameout hops to steep for 15 minutes – a relatively arbitrary time limit – I kicked on the immersion chiller, brought the temperature down to 59*F (!) and transferred it to a bucket, where I’d pitch my yeast.

Yeast and Fermentation

WLP075 aka Hansen Ale Blend

WLP075 aka Hansen Ale Blend

The yeast strain I used for this brew is White Labs’ WLP075 Hansen Ale Blend. This is one of their “Yeast Vault” strains that apparently has only been used in-house.

This is a blend of many IPA strain favorites. If you’re tired of only using WLP001, this strain is for you. It has the attenuation of WLP090 and the character of WLP007…
In the Tasting Room, the strain produced dry attenuation, was hop-forward, with minor ester production, and was a great flocculator, according to White Labs Brewer Joe Kurowski.

After checking the notes White Labs provided from their tasting room, I assumed an attenuation of around 78% and asked them to provide a good fermentation temperature for the strain. They suggested 65*F – 71*F. I started my chamber at 65*F and allowed to rise towards 68*F-69*F which is where I plan to let it sit for about 5-7 days before finishing out around 71*F.

I made a starter for this strain and then stepped it up so I could harvest out some additional yeast for my next brew. I may retry IPA #1 with this yeast strain to see how it comes out.

Wrapping Up

I concluded my brew day by force-carbonating IPA #1 and celebrating with Castle Island’s Keeper IPA. As of last night there was some noticeable activity from the fermentation chamber, before I bumped the temp up 2-3 degrees. I expect IPA #2 to have a much more West Coast flavor than #1, as I try to figure out my “perfect” IPA.

I know this was a (much) longer than usual post, and I’d love to here from you all if this is the kind of content you’d be more interested in going forward, as I’m trying to dial in my blog as much as my beer.

Cheers!

New Design

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m fiddling around with the design and structure of Anti-Hero Brewing. I initially tried to have this page with a dark gray background and darker gray sidebar, but some SNAFU within WordPress reverts the sidebar color to off-white. I didn’t like how that looked so I stopped fighting WordPress and reverted to the white-on-white default for the page.

I’m curious what people think of the current design; after all, you’re the ones reading this so your preference is pretty important.

If the poll doesn’t appear at the top of this post, you can vote here: Poll.