Black Abbey is a recently founded (opened in 2013) local brewery whose success is a unique Nashville success story. Their beers are available in over 100 venues throughout Nashville and the surrounding counties. Black Abbey’s “legend” – posted on each table in the taproom and on their website – describes how the brewery’s founders derive their inspiration from the travails of Martin Luther and his defrocked nun wife Katherine von Bora, who allegedly brewed “the best beer in Wittenberg”. The legend then makes the leap to their choice of brewing styles by stating that “Katherine crafted ales that were likely more similar to today’s Belgian-style ales than to the lagers for which Germany is famous.
The brewery itself is located in a rather nondescript warehouse on Sidco Drive, in an area of town with a hodgepodge of different industrial and commercial interests. The front door leads into the taproom – simply an open area of the brewery warehouse cordoned off from the rest and furnished with picnic benches. To the left as one enters a rack of whiskey barrels stands in the foreground with the stainless steel tanks of the brewery proper behind.
The whiskey barrels are filled with beer of course, soaking up oak tannins and fumes for a few weeks before being distributed all over town. We visited on a Saturday afternoon. As we enter, Dire Straights is playing on the sound system and at a few tables people are drinking and talking. The owners appear to be connoisseurs of vintage vinyl – during our visit they also spun the soundtrack to Ralph Bakshi’s 1978 film “The Lord of the Rings” and Iron Maiden. The feel of the room is relaxed, and neighborly.
The taproom is only open on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and features eight beers: “The Canon”, the brewery’s three year-round, house offerings; “The Apocrypha”, four beers that presumably rotate in and out of availability; and “The Revelation”, a daily feature. A flight of all eight beers is available, in cute stemmed miniature goblets that mimic Black Abbey’s pint-sized glassware, both modeled on the proprietary glassware of Belgian commercial breweries.
The beer is fresh, cold, and delicious. Black Abbey uses two strains of yeast for their ales: the Trappist “Chimay” strain for their Belgian style ales, and the “Chico” ale yeast of Sierra Nevada fame for their other beers. The Chimay yeast gives a distinct, slightly fruity flavor and aroma to their Belgian style offerings:
The Rose, Belgian Style Blonde, 4.5 ABV, 22 IBU (7)
The Special, Belgian Style Mild, 5.03 ABV, 23 IBU (7)
Chapter House, Belgian Red, 5.5 ABV, 25 IBU (9)
The challenge faced by Black Abbey is to convincingly profile traditional Belgian styles while reducing the gravity of the beers significantly to keep the ABV under or at 6.5% due to Tennessee tax and distribution laws. Their beers are good! However, if you are comparing them to Belgian commercial offerings, the results are mixed. For instance, The Rose, their Belgian Blonde at 4.5 ABV has little more than half the strength of Duvel (8.5 ABV), the most popular commercial example of this style, and it makes a big difference – The Rose is not in the same class as Duvel. Chapter House, which is obviously modeled on Trappist best seller Chimay Red, is a lot more successful. The difference in ABV may have a lot to do with this, as Chimay Red weighs in at 7 ABV and Chapter House is a lot closer at 5.5 ABV. Chapter House was my favorite of Black Abbey’s ales on Saturday (there is a photo of the pint I had after my flight at the head of this post).
The other beers on tap reflect styles common in many craft breweries:
The Champion, American Stock Ale, 5.5 ABV, 35 IBU (7)
Crossroads, American Cream Ale, 4.9 ABV, 29 IBU (6)
Wicket Gate, London Stout, 5.1 ABV, 33 IBU (8)
Fortress, American Black Ale, 6.2 ABV, 29 IBU (6)
P.S.Alter, German Alt – this was “The Revelation” daily feature (6)
(phirx ratings) are on a scale of 1-10.
The Champion (a “stock” ale) has little hop flavor but it does have lingering hop bitterness in the aftertaste. Crossroads was clearly brewed to appeal to the Bud Lite crowd, and is subtle in hop taste, bitterness, body, and color. Wicket Gate (a redundant name) is a bold, full-bodied, smoky stout, with assertive roasted barley, dark malts, and hop flavors – it’s really more an American Craft Stout than an English style. The Fortress is a recent American craft beer hybrid, an IPA with roasted barley. This is currently Black Abbey’s strongest beer from a purely ABV perspective. And the German Altbier I sampled (the daily feature) was full bodied and sweet with little hop flavor, similar to a malt liquor.
Black Abbey is not a brewery likely to attract hopheads. They don’t have an real IPA on their current rotation and their hoppiest offering – the stock ale – has little hop nose or flavor. Craft beer fans will be drawn to their beers more for the chance to try a local attempt at Belgian styles. The taproom at Black Abbey also clearly is developing its own personality and community.