Recent Trips To Willimantic BC And The British Beer Company

I’ve been keeping pretty close to home recently but managed two recent and memorable beer trips. Last weekend, we went to a perennial favorite in the Willimantic Brewing Company in Willimantic, Connecticut. Located in a renovated post office, it is a quirky environment for a brewpub. Owner and brewer Dave Wollner ups the quirkiness with his unbending dedication to hops. While most New England brewer seem averse to making American-style IPA’s (there are notable exceptions of course), Wollner is one of our biggest hopheads.

He brews more than 20 different IPA’s during the year and puts loads more on his guest taps. For the Jake 180 IPA, Wollner turned over the system to assistant brewer, Jake Matot. The Jake is an unusual IPA in that it employs only two-row Munich and wheat malts. It is hopped with Warrior, Simcoe, and Perle hops. The resulting flavors remain strongly hoppy, but the underlying malts playfully confuse and bedazzle the palate.

Wollner’s own pleasantly sour Willi Whammer ’06 Barleywine (Jack Daniels aged, 10.4% ABV) and RodenZok (in collaboration with homebrewer Paul Zocco) were also enjoyable.

A few weeks before, we also had the chance to travel to Walpole (not for legal business) to visit the British Beer Company. I’ve heard a lot about this small chain of pubs from readers and industry types but this was my first personal visit. Now, the south shore is not particularly well-known for its dedication to good beer by the BBC is doing a great job countering that. The pub has a very authentic interior created and built in Britain, with lots of nooks throughout the place.

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The extensive, written beer list is praiseworthy in its level of detail. The menu even offers a range of vintage and aged beers for purchase. The list is near evenly split between British beers, many hard to find in Boston, and craft beers. The owners seem to have good relationships with craft brewers ranging from Dogfish Head to the Berkshire Brewing Company. The owners also have an innovative employee exchange program with the Newcastle Brewery, where employees can travel to England to learn the pub trade there before returning to the states.I enjoyed a beautiful Ridgeway IPA that was remarkably fresh. The only complaint I have, and it’s a small one, is that the pub appears to employ the controversial, fake cask engines Fuller’s has unfortunately brought to the United States.

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GBGTNE Update: Cold River Brewing to Open in North Adams, MA

A newspaper in North Adams, MA, tucked in the upper left hand corner of the state, is reporting that a few enterprising guys plan to open a new craft brewery there.  The partners, Christopher Post, Allan Duvall, Chris Cuzme and Alex Hall, have applied for a license to open a 15-barrel brewery to be located in a 4,000-square-foot space in Delftree building at 234 Union St.  The team has experience brewing and working at the Chelsea Brewing Co. and Greenpoint Beer Works.  Expect real ale to be a focus of the operation.  Hall is the editor of the Gotham Imbiber and a hardened CAMRA proponent.  He informed the BeerAdvocate readership that the brewery has already ordered 50 firkins.

The guys will go before the local planning board on March 12.  From the article, it appears they will fight the continuing battle against beer ignorance.

“I think it’s a labor of love, more than anything else with these guys,” he said Monday. “They started coming in a year ago, and finally, we thought the proposal was ready. As long as it’s not going to sell beer or have any smells associated with it, then it will be fine.”

The mayor said he was sure any odor issues would be dealt with at the Planning Board meeting.  The mayor in North Adams said of the proposed brewery:

“In no uncertain terms can there be an odor,” he said. “I guess they have ways to prevent that. Seeing all the other breweries don’t have this problem, I don’t think it will be an issue.” 

Best of luck and drop me a line with more details.

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So I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this…

Here I am, only a day or two into this Notebook and already I’m set to write about a relatively minor issue that has come up in every day drinking.  It’s the heart of “blogging”, which I had hoped to avoid with this broadly focused feature.  Anyways, I was perusing the selection at Downtown Wine and Spirits here in Somerville yesterday and came across a beer I thoroughly enjoyed last year, the Mendocino Winter Ale.  While I’m not generally drawn to Mendocino products, last year’s Winter Ale was a tightly packed Double IPA smartly priced at around $6.99.  So I grabbed a six-pack and decided I wanted a malty companion, so I also selected the excellent Smuttynose Winter Ale. 

After getting home, I was a bit concerned that I couldn’t see through the bottle for sediment.  My suspicions were confirmed when I poured the beer into a glass and it came out pitch black.  My Double IPA had transformed itself into an oatmeal stout.  By all label appearances, this should have been the Double IPA.  A closer inspection revealed a new neck label that in the world’s tiniest letters noted the beer was an 7-percent ABV oatmeal stout.  Putting aside the issue of why anyone would brew such a ridiculously high-alcohol oatmeal stout, I feel a bit cheated.  The stout is perfectly fine, but I wanted and expected the IPA.  It’s clear that Mendocino is simply reusing leftover main labels and six-packs containers (lamely and vaguely “celebrating over 20 years of brewing excellence) and just adding new, hard to distinguish neck labels.   Shame on them.  I want my DIPA.

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The Winds of Change at Old Dominion

My desire to comment at greater length on the recent purchase of the Old Dominion Brewing Company by Coastal Brewing, a partnership of A-B and the Fordham Brewing Company, is the real reason I started this Notebook. I’ve had a number of conversations over the last few months about Old Dominion’s future as various deals have come and gone. I’m writing about A-B’s efforts in the better beer segment and its effects on craft brewers in an upcoming issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine, where I write the Defending Beer column. But I wanted to expand on the Old Dominion matter specifically.

The situation at Old Dominion is a complicated one. Old Dominion is a ‘sick brand’ as they say in the industry. The brewery’s production has languished in recent years despite record sales in the craft beer industry. The brewery has barely grown in the last five years and in 2006, Old Dominion’s beer sales were down more than 15-percent, with only contracted brands, such as Tupper’s and New River, enjoying growth.

odb.jpg The situation would hardly be surprising if the beer was bad, but Old Dominion has long made a range of well-respected beers. One clear problem has been the omnipresent lack of leadership at the brewery. As early as 2001, Old Dominion’s principal owner, Jerry Bailey, made it known that the brewery was for sale. A number of craft industry players even received sales solicitation memos from Old Dominion. When no one matched his $15 million asking price, according to the Washington Post, Bailey removed Old Dominion from the market.

During the next few years, the brewery continued to plod along on its unsuccessful path. Despite little regional competition and a defined home market, Old Dominion failed to grow. Even in the last six months, the brewery’s beers are nearly impossible to find in places that you would expect to see them. On a recent beer trip to Charlottesville, I found only a single restaurant carrying the beer and it was in the bottle. Writing in the Washington Post in 2006, Fritz Hahn noted that Old Dominion was largely absent even from the Washington DC marketplace.

Problem is, the brewery’s distribution in Washington is often lacking. Outside of a few beer-centric bars that feature the deliciously smooth Oak Barrel Stout or high-octane Millennium Barleywine Ale, you’re lucky to find much beyond the aggressively hoppy Tuppers’ Hop Pocket Ale, the standard Dominion Ale or Dominion Lager, or maybe Victory Amber Lager. For the past decade, the easiest way to peruse the company’s offerings was to drive to Ashburn for dinner and drinks at the Old Dominion Brewpub, a sparsely decorated bar and dining room attached to the brewery.

Fast-forward to 2006. Shortly after the Goose Island deal made headlines, word leaked out that the Old Dominion Brewing Company of Virginia had finally found a buyer. What followed was two failed attempts by an employee, Terry Fife, to purchase the brewery with his partner, Kip Olson. During 2006, A-B was also poking around Old Dominion at the behest of its local distributors.

After the employee deals fell through, the Coastal Brewing partnership stepped in to negotiate a purchase with Jerry Bailey. In March 2007, the group confirmed the long-standing sale rumors. Coastal Brewing purchased Old Dominion for one-third of the original asking price, according to sources with knowledge of the terms of the sale. The A-B/Fordham partnership purchased Old Dominion for nearly $5 million, including an assumption of debt and moneys kept in escrow. Fordham, which runs the Ram’s Head pub chain, largely financed the deal, with A-B simply agreeing to cover the distribution angle. Under the partnership, A-B will own 49-percent of Old Dominion, with Fordham taking a 51-percent share.

With the deal shrouded in secrecy, workers at the brewery and its attached pub were disappointed by news of the sale, which came in the form of Coastal’s application for a brewing license in Virginia. “The staff of Old Dominion has been kept largely in the dark about what to expect after the closing,? says one employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The only thing that I do know is that it won’t be good for those of us that have put their hearts and souls into Old Dominion for many years.?

So what happens now? Much of what follows remains speculation but there are two distinct areas of focus: short and long term. In the short term, things will remain largely the same minus a few notable changes. After the deal became public, the new owners fired three employees, including two brewers, Dave Hennessey and Greg Spradlin, and marketing director Terry Fife, the employee who tried unsuccessfuly to buy the brewery. The Ashburn brewery and pub will retain the Old Dominion name for now. The new owners, including Kyle Muehlhauser, held meetings last week with both the pub and brewery employees. Workers at the pub were told that the pub was closing for a two-week renovation period, effective immediately. Workers were not provided with any interim pay but were offered $10/hour to come in and help clean during the renovation period. When the pub reopens, with a full liquor license, it will also stock the full line of A-B products, including Budweiser and Bud Light. In the short-term, it is unclear whether the new owners will attempt to rebrand the Old Dominion pub as a new Ram’s Head Tavern.

The long-term outlook is very different. To resurrect the sick Old Dominion brand, the A-B/Fordham partnership has its work cut out for it. In January 2007, former owner Jerry Bailey told the Washington Post that he did not believe the new owners would change the beers. “I can’t imagine anybody buying a place like this and not keeping the only thing we got,” he said. “The brand is the most valuable thing we own.”

Privately, A-B and its partners have made clear that they plan to reduce Old Dominion’s portfolio of beers from nearly 30 offerings down to three to five beers. It remains unclear whether the brewery will continue to contract brew existing brands.

The final long-term concern remains what will happen to Old Dominion’s physical space. While Fordham is a much smaller operation, brewing around 6000 barrels per year compared to nearly 27,000 for Old Dominion, the principals have discussed moving brewing operations to Fordham’s Dover brewery. One person with knowledge of the deal expects the partners will eventually move the brewing operations to the Dover brewery and close the Asbhurn operation.

It is beyond question that Old Dominion needed new leadership in order to survive after years of inexplicably failing to grow. The issue becomes whether the A-B/Fordham partnership is the best way to right the ship without losing what Old Dominion’s remaining customers love about the place, namely its eclectic line of beers. This is the major area of concern cited by consumers who have emailed me about the deal. As one customer, Ron Kobus, told the Washington Post, “It would be a shame to see them shut down the brewery or change the recipes.?

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GBGTNE: Changes at The Tap Brewpub in Haverhill, MA

I had the chance to speak about The Good Beer Guide To New England and the local beer scene at a recent meeting of the North Shore Brewers at The Tap Brewpub in Haverhill, Massachusetts. It was an enjoyable event and notable for two bits of information. Brewer Steve Bernard is leaving The Tap (where he recently brewed an excellent Berliner Weisse) to run a bottling line at a well-known craft brewery in the Greater Chicagoland area. The big news is his replacement: Mike Labbe. Labbe was the long-time brewer and one time owner of the Concord Brewery of Concord and other Massachusetts locations. More recently, Labbe helped open the Pennichuck Brewing Company in Milford, NH. The move is a bit surprising as Pennichuck is still in its infancy, and to my knowledge, Labbe has never worked as a pub brewer. The Tap has been the home to three very talented brewers (Todd Mott, Dann Paquette, and Bernard) in quick succession. I look forward to seeing what happens under Labbe’s stewardship, whether he carries on The Tap’s tradition of pushing the brewing envelope or chooses to go more traditional as has been his history.

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