Buzzards Bay Brewing: A Lager Experience Seven Years In The Making…

Around seven years ago, I met a guy by the name of Chris Atkinson at an unusual beer dinner here in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Hosted by Buzzards Bay Brewing Company of Westport, Mass, the dinner featured the brewery’s beers, a lager and a handful of ales, paired with foods long forgotten. What I do remember about the event was Chris’s passion for brewing and specifically for lager beer. Recently having moved to Massachusetts from Minnesota, and having had one mild English-style ale after another in Boston, I was sorely missing the lagers of the Midwest. Chris and I spent much of the night talking about how we loved lager beer and how little of it there was to be found in New England. We agreed that there was definitely a niche market for lager beer in New England definitely and that Buzzards Bay, with its unusual brewing setup, was uniquely positioned to fill that niche. Near that time, see, Buzzards Bay had pulled out a surprising win at the Great American Beer Festival, having taken home a gold medal in the European Style Pilsner category the previous year. Now New England breweries have long avoided the GABF and done even less well when in attendance. So Buzzards Bay’s performance was doubly impressive. As the night grew later and the beers stacked up, I grew more excited about the prospect that Chris would achieve his dream of producing high quality bocks, helles, and other lagers. Things looked promising…

Besides Atkinson’s enthusiasm, the brewery had one other thing going in its favor on the lager front. With eyes perhaps bigger than its stomach (or more appropriately the market’s stomach), Buzzards Bay’s owners and directors chose to install a massive 50-barrel Newlands Systems brewhouse. At the time, this brewery was probably one of the five largest in New England. Today, it might still be in the top five or seven. Buzzards Bay also had a tank farm to match the system, along with a fancy pasteurizer (one of probably two in New England, Anheuser-Busch in Merrimack, New Hampshire being the other). In 2001, Buzzards Bay made 4100 barrels of beer and was the 72nd largest brewery in the country. With its extraordinary size and layout, Buzzards Bay actually had the capacity (30,000 barrels) to produce and age lagers.

As the Russell family, who owns the brewery and the sister Westport Rivers winery, had originally intended to produce ales, the lager was Chris Atkinson’s baby. And the lager (more in the Dortmunder style) he made was good. In my book, The Good Beer Guide To New England, I described the brewery’s flagship this way:

The heart of the brewery’s portfolio, the Lager is a positively radiant, golden hued beer. Brewed close to the Dortmunder style, the beer’s aroma is grainy with a touch of German hops. The flavor is clean, with biscuity notes and the lightest touch of butter. Full-flavored, the Lager is a good, low-key accompaniment to summer activities for craft beer enthusiasts. A very drinkable and easy-going session beer.

Fast forward to about 2005 and the brewery had made little to no progress on the lager front…or really on any front. Despite solid growth in the adjoining craft industry and the near complete absence of any local competition, Buzzards Bay had stalled. While it claimed to have brewed 7100 barrels in 2004, better estimates might have been two-thirds of this amount with at least half of that coming from contract brands for other small breweries, including Coastal Extreme of Rhode Island and Cisco Brewers of Nantucket. When I visited the brewery for my book, Chris looked run down and had clearly soured on the brewing business a bit. And his dreams of running a lager remained very distant reminders of a different, happier time. A few months after my visit, Chris left Buzzards Bay and the brewing business altogether.

Fast forwarding again to 2006, and statistics oddly showed that the brewery’s output remained at the exact same level for several years with an optimistic 7000 barrel report. While I’d be surprised if the amount was half the reported figure, I’d begun to hear some grumblings from Westport of resurrecting that crazy old lager brewery idea. After saying goodbye to Atkinson, the brewery hired Mark Sampson, formerly of Harpoon, to take over the operations and shake things up. In his first few weeks, he commissioned his staff to create some new beers, including a Vienna Lager, an India Pale Lager, and a Pilsner. The prototype bottles I had at one tasting, while grilling Sampson on the brewery, were a step in the right direction, especially the spot-on Pilsner. Sampson, however, left his position within a few weeks and Bill Russell, Westport’s winemaker, started pulling double-duty as head of the brewery. Things went quiet at the brewery again.

In 2007, we again started seeing Buzzards Bay at local beer festivals and heard gossip about possible releases. And while I received occasional notes about infrequent special events at the brewery, with unusual “extreme beer” offerings, Buzzards Bay continued to be absent from the market in Boston.

So it was much to my surprise yesterday that I managed to run into the brewery’s beer not once but twice. While perusing the aisles at Downtown Wine and Spirits near my home, I was shocked to see three different offerings from Buzzard’s Bay, the classic (but reformulated I believe) lager, a schwarzbier, and a pilsner. As Downtown rocks the pricier side of things, I made a note to check out some competitor shops for the pre-Thanksgiving round-up. That evening, we headed to our favorite local place, The Independent, for our usual weekend visit. And while talking to a friend, I noticed an unusually shaped yet familiar tap handle that revealed itself to be Buzzards Bay’s Black Lager. Wow, I couldn’t believe. Nestled inbetween several extreme offerings, the Black Lager was the ultimate outlier. Brewed with 2-Row Pale Malt
Munich and Vienna Malt, de-husked Carafa Black Malt, and a mixture of Magnum, Perle and Bramling Cross hops, the Black Lager has a deep black color with light ruby hues and a strong aroma of roasted malt. The resulting beer, however, is spot-on for the schwarzbier style. Very light on the roast but with a well-balanced and subtle malt, the beer remained quite drinkable, even after the third pint.

So I say congratulations to Buzzards Bay (and to its distributor, Atlantic) for shoehorning this solid beer into quality watering holes. While area beer bars may keep calling about the hop and alcohol monsters, it’s the outlier lagers that will keep me coming back. Having returned from a recent trip to Philadelphia equipped with cases of lager (including the delightful Sly Fox Pils I’m drinking while composing this article), I dare to dream of a day when brewers in New England follow suit, branch out, and produce some world class lager beers. Prost.

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The Changing Face of the Craft Beer Industry…

In the early 1980s, American craft beer pioneers dreamt of nothing more than producing a few beers that broke through the monotony of humdrum, mainstream lagers. A group of men and women who had traveled through Europe and had their eyes and mouths opened by local beers or who had adventured to brew their own beers. For these early entrepreneurs, the future was uncertain but filled with hopes of building a few hundred or even thousand barrel brewery.

Fast forward two decades and things have changed beyond anyone’s greatest expectations. Once top of the pops, America’s largest breweries are now reeling on their back heels. Once considered little more than a gimmick, craft beer has enjoyed startling success.

As the beer industry has aged, it has both matured and evolved. From its slow infancy to its turbulent teens, craft brewers are now experiencing the complications of adulthood. What started as a fun experiment for some has led to some pretty high stakes. From hobbyist basement systems costing a few hundred or thousand dollars to gleaming new brewhouses costing a few hundred thousand, the craft beer business is hardly just fun and games.

Times are changing quickly in the American beer marketplace and they’re not going to slow down anytime soon. In response to double-digit growth, breweries recently producing 10-15,000 barrels per year suddenly produce 75,000 barrels per year and have tank space capacity for many times more. To meet market expectations and changes, these brewers have traded sore backs for aching pocketbooks.

We are thankful that times are good right now and that despite a weak economy and financial hardships, craft brewers are not yet seeing a reversion to old buying habits.
But the nature of the industry itself is also changing in other ways. Many craft beer pioneers are now elder industry statesmen. Fritz Maytag bought Anchor Brewing 43 years ago; Ken Grossman started Sierra Nevada 28 years ago; Jim Koch toted his briefcase from bar to bar 24 years ago. Beyond these well-known figures, many founders of regional breweries have been in the business for 20 years or more now. And as with any other small business, many are owned by one person or a small group of aging entrepreneurs who’ve long been toiling in the brewhouse, glad-handing distributors, and hawking product every weekend at beer festivals. For these hard working individuals, vacations are few and downtime almost non-existent.

And as with any other hard driving profession, it eventually wears you down. With high debt levels and decades dedicated to building up their companies and employees, these brewery owners can’t just walk away. Not to the mention the disappointment felt by their loyal customers who they’ve worked so hard to gain. And so we must look to an uncertain future but one where we can be certain of corporate shakeups and where change will be a constant.

The Old Dominion Brewing Company of Ashburn, Virginia, for example, is representative of stories we will continue to hear. Founded by Jerry Bailey and other investors in 1989, the brewery was a pioneer in the Mid-Atlantic region. After nearly two decades of work, however, Bailey and others were ready to leave the business. They tried for years to sell to other craft brewery owners, but with no success. Then in 2007, they sold Old Dominion to a joint partnership of the Fordham Brewing Company and Anheuser-Busch. After making a run at it for a year, the group recently announced it will close the brewery’s pub and its future operations as a stand-alone brewery remain in question.

The Old Dominion case, while extreme, is a cautionary tale for the industry and consumers alike. Craft breweries are run by people not corporations and these folks can’t continue in this tough business forever. Shareholders eventually want their initial investments back, owners want to retire, and if they don’t have kids ready to take over the business, end game options remain limited. Consolidation, either with other craft breweries or with larger brewing concerns, will be the norm not the exception. And while we can all appreciate how far craft beer has come since its early days, it’s time to contemplate the business realities that lie ahead.

–Article appeared in Volume II, Issue IX of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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