Belgian Beer Fest Recap, Lawsuits Flying Around, and Other New England Beer Happenings…

It’s been a while since I wrote about the New England beer scene, as my focus has been more on the national and international. So I thought I’d take a few minutes this suddenly snowy afternoon to offer some brief updates on the New England beer scene.

Openings and Closings

Since writing The Good Beer Guide to New England, we’ve seen many breweries come and some go. In more recent months, the White Birch Brewing Company opened up a 1 barrel (you read that right) in Hookset, New Hampshire. A self-professed lover of Belgian-style beers and high alcohol American beers, this homebrewer turned professional brewery is presently trying to live the dream 31 gallons at a time. The economics are incredibly difficult to make work at that small a production level, just ask Andrew Carlson. From what I sampled of the White Birch products at the recent Belgian Beer Festival in Boston, including a Saison and several different Tripels, the transition from homebrewing to production brewing is clearly never an easy one. I understand that the beer is available at a limited number of New Hampshire stores and retails for above $10 per bottle, a pretty steep asking price (but understandably necessary in light of the small-scale) considering the quality of the offerings available for less than that amount. A beer festival is not always the best place to take the full measure of a brewery so I look forward to seeing how this brewery manages the hurdles it faces.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Pretty Things Beer and Ale Project, run by brewer Dann Paquette and his wife Martha, continues to do very well in Boston and in a limited number of eastern markets. Instead of plopping down hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new system, the Paquettes decided to rent excess time on the systems of other willing brewers. Pretty Things produces a range of interesting and eclectic beers, possessing a broad profile of flavors, at very reasonably price points. Cheers to both Paper City and Buzzards Bay for allowing a fellow brewer to take over the reins of their breweries.

In the Northern Kingdom of Vermont, brewer Shaun Hill continues to ready his next brewing operation, a farmhouse brewery in Greensboro, Vermont. Having kicked around The Shed and Trout River Brewing, Shaun left Vermont a couple years back to brew at the Nørrebro brewhouse in Copenhagen, Denmark. We visited Shaun earlier this year and while he is full of plans for the future, they are tempered with the understanding of how difficult it is to open up a new brewery. He’s been slowly slogging through the required paperwork and zoning but there is no sure date on when this project will come to fruition. Shaun’s days in Copenhangen are numbered as he’s showing the ropes to his successor, Ryan Witter-Merithew, formerly of Duck-Rabbit in North Carolina.

In other farm-brewhouse news, brewer Paul Davis and his family continue their efforts to open their own production brewery, to be called the Prodigal Brewing Company. Located on the Misty Mountain Farm in Effingham, New Hampshire, not far from where Paul used to brew for the Castle Springs Brewing Company. He ambitiously hopes to start a small farmhouse brewery, where he’ll grow his own hops, and notably produce true-to-style German lagers. Paul has experience opening breweries, having helped direct the Troutbrook Brewing (Thomas Hooker) opening. Add to that honey, roses, and some animals and this functioning farm will be a very interesting addition to the New England beer scene.

Speaking of lager beer, it appears that the von Trapp family of The Sound of Music fame is readying its own production brewery attached to its Vermont inn and tea room. The project is apparently a long-time dream for the Stowe-based operation and the focus will be on lagers, though somewhat hard to understand with quotes like this from the local paper.

One will be a nice Salzburg-type beer,� von Trapp said. “It will be a terrific, flavorful beer that’s not too hoppy and not so strong that you can have one at lunch without getting a headache.

The lead brewer on the project will be Allen Van Anda, formerly of
the defunct Cross Brewery and the Rock Art Brewery. The company is in the process of putting together all the required legal groundwork for the operation, whose opening date is not yet known.

The guys who were to start the Nomad Brewing Company in North Adams in Western Mass have relocated their operations to Pittsfield and have nearly completed a buildout on the newly rechristened Wandering Star Craft Brewery. I imagine the business plan will remain the same, with a heavy focus on real ales.

Also some word that Ben Roesch, formerly of Honest Town, Nashoba, and Cambridge Brewing, is working on a new brewery in Worcester, with a release date of November on the first beer. Disturbingly named Wormtown Brewery, the brewery will run four different beers initially and will be Worcester’s first brewery in some time. In an odd twist, journeyman brewer Mike Labbe has taken over Ben’s old job at Honest Town, adding another notch on his well-worn resume of brewing gigs.

The Pennichuck Brewing Company of Milford, New Hampshire also just announced that it is closing up shops after a few years of service. In an era where craft beer sales are rising, even in a bad economy, it’s always difficult to know why any particular business cannot succeed. The New Hampshire market is a tough one and despite its minute size, Pennichuck distributed beers as widely as Alabama and Florida. The beer was not particularly well-established in the Boston market and we generally only saw the specialty offerings that were inexplicably sold in 1 liter bottles, usually at stratospheric prices (bottles of the imperial stout were $10 to the retailer, let alone with the additional consumer markup). UPDATE: There is news that Pennichuck has secured funding from an angel investor at the eleventh hour and will remain in business. Look forward to seeing how the brewery changes its approach to improve its financial future.

Lawsuits and Small Business Headaches

Speaking of Rock Art, I’ve generally avoided weighing in on the viral madness of the Monster Energy Drink and Vermonster saga. As an attorney, I’m interested in learning more about the intricacies of trademark law as it applies to this situation, but that isn’t likely anytime soon. I’ve been asked about the situation several times over the last week and my response is usually the same: Rock Art should capitalize as much as it can on the free press and viral word-of-mouth PR it will garner in the next couple weeks and then it should rename the Vermonster, a specialty beer that the brewery doesn’t produce much of, something cheeky but safe from litigation. The viral campaign against Monster does appear to be gaining some traction but Rock Art’s filing of an application for a national trademark may be sufficiently important to move to the courtroom, despite the PR fracas. To fight a mega-corporation with a $2 billion market capitalization, while perhaps principled, is a recipe for business disaster and doesn’t make any sense. I think the good folks at Rock Art probably know this and if not, they should listen to the wise counsel of Peter Egelston of the Portsmouth Brewery and Smuttynose Brewing who sums up with examples what I’ve been telling people this week.


And in a final bit of news, the La Resistance distributorship, run by the Shelton Brothers, has been sold to another Massachusetts distributor. La Resistance distributed beers from Paper City, Thomas Hooker, Pretty Things, Jolly Pumpkin, among others, along with the Shelton Brothers line of imported beers. No word on whether each of the products will remain with the new distributor.

Be Social:

The Expanding Reach of Craft Beer: The Florida Gulf Coast Edition…

My family has vacationed on the Gulf Coast of Florida near Sarasota, off and on for about two decades. While I spent most of that time as a kid here, in recent years I’ve enjoyed not only the weather but also observing the changing face of beer in Florida. When I first started buying beer in Florida a decade ago, craft beer was nearly impossible to find. In the area from Tampa to Sarasota, your options were pretty limited. In Tampa, you could visit the now-defunct Ybor City Brewing Company, a haphazard operation set into a hundred year old cigar factory that was sinking into the ground (or at least looked like it). You could also try the solid beers at the old Tampa Bay Brewing Company location in Ybor City or for take away you could visit the tiny but packed operation at Beers of the World. Beyond that, you could head across the bay to the gulf side and visit Dunedin, which is always a pleasant trip. In Sarasota, you were pretty much limited to the entirely average Sarasota Brewing Company. In terms of buying beer for home, that’s where you learned the true tradition of the Florida beer market. You had a choice of Bud, Bud Light, Natural Light, or, if you were lucky, Amber Bock. After a few years of looking around, I resigned myself to the fact that I’d be drinking a lot of sickly sweet Amber Bock and gin and tonics when I visited.

Fast forward a decade and things have changed considerably. In the last three years especially, a small number of independent wholesalers has helped break Anheuser-Busch’s deathgrip on beer distribution in the state. Well-regarded beers from Europe and American craft brewers started showing up on tap in a handful of bars and then in the grocery and package stores. In terms of take away beer, it’s still a fight down here. The opening of a Whole Foods grocery store in Sarasota has been a big boon for the area and it’s where I inevitably buy fresh Full Sail and other craft brands for prices far less than I can get back in Boston. And what’s up with finding both Allagash and Brooklyn for a few bucks less than in their nearby markets (Brooklyn 1 for $7 is a steal anywhere)?

So now on a trip to Florida, I know I can head to the excellent and “rustic” Cock & Bull Pub in Sarasota for some rarer offerings, track down Saint Somewhere Belgian-style bottles, get much bally-hooed Bell’s special releases for pennies on the dollar at the excellent Waterfront Restaurant on Anna Maria Island, or even find Yuengling sixers for less than Bud costs (take that volume warriors!). I’m also hoping to head up to Tampa later in the week to visit a new beer bar (Oldsmar Taphouse) and to try a few offerings from the recently opened Cigar City Brewing Company. Florida’s Gulf Coast is by no means a craft beer mecca but its rise shows just how deep into “enemy territory” the movement has penetrated. These are some of the things I’ll be considering as I watch the sun set over my glass of Saison Athene (from Saint Somewhere)…

P.S. If you visit the Beer Monster package store in Bradenton, be wary: the owner accosted me when I took out my phone to check the time, saying “You can’t take pictures in here, you can’t send out my prices.” He then proceeded to follow me around his half package store/half Salvation Army used furniture depo for twenty minutes…

The sketchy joints we visit in the name of good beer…I suppose the name should have been a tip-off.

Be Social: