Death of Buzzards Bay, Part Deux?

Almost as soon as it arrived, the Just Beer Brewing Company’s listing in the Massachusetts Beverage Business Magazine, the price guide that lists products available to retailers, has disappeared. I believe it only appeared for a month, perhaps two, before taking its exit. No word on whether the brewery has rethought plans to offer its beers at cut-rate prices.

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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.

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Opportunity Lost: Buzzards Bay Brewing Is Finished…

I’d love to spend a great deal of time commenting on the news now breaking that the Buzzards Bay Brewing Company, maker of fine lagers, is ceasing part of its brewing operations. Unfortunately, I’m on several deadlines so that discussion is going to have to wait, probably for a while. The more I read the short Herald piece, the more ridiculous the whole situation seems. After a half-dozen false starts, many detailed in a previous article on the subject, things started looking up for the brewery about a year ago. Its products started showing up in Boston again for the first time in years and the brewery suddenly appeared to have a focused approach: brew solid lager beer. But the steering has been unsteady at Buzzards Bay for as long as I’ve been familiar with the company. And now the affable manager, Bill Russell, is quoted in the Herald giving some pretty poor excuses for the brewery’s failure.

But the greatest challenges facing the firm were ongoing difficulties with distribution and a business climate in Massachusetts that is not friendly to small entrepreneurs, according to Russell.

“Our best years were when we distributed it ourself,? he said. “It’s hard to compete with national brands, representing huge corporate interests, that muscle their way into the marketplace.?

Additionally, a piece of legislation sponsored by the Massachusetts Farm-Winery and Growers Association, which would have allowed the tasting and sale of wine and beer at local farmers markets, emerged from committee this week “eviscerated,? Russell said.

“It was a really solid piece of legislation that would have allowed us to get our name out there,? he said. “Farmers markets are exploding in popularity. It seems to me the best way to stimulate the economy is to foster entrepreneurship, but in this state we are hog-tied by the laws.?

I’m not even sure where to start. Craft brewers around the country are working in the same environment and succeeding to the tune of nearly 6-percent growth so far this year, in a terrible economy. In 2004, craft beer grew at 7-percent, 9-percent in 2005, nearly 12-percent in 2006, 12 percent in 2007, and 6-percent in 2008. Buzzards Bay’s staff told me when I was writing The Good Beer Guide To New England in 2005 that the brewery produced 5400 barrels of its own beer, a statistic I doubted at the time. Just two years later, according to statistics from the Brewers Association, Buzzards Bay made 1450 barrels in 2007. In 2008, that number had been cut nearly in half, to 750 barrels. By way of comparison, the Cambridge Brewing Company, a brewpub with a 10-barrel system, brewed 1900 barrels in 2008, up from 1500 in 2005. The excuses are merely that, excuses, as the environment has never been better for craft brewers.

Add to this rapid industry growth rate that Buzzards Bay is located in an area that is nearly opposition free in terms of other craft brewers. The few that are located near there, Cisco Brewers, Offshore Ales, Cape Cod Beer, and Mayflower Brewing all appear to be enjoying remarkable success. To think that a brewery with a 50-barrel brewhouse, the albatross long hanging around its neck, would rest its hopes for expansion, growth, and the future on sales at farmer’s markets is simply beyond ludicrous. In the end, Buzzards Bay made good beer but had no idea how or where to sell it and despite the hopes of many fans, myself certainly included, the blood has long been in the water surrounding the brewery.

The Herald also dropped this jaw-dropping tidbit:

The surprise announcement yesterday was influenced by a number of factors, Russell said, primarily a drop in demand. Sales fell from a high of 5,000 barrels of Buzzards Bay brews in 2002 to a projected sale of around 100 barrels in the next seven months.

100 barrels? I’d love to know how much the brewery produced in the last six to twelve months but I think I’d cry over the minuscule amount. With a 50-barrel brewhouse, that is two brews in seven months. Wow.

The news is also a touch surprising because one very well-regarded brewer on the scene, Dann Paquette of the upstart Pretty Things Beer & Ale Project, has recently moved his brewing operations to Buzzards Bay, long a contract brewing location. I imagine Paquette, who brews his own beers on the systems belonging to other people (previously at Paper City Brewery in Holyoke), probably won’t be pleased at indirectly being called a contract brewer (which he is not) by Russell and it will be interesting to see whether his arrangement changes at all (here is hoping not…)

And I have to admit that the new torques me off because I also selected two of Buzzards Bay’s beers for inclusion in my Great American Craft Beers book. And while travel and tasting books are usually out of date even before they hit store shelves, mine didn’t even get to the point of submitting the damned manuscript before the info went stale. Better now than next week I guess, at least I can give two other beers their due.

All told, this is disappointing but not surprising news. Beyond the mere disheartening feeling, there is also one of anger at opportunities lost. Remembering back nearly a decade to conversations I had with the brewery’s founding brewer, the passionate Chris Atkinson, it’s sad to see how quiet and inconsiderable the brewery’s end came to be.

UPDATE: Someone sent me a link to the new brand operations that Russell discussed in the Herald piece. I have no idea whether the brand idea and the website are some sort of joke but the brand name and better yet the prices must be. The Just Beer Brewing Company is offering its flagship John Beere (wow…) for $70 per half-barrel. By way of reference, a keg of Budweiser, a beer that can manage a lower price point due to its extreme volume, costs $88 per half-barrel. So if Buzzards Bay manages to sell as much of its new beer as it did the old brands this year, it will fall well below the poverty line. No word on whether food stamps can be applied to malted barley purchases.

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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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