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.

Sales

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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American Craft Beer Hegemony

Walk into a bar in Copenhagen’s trendy Nørrebro neighborhood and one expects to find the occasional Danish craft beer alongside the standard Carlsberg and Tuborg offerings. In Tokyo, Kirin and Asahi mainly go over the bar, while Shanghai bars offer only Tsingtao and Snow. So no one would blame a visitor for double-taking at bottles and taps of Brooklyn Lager and Great Divide’s Oak Aged Yeti.

For a country that has never possessed much of a discernible brewing heritage, America has taken a leading role in exporting its nascent beer culture around the world. With the help of brewing trade groups, the federal government, and a band of curious American and foreign brewers, American-style craft beer can now be enjoyed in bars from Stockholm to Manila. And while this growing sphere of influence is good news for small American brewers, its expansion has created an unexpected identity crisis in the world’s richest brewing cultures.

The efforts of the Brewers Association, financially supported by the United States Department of Agriculture, has been at the heart of the confluence of events leading to the expanding global reach of craft beer. Begun in 2004, the Export Development Program helps American craft brewers educate international markets about their products and aids in distribution efforts abroad. Having completed its fifth year, the EDP assists Americans in exporting more than 30,000 barrels of beer to more than a dozen countries in Europe and Asia.

Beyond the official export efforts, a quiet confluence of events has helped expose the world to the new American way of beer. American brewers started plying their trades abroad, in Denmark, Italy, Japan, and beyond, further expanding the reach of the new U.S. brewing approach. Craft beer inspired a new generation of foreign brewers, in places such as Scotland, Italy, Scandinavia, and Australia, to start their own breweries based on American models. Add in a new generation of global beer geeks, including some influential and rabid Scandinavian raters, and a modest but expanding international market for big-flavored American beers developed.

These events have resulted in some unexpected and fundamental changes in the traditional beer world. While the growth of new American-style craft breweries in places such as Denmark and Italy, with their relatively prosaic lager brewing histories, was welcomed news, the movement’s reverberations have been particularly acute in countries with deeper brewing traditions. Reeling from the effects of globalization, small brewers across Belgium, Britain, and Germany began to see their market shares shrink as bigger players consolidated and swallowed their customers then their breweries. Younger drinkers abandoned traditional beers for the safety of bland pints of lager. In these difficult times, the success of better beer in America caught the eye of some distressed European brewers.

Faced with possible extinction, a pionerring group of Belgian brewers in particular looked to America for help. Brewers including Cantillon, De Proef, and Fantome, struck deals with American importers and suddenly saw pallets of their handcrafted beers leaving for long trips abroad. In return, hoards of American beer tourists started showing up at their favorite brewery’s doorsteps. In an unanticipated turn, Belgian brewers also realized there was money to be made in playing to the radical American palate. Importer B.United convinced the Brasserie d’Achouffe to make an unusual hybrid beer, called Houblon Chouffe Dobbelen IPA Tripel, for the American market. Other breweries followed, resulting in joint efforts with their U.S. counterparts and the birth of the collaboration beer era. Completing the circle of America’s expanding beer influence, the next wave has seen the rise of extreme breweries in Belgium, such as Picobrouwerij Alvinne and De Struise Brouwers.

Small European brewers today find themselves in a tenuous position in a quickly changing marketplace. As guardians of deep and honored brewing heritages, the task of protecting historic styles from the encroaching American beer geek palate will grow increasingly difficult. To date, these breweries have managed well the task of delicately balancing adaptation and innovation with the traditions that built their brewing reputations. In maintaining this equilibrium, we can only hope they can defend their valuable beer cultures and brewing traditions against the forces of dilution.

–Article appeared in Issue 28 of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

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Back From Denmark, Enveloped In Snow…

Well it looks like we just managed to skirt in under the wire with the onslaught of snow that started just minutes after our return from Denmark. While in the snow globe, I need to complete a few articles over the next few days but hope to set aside some time to write about the beer scene in Copenhagen and in Denmark generally. After a week there, I feel like I have returned home with more questions than I originally had and with few answers. It was fitting that during my trip, I didn’t come across a single person who could not speak pitch perfect English, but that upon my return home, the guy taking my Indian food order and I had trouble communicating. Probably apropos of nothing, but it adds just another layer to the unusual Danish travel experience.

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Welcome to Denmark, America’s 51st State?

We’ve been in Denmark now for a few days and are just beginning to get the lay of the land. European travel usually feels like travel but here, with the complete proficiency in English, it takes different door knobs, toilets, and electrical outlets to remind you that you’re not in the states. The other eerie thing that keeps you in an American mindset is the absolutely surprising amount of American craft beer we’ve encountered here. We’ve visited a half-dozen or more beer bars and while we’ve only found local Danish craft beer on tap at half of those, we’ve seen a Great Divide Brewing (Denver) tap handle at each of them! If I wanted to seemlessly drink Titan IPA or Oak Aged Yeti, I’d be fine here. We’re also seeing a lot of Flying Dog and the occasional Sierra, Pizza Port, and Anchor. It’s a little weird frankly.

We’re off to Roskilde today, both for the Viking Museum and for a visit to another American brewing abroad (to continue the American theme), followed by a few days in the countryside (and maybe an escape from America). But not before reconnecting with a few American brewers later tonight. I’m curious to see what they drink…

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Goodbye Extreme Beer Festival, Hello Denmark…

So another Extreme Beer Festival is now behind this. This event has grown in many ways and yesterday’s sessions were an impressive onslaught of unusual flavors and approaches to the ever expanding definition of beer. The panel discussion was filled with interesting ideas that I look forward to reviewing when it’s posted online, including a distinction between extreme beer and imperialization of styles. It was also good to see a lot of friendly faces from around the country.

It’s hard to think that I now have to pack for Denmark as I leave for Copenhagen this evening. It should be a fun trip, even in February, with a few beer-related stops thrown in for good measure. Things will probably be quiet here for a little while but perhaps I’ll even employ Twitter to offer some thoughts while in Denmark, we shall see…

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