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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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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Welcome to Portland, Maine, the Best Beer Drinking City in New England…

When I was giving talks and doing press interviews in support of The Good Beer Guide To New England, I would inevitably get asked about my favorite New England beers, breweries, and brewpubs. A less frequent question that I spent little time pondering was what city is the best for beer drinking in New England. As with my selections of Great Beer Bars, a few ground rules are necessary in this intellectual exercise. Of beer bar greatness I have written,

These places excelled in several crucial respects, including “extraordinary selection of craft beers, respect their clients in terms of keeping prices fair, hold events promoting craft beers (from beer dinners to brewer meet-and-greets), make craft beer key to their business, and also offer true character as pubs.?

When it comes to defining a great beer drinking city, many of the similar criteria apply (and it certainly helps to have some great beer bars in your pocket). In addition to possessing a few great or good beer bars, a great beer drinking city will support a few to several local breweries and brewpubs. You should also look at how well craft and better beers in general have integrated into your local scene. When you patronize a local restaurant or even a chain, how is there beer selection? In cities, such as Portland, Oregon, where integration of better beer into the local scene is seamless, you can find excellent craft offerings even at the most pedestrian restaurants, say a hole-in-the-wall Chinese place or even a TGIF’s. You’d also like to see a host of beer related events throughout the year, from larger festivals to smaller, more locally oriented events. Pricing is of course importance. Better beer doesn’t do you much good if you can’t afford it. And finally, proximity and size of the town itself are factors to consider. Of course, cities such as Chicago and New York by their sheer size have a larger volume of drinking establishments to offer. Quantity doesn’t mean quality and an unscientific weighting has to take place to give smaller cities a chance to compete. Obviously, this whole process is hardly a quantifiable pursuit. I also have to take into account that I simply prefer the beers produced in certain towns and the general feel of the drinking vibe of some as compared to others. Now there are inevitably other criterion I have missed and I’m happy to reanalyze with your suggestions but I think we’re off to a good start.

Here in New England, several cities vie for the title of Best Beer Drinking City in the region. While listing my top cities, I think its important to do some geographic arithmetic. Of the top cities, the Massachusetts nominees include Boston (including Brookline), Cambridge (including Somerville, i.e. the near North of the River communities), and Northampton and Amherst. Maine offers Portland. New Hampshire offers Portsmouth. Rhode Island offers Providence. Vermont offers Burlington. Connecticut doesn’t really have a competitive offering but I’ll be polite and suggest New Haven.

Without extolling the virtues or decrying the flaws of particular places or breweries and pubs in each city, I’ll cut to the chase. The top three nominees are Boston, Burlington, and Portland. While I love Amherst/NoHo, the scene is just too small to sustain the title and they offer no breweries. The same fate befalls my home town of Cambridge and nearby Somerville. Portsmouth offers both a brewpub and a brewery but no beer bars and again is too small to compete. Providence is of sufficient size but its two brewpubs do not provide enough substance to rise to the competition. While a good stop for a night, New Haven really shouldn’t even be competing here.

That leaves Boston, Burlington, and Portland. While it may be a bit surprising, I think Boston places third on this list. I’ve done the city a real favor by tossing in Brookline, which includes the Publick House and soon the Road House, even though it’s not at all part of it. While Boston offers three brewpubs, a brewery, and two Great Beer Bars and two good beer bars, it’s actually not a great drinking city for other reasons. Boston is a city dedicated to the average, pedestrian bar experience. Walk into nearly any bar in the city and you will see the same 6-10 taps. Harpoon IPA, Harpoon UFO or Blue Moon, Bass, Budweiser, Bud Light, Sam Adams Boston Lager, Sam Adams Seasonal, Stella Artois, Guinness, and then a shortlist of other stand-ins, be they Smithwick’s, Harp, Old Speckled Hen, Miller Lite, or Coors Light. With its predisposition towards prefabricated pubs, such lists are not surprising. In a city the size of Boston, it’s not surprising that you would find some solid beer bars. When I start to ruminate on Jacob Wirth’s and Doyle’s Cafe, I start to rethink a third place slot. But when you really have to search for them, the city deserves to be docked a few points. The presence of Beer Advocate and its beer events (of which I am usually a part) add back to the positive side of the ledger. But that a city so well known for beer offers three brewpubs, all of which are part of chain operations, is troubling. And while Harpoon is certainly a consistent, serviceable, and solid craft brewery, the brewery’s products don’t offer a lot of inspiration to consumers (although the upcoming Leviathan series may change that). And no, the limited presence of Boston Beer doesn’t add much when gauging the city’s place in the region’s beer scorecard. The city would seem ripe for a small, inventive brewpub or brewery to target niche consumers, similar to the way the Surly Brewing Company has successfully competed in the Minneapolis/St. Paul market.

That leaves us with Portland and Burlington. Perched on beautiful, opposite ends of New England, these twin Queen cities really offer the beer drinker a range of offerings. Despite their small sizes, neither forgoes quality or makes excuses. At nearly 40,000 people, Burlington is by far the smaller of the two (Portland clocks in at 65,000, compared to 650,000 for my Boston/Brookline hybrid). Despite its size, Burlington is all about the beer. It is the home of the quirky Magic Hat Brewing Company, one of the nation’s fastest growing craft breweries. Magic Hat sponsors an annual Mardi Gras parade down the snow covered streets of Burlington and offers some seriously odd tours. It also can’t seem to grow content with any one flagship product, constantly switching up their available beers and keeping it interesting. The old standby, #9, remains to this day an interesting pint and the recently released Lucky Kat is an unusual IPA anywhere in the country. Burlington’s downtown is perhaps the only place in the world where you can visit three brewpubs in a three block walk (with two of them, the venerable Vermont Pub and Brewery and American Flatbread-Burlington Hearth, directly across the street from one another). Greg Noonan of Vermont Pub has helped push craft brewing in Vermont and beyond and his smoked porter helped reinvigorate a dying method of adding flavor to beer. At American Flatbread, Paul Saylor produces some of the region’s best beers and has also selflessly promoted other better beers, from Vermont and beyond, in his own pub. Down the street, the funky 3 Needs remains the town’s bad boy brewpub experience, although a littles less so without the smoke. Burlington also hosts the fantastic Vermont Brewers Festival on the banks of beautiful Lake Champlain.

On the other side of New England, the City of Portland is an eclectic mix of different elements and interests. Portland is home to a surprising number of breweries, five in total. I am including Sebago in this list even though it is located in nearby Gorham as Sebago still owns two tap rooms in the city where its beers are delivered for fresh consumption right out of the tank. The others include Allagash, Geary’s, Shipyard, and Stone Coast. Even with the loss of the Stone Coast Brewing Company (and its excellent Knuckleball Bock), which is rumored to be closing August 1, the city remains a tough competitor. Add to that the presence of Great Beer Bar The Great Lost Bear and things look good for Portland. The city also hosts the long running Maine Brewers Festival and the Bear hosts a series of fun beer events throughout the year, including a competition among the city’s brewers in a consumer poll.

Needing to confirm my feelings, and because of a trip with friends, I visited Portland again this past weekend. While Gritty McDuff’s, a brewpub that serves classic English-style ales, remains a great place to spend a snowy, Winter afternoon, and Sebago’s Old Port pub is the perfect place to end an evening, I was most interested in stopping by two new places that could seal the deal for Portland. Well, we went one for two which isn’t too bad. The Prost International Beer House is located right in the Old Port and promised a German themed beer experience, an angle sorely missing in most of English-oriented New England. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up because these things don’t usually work out very well. That was the case with Prost.
We stopped by late in the afternoon, but before it grew dark (beware the nightclub crowd after dark). Prost felt like a German themed Bennigan’s or TGIF, with a sterile environment where the theme made little sense. In a bar where women were made to wear tartish dirndls, you shouldn’t be surprised that the place only serves two German beers. The plastic encased German themed menu was ridiculous both in presentation and content. It’s a German restaurant in theory but it serves Italian and Spanish sausage? And just because you add a German name or reference to a pedestrian American food item does not make it German (waffle fries called Luft Waffle Fries, the Zimmerman Nachos) and why is Shepherd’s Pie on the menu again? The skull and crossbones on the menu designating the higher alcohol beers notations would make good evidence in a lawsuit for over-serving or make you think the beer is poison. The waitress immediately apologized for several missing beers despite advertisements that “Yes, we really have 100 taps.” Just don’t expect them to be filled.

Disappointed, we traveled to Novare Res, a place run by Eric Michaud, formerly of the Moan and Dove in Amherst, Mass. You can immediately sense the connection upon entering the small, oddly shaped space. The tap list is straight out of the old M&D playbook, with a solid range of Belgian ales and German lagers tossed in for good measure. Beers were properly presented and served and tasted clean. The large and spacious outdoor deck more than doubles the size of the place and is a bit of a novelty in downtown Portland. Having only recently opened, the place is still experiencing some hiccups but nothing it won’t overcome. Add to the mix occasional events with breweries and you’ve found an excellent addition to the Portland scene.

Digressions aside, despite its small size, Portland offers a whopping number of good beer choices. With its diverse beer offerings, from breweries producing a wide-range of world class beers to homey beer bars and a Belgian beer cafe, reasonable prices, welcoming drinking vibe (except very late on weekend evenings), Portland is my choice for the Best Beer Drinking City in New England.

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A Good Beer Guide To New England Update – Owen O’Leary’s To Close

Back with more news from around New England. Affable brewer and beer lover Dave Thompson, assistant brewer at Owen O’Leary’s brewpub in Natick, Mass recently informed the Beer Advocate crowd that the pub was closing down and the 10-barrel JV Northwest brewhouse was being removed. Tucked into a corner of a local hotel chain, off the beaten path, I managed to miss Owen O’Leary’s, both in terms of travel and in reputation, during the first five years I traversed the area in search of good beer. It was only when brewer Dan Kramer, of Opa Opa Brewing and the Brewmaster’s Tavern in Western Mass, took over that I started to take notice. Frankly, we aren’t losing much in terms of the pub itself, which I describe this way in The Good Beer Guide to New England.

From the outside, O’Leary’s does little to draw your attention. It looks like a typical chain restaurant with its white brick exterior and simple signage. Moving beyond the front entryway, the rest of the pub resembles a rundown, underground sports bar, complete with lottery ticket systems and a multitude of flickering televisions. Patrons quietly sit at the bar, sip Budweisers, and watch life go by. As a cross between a Bennigan’s and a neglected Irish pub, there was little to be said about Owen O’Leary’s.

I don’t envy the guys in having to tear out that brewing system. Again from the book:

The pub’s layout is disjointed, with the large main bar area feeding off into several smaller, distant feeling sections, including a pool and video game room. The vaguely Irish theme comes and goes throughout the place, giving way in the back room to gloriously cheesy décor including a funny wooden beer keg. The brewing setup is sizable, but blocked off from any real public view by the clumsy layout.

There is some suggestion that the brewing operation may be relocated to one of the chain’s other locations, such as in Southboro or Brockton (both places decidedly lacking in local brewing outfits). Dave reports that the pub managed to make a respectable 550 barrels of beer last year and that the owner plans to seek out contract brewing operations when the final kegs run out.

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The Carlson Craft Brewery (CT) Readies Its Operations…

The citizens of Branford, Connecticut, are about to add a second brewing operation to its town’s repertoire. Andrew Carlson, a career firefighter, has nearly completed efforts to open his own mini-craft brewery in the town. I first heard from Carlson about two years ago when my book, The Good Beer Guide To New England, was new on the shelves. He excitedly told me of his plans and that he hoped to be in my second edition. Then nothing but silence followed…up until a month or so ago. Carlson has completed many of the necessary bureaucratic hurdles and has but a final local inspection or two to go. He will be brewing on a surprisingly small 1-barrel system so that he can maintain his day job. Inspired by the nano-brewery of Tod Foster at the original Bar Harbor Brewing Company, Carlson plans to use his minute system to

Despite receiving his first hop and grain orders, his original hopes to have sale by mid-June are not likely to be met. Expect to see his beer, wherever he can afford to sell what little he can produce, at better beer establishments in the local area. As Carlson tells it,

I am going to have two year round beers available in 22 ounce bottles. These will be real ales being bottle conditioned and unfiltered. The first is an American style wheat ale. Its name is Vete Öl. This is Swedish for Wheat Ale. I decided to basically use a Swedish translation of their English names as their names. It is made with 100% organic wheat and malts. The second beer is kind of a hybrid Amber-English style beer called Bärnsten Öl. It is a balanced easy drinking beer. It is about 90% organic malts. I was planning on offering a third year round beer in bottles, but instead, I will be offering it as a cask ale in pins and firkins. It is an Old Ale style and it is called Gämmal Öl. I will be self distributing my beer.

Best of luck to Andrew, we know he’ll be busy this summer.

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