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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Respecting Malt…

I have a vision of the future, one in which beer lovers stand arm in arm, glasses raised, like in that old Coca-Cola commercial. Except in my version, the pints raised are brim full of malty lager beer and not sugary soda. Alas, this global beverage utopia seems but a distant dream, not because the planet will not come to adopt craft beer as their preferred beverage, but because once transitioned, these craft converts will likely turn their backs on the lagers they once cradled.

Despite popular beer geek antipathy towards the big guys, the result of years of low-brown television ads and decades of ubiquitous, uninspired bottles of light, I believe the consumer disconnect over lager is more fundamental. It stems from a lack of understanding and appreciation of the beauty of malt.

As an illustration, quickly name three hop varieties. Now try and do the same for types of malted barley; a taller and perhaps insurmountable task for even the most passionate enthusiast. And when was the last time you heard a brewer brag about or advertise the types of malt used in his new beer?

While deep golden fields of gently flowing barley remain an enduring American symbol, having been enshrined in forms as diverse as America the Beautiful and countless mass-market beer commercials, their contribution to the final product remains elusive to most drinkers. This was not always the case. For a long period of global brewing history, brewers raised and dried their own barley. As the brewing business became more commercial, the malting process became more industrialized, offering brewers new cost savings over their resource intensive operations. In the modern era, very few breweries perform their own malting, beyond the occasional, makeshift roasting of malts for a specialty beer, such as a smoked porter. In treating malt as just another raw material for purchase in fifty pound bags or by the ton, blown into windowless silos, we’ve lost touch with the ingredient widely considered to provide the soul of beer.

An alarming number of self-professed craft beer fans dismiss these flavor-friendly beers as boring, pedestrian offerings only suited to novice, unrefined drinkers. As with such casual dismissals of all lager beers, Saint Arnold and Ninkasi shake their respective heads at such ironic beer bigotry. Often the focal point of less flavor obvious lager styles, malt centric beers celebrate and equally complex and sophisticated flavor palate. Whether used as a sweet and earthy backbone in otherwise crisp, hoppy German pilsners or as the center of attention in rich bocks and robust Scotch ales, malt brings more than sugar for alcohol conversion to the world’s best beers.

The subtle charms of different malt varieties bring balance and nuance in an extreme era where humulin overload is the popular trend. Whether bready, toasted, velvety, sweet, rich, or robust, different malt varieties can add deep layers of character that are too often underappreciated by many consumers. For their parts, brewers are sometimes too focused, whether through routine, price consciousness, or ease of habit, with using the same malts in nearly every beer they brew. Yet many manage to simultaneously navigate the complicated engineering and wrangling necessary to keep multiple yeast strains in-house. As one well-known brewer, often featured in these pages, told me, “Many brewers just do not understand malt?

As we enter the fall and winter, times of the year when great American malty beers enjoy their widest availability, take some time to give your patronage those brewers who celebrate the oft-neglected yang to hop’s yin. And maybe we can help the world learn to love malt again.

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RateBeer Hates On Lagers…

So in writing the book, I’ve used the major beer websites for cross-referencing information and other research purposes. So tonight in looking at RateBeer.com, a site I don’t often find myself on, I was perusing its Top Beers of 2009 and Best American Beers lists. I was struck not so much by the alcohol bombs that dominate their ranks, a topic I address in my next BeerAdvocate column, but by what is absent: lager beers. As in none. And no, I’m not counting the Livery’s Bourbon Cask Aged Wheat Trippelbock weighing in at 11-14% abv. And to be fair, the BeerAdvocate top beer list isn’t much better on this point but it does offer a half-dozen or so lagers and isn’t quite as booze/hop/barrel heavy. I know that by now I shouldn’t be surprised or bothered by these lists, but I have to say the beer geek addiction to alcohol, hop, and barrel bombs is not only disturbing but I just can’t bring myself to even feign interest in them at this point. So in an upcoming BA column I discuss why we should shy away from these mind-numbingly boring beers and seek out a new definition of extreme beer.

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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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Maibock Season is a Beautiful Thing…

Beer lovers often debate which time of the year has the best seasonal releases. Is it the influx of lighter, Kolsch-style beers in the summer, Octoberfest season in autumn, or the return of strong, dark beers in winter? Or perhaps you prefer the inverse, like the summer release of Stone’s Russian Imperial Stout? While all of these bring a smile, my favorite time of the beer year is spring and if you cannot find yourself in Germany, the place to be is in the Midwest. I was in Minneapolis last weekend at a time that fortuitously coincided with the availability of the spring Maibock. While I spent time getting acquainted with the interesting range of Surly’s beers at the Blue Nile Restaurant and met up with old pals from Summit Brewing (including a better than I remember Extra Pale Ale), it was the surprise visit from the bock beers that made the trip beerwise. The first bock beer I can recall having (besides the cheap Huber Bock available in Chicago’s dicier bars) is the excellent Heimertingen Maibock from Summit. I can remember how that first pint tasted, big body, strong alcohol notes, substantial malt sweetness tempered by a powerful but not overwhelming dosage of hops (mainly Czech Saaz). Summit dropped the Heimertingen name a while back but this beer remains a delightful seasonal brand. On the trip, I also had a chance to revisit what I consider to be the best Maibock available in the United States, Capital Brewing’s Maibock. This is a potent beer, packed with strong malt sweetness. While I also enjoyed the excellent Blonde Doppelbock, I think the Maibock may be the best offering in Capital’s well-considered lineup. The trip also provided an opportunity to sample a relative unknown for me, August Schell’s Maifest. I was surprised at the body and flavor and was quite happy that America’s second oldest brewery is keeping the lager tradition alive in southern Minnesota. Now if we could only get these beers in Boston…

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