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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An Alternative Drinking Guide To Boston: The Craft Brewers Conference Edition…

Brewers, distributors, beer writers, and other industry types are getting ready to descend on Boston next week for the annual Craft Brewers Conference, hosted by the Brewers Association. After the conference lets out and folks have finished attending the various industry events, they’re going to be headed out on the town to visit some of the city’s well-known beer bars. Places like The Publick House, Deep Ellum, The Roadhouse, and Sunset Grill will be jammed with beer lovers from all across the country and beyond. Ground zero will inevitably be the Cambridge Brewing Company in Kendall Square. Getting to the bar for a pint, hard enough at some of these places on a Tuesday in February, is going to be damned near impossible during the conference.

And you don’t need me to tell you about these places. You know about them, have read about them, and may even have been to them before. So I thought I might offer some thoughts on alternative places to get a drink during the conference, for people who want to delve a little deeper into the city’s pubs.

First off, a few words of advice. Boston is home to an army of boring, lifeless, pre-fabricated faux-Irish pubs. So if it has an Irish-sounding name (say, the Purple Shamrock), it’s a good bet the place is crap. This is not an infallible truth but a pretty fair rule of thumb. Next, if you’re staying downtown, it’s pretty much a dead zone for good beer. There are a few places here and there that I’ll mention but you’re pretty much going to find the following beers on tap at every single bar: Harpoon IPA and/or UFO Hefe-weizen, Bass, Guinness, Harp, Miller Lite, Bud Light, Budweiser, Blue Moon, Stella Artois, Sam Adams Boston Lager and a seasonal, and maybe Newcastle. For a more interesting pint, try these places out.

Boston

The Kinsale, 2 Center Plaza, Downtown Government Center

    -Your best bet for a range of good beers on tap in the downtown area. There is nothing else like it anywhere nearby and the interior is part-Irish pub, part-Alice in Wonderland dream sequence.

Drink, 348 Congress Street, Downtown Fort Point Channel

    -Not a beer bar but a great subterranean haunt that focuses on high quality cocktails. If you can name it, they can make it and the staff uses only fresh ingredients, often made in-house. In the same general area as the World Trade Center, home to this year’s conference.

Barking Crab, 88 Sleeper Street, Downtown Fort Point Channel

    -A short walk from Drink and the conference center, the Crab is a series of shacks and tents where good seafood and decent craft beer is served, all with a nice view of the city over the channel. Long communal picnic tables create a homey, New England environment in the heart of downtown.

Jacob Wirth’s, 31-37 Stuart St, Downtown Theatre District

    -The second oldest bar in Boston and one of the few authentic old-time pubs in the city. Add to the historical value that it is also one of Boston’s only German restaurants. Jake’s offers a range of solid and sometimes hard to find German beers as well as some American crafts. A must visit for lovers of old bars or lager beer. Try and track down a copy of the pub’s history book (often given away free) called A Seidel for Jacob Wirth.

Rock Bottom, 115 Stuart Street, Downtown Theatre District

    -A popular outpost for this brewpub chain, Rock Bottom doesn’t get its due in this city. In truth, it’s probably the second or third best brewpub in the Boston area. A two-minute walk from Jake’s, stop by both for a quick pint.

Parish Café, 361 Boylston Street, Back Bay

    -A wide ranging if relatively pedestrian bottle list supplemented by a decent, New England heavy tap list. The Parish is really only worth a stop if you’re nearby or if the sun is shining and you want to hit one of downtown’s only outdoor patios.

The Other Side Café, 407 Newbury Street, Back Bay

    -After a long day shopping on Newbury Street or at least walking downtown and the Back Bay, stop by nearby Bukowski’s to check it out and then leave and head to the very underrated Other Side Café across Boylston Street. Always an outlier in the Boston beer scene, the Other Side has long offered a small but interesting range of craft beers in a hipster but pleasant atmosphere. Solid lineup of food, heavy on veggie-friendly options. Now under new management by the former owner of The Moan & Dove and Dirty Truth beer bars in Western Mass.

South of Boston

Doyle’s Cafe, 3484 Washington Street, Jamaica Plain

    -A necessary stop if you’re a lover of old-time neighborhood bars, interested in either Boston or brewing history (of which it has plenty on the walls), or just enjoy a great barroom. A classic piece of the city’s history. Near the Boston Beer Company’s JP brewery.

Cambridge

Cambridge Common, 1667 Mass. Avenue, Between Harvard Square and Porter Square

    -Don’t let the Common’s inexplicably modest rating (B+) on BeerAdvocate fool you. It’s actually one of the area’s best, no-BS beer bars. Run by two great beer loving ladies, Suzanne and Kate, the Common plays host to more beer events than any other beer bar I can think of in the Boston area. Several of the 30 taps turn over on a regular basis and there is always just the right balance between local and faraway beers, of a range of styles. A look at the beer prices might have you believing that it’s 1995 all over again. The glasses, however, are an ounce or two short of a full pint, which is no problem considering the prices. One word of advice, however: be sure to ask for a room temperature glass as the bartenders are often a little quick to pour your beautiful beer into a frozen glass.

Charlie’s Kitchen and Red House, Harvard Square

    -Two polar opposite operations owned by the same people. Charlie’s is the square’s popular dive bar, but with some good beer on tap. Lots of atmosphere and cheap food here. Charlie’s opened an excellent patio that may be open during your visit. Around the corner, the Red House is an upscale eatery with a really nice, cozy bar. The Red House’s bar offers a half-dozen well-chosen taps that often include some eccentric offerings.

Atwood’s Tavern, 877 Cambridge Street, Inman Square

    -Several blocks outside of hip Inman Square and a shorter walk from Cambridge Brewing, Atwood’s is a cozy pub with good food, lots of live music (no cover), and a healthy selection of craft beers. A little out of the way, the pub is an enjoyable place for a pint and a meal.

Plough and Stars, 912 Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square

    -Not much on good beer but a great old barroom/Irish pub. Worth a visit for a Mass Ave pub crawl between Harvard and Central.

People’s Republik, 880 Massachusetts Avenue, Central Square

    -Another good stop on that Mass Ave pub crawl, the faux-Communist People’s
    Republik (great exterior painting) is actually a good place to find some unusual New England beers on tap, including Magic Hat offerings.

Christopher’s, 1920 Massachusetts Avenue, Porter Square

    -Mainly a restaurant but also with an unusually diverse tap list of 24 beers. There are many average mainstays here but also finds, such as Kentucky Breakfast Stout. Samplers are available.

There are a few dozen other places that could certainly make this non-comprehensive list but this is a pretty good start, considering the limited time you may have to explore the city. For those of you staying downtown, escape to Cambridge or at least the Back Bay. And definitely stop by Jake’s or Doyle’s for a truer Boston experience than you can find in some Cheers-wannabe, prefab tourist trap.

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The Massachusetts Brewers Guild’s ‘UltiMAte’ Beer Dinner…

I’ve received several notices in the last few weeks about an upcoming event hosted by the Massachusetts Brewers Guild. The Guild, which is an organization that began operations in early 2008, is comprised of more than twenty Bay State breweries and brewpubs and is designed to help promote the efforts of local craft brewers.

While the Guild has been pretty quiet for the past year, having held some meetings and done a little public outreach, its efforts appear to be ramping up. The Guild’s website is a little sparse right now but it does contain some information about its first big event. On February 28th, the Guild will hold a beer dinner at The Exchange Conference Center near the Harpoon Brewery in Boston. The event will include several limited release beers (maybe even Harpoon’s new UFO White?), a beer sampling hour with hors d’oeuvres, and a four-course meal with beer pairings.

While I certainly applaud the formation and development of the Guild and support its mission, it’s difficult to tell who the organization is targeting with its first major event. At $125 per person and with business casual attire recommended, this can hardly be considered an effort to appeal to the general public. The price for the event, with the modest details presented to date, seems extraordinarily high, even before recalling the poor present state of the economy (multiples higher than Extreme Beer Festival ticket prices and even higher than the $95 wallop that gets you a ticket to the SAVOR event in D.C.). Perhaps the event will serve as a fundraiser for some other needy organization (other than the Guild itself), I cannot yet say. More likely, there will be a few comped tickets handed out and a lot of wholesalers and retailers chatting each other up with their respective brands in hand.

With this said, I look forward to hearing more about the event and how the Guild plans to promote craft beer and craft brewers in the Commonwealth (especially whether it plans to produce a guide to state breweries, as has been done successfully by many other city and state brewers guilds).

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Harpoon Brews Up A Blue Moon Killer…

I recently received word through sort of an unusual but reliable back channel that the Harpoon Brewery was planning to brew a new beer. The project is apparently of a very hush-hush nature at the Boston brewery. A new 100 Barrel series or Leviathan release you might ask? Nope. After years of being battered in the local market by the wildfire growth of the Blue Moon Belgian White (or “Blue Moon by Coors/MolsonCoors/MillerCoors” if you’re down with the Brewers Association’s quiet PR campaign), the folks at Harpoon have decided to expand their UFO line to include another beer: UFO White. Details surrounding the beer remain very sketchy as news of the beer was not meant for public release quite yet. I imagine you’ll be seeing this beer pushed very hard on draft in the local Boston market in an attempt to retake some of the omni-present Blue Moon handles secured by Coors.

Now, I’m pretty much on record in support of the development and promotion of Blue Moon by the Coors people. While not the most flavorful beer I’ve ever had, I think Blue Moon is a reliable choice when in a pinch at a chain restaurant and it has contributed to expanding the reach of better beer into demographics where it hasn’t previously succeeded. I’ve also been supportive of how Coors has chosen to treat and promote the brand, say in contrast to the efforts of Anheuser-Busch related to its “faux-craft” products.

With this said, Harpoon’s decision to brew this beer in an attempt to compete head-to-head with the Blue Moon juggernaut couldn’t have been an easy one. I imagine the sales meetings at Harpoon in Boston must have devolved into grumbles about how Blue Moon has been kicking the UFO brand’s butt in local bars and restaurants.

First developed and released in 1998, Harpoon’s UFO Hefeweizen was apparently inspired “by the cloudy beers drank in many German beer gardens.” While German hefeweizens (in their most popular style) are distinguished by their fruity/clovey/banana-y flavors and aromas, UFO ‘Hefeweizen’ is not really a hefe at all. Instead, the UFO lead product is actually an American-style wheat beer, one of the few global beer styles (perhaps the only one) that I personally find little to no redeeming value in. So take my criticism of the brand with that grain of salt in mind. To Harpoon’s credit, the brewery has never claimed (beyond the product’s name) to have brewed a traditional hefeweizen. And despite my lack of fondness for the brand, UFO has proven popular with drinkers and spawned a local “1-2 punch,” along with the Harpoon IPA. Harpoon’s sales staff could sell both products, side-by-side, each complementing the other and without any real competition between the brands.

Enter the Harpoon White. As I said, Harpoon’s decision to release this beer is a little risky if for no other reason than the very real fear of brand cannibalization. I think consumer’s are going to have a difficult time distinguishing between the brands (except perhaps by a lemon versus an orange garnishment, if Harpoon follows the presentation model perfected by Coors and Blue Moon). Even if the products taste very different (no easy feat when you’re trying to keep a broad appeal among your target audience here), the White inevitably will cannibalize some of the UFO Hefeweizen’s market presence and brand share. I haven’t seen any recent numbers on the brand, but Harpoon may have decided that the UFO Hefeweizen’s numbers, if dwindling or growing only slowly, may be worth sacrificing if a witbier product can cut into Blue Moon’s substantial success.

Another odd turn here is the irony of the situation. After several years where America’s largest breweries were trying to recreate the efforts (and thereby the success) of craft brewers, we now have a craft brewer trying to emulate the successful efforts of one of the world’s largest brewers. That’s quite a compliment for the folks at Coors…

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Carlson Craft Brewery of Connecticut Closes…

Chalk one up in the “we hardly knew ye” column as one of New England’s newest craft breweries has closed its operations after less than a year in business.

Carlson Craft Brewery has closed. We are another victim of the bad economy. The holiday season was bad for us. In fact, it was our worst month ever, even worse than our first month. So much for the holiday bump. The cost of doing business has only been going up and the break even point kept going up. We were also having a problem with our location and decided not to sign a new lease, plus there were a couple of personal reasons. So it all came together like the perfect storm and we decided to close at the end of December.

I want to thank everyone who supported us by buying our beer and the stores and restaurants who carried our beer. I enjoyed meeting with with all of you at various events and at the brewery. There is still beer out there if you want to get some before it is all gone. It may even become a collector’s item.

Thanks again everyone, and let me know of anybody who needs a brewer in southern Connecticut.

I had contact with Andrew Carlson a few times over the last several years and followed his slow progress to opening. The initial results of his efforts, by all reports I had heard, we’re very positive. I’m sorry to have never had the chance to try his beers and wish him the best in his future endeavors. Take a look at the brewery’s website for more information.

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