A Few Thoughts On 2008, 2009, And The Future Of Beer In Boston..

I know that things here have been quiet over the last few months, with an average of 2 or 3 posts per month and usually just reprints at that. I’d like to say, with the burgeoning new year in mind, that the volume will likely increase here. I can’t. While I have certainly enjoyed covering topics that would otherwise elude popular press publication, for instance several rants on price increases (will be covered again in an upcoming issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine) and profiling great local beer makers, I have to admit that I still find “blogging” a little self-indulgent. Someone recently suggested to me that I consider opening a Twitter account so that readers could follow my beer travels. Beyond my firm belief that people could care less where someone else such as myself is at any given moment, I can’t quite get beyond the self-indulgence of it all. So until I figure out how to better monetize this whole operation, I have to remain firmly in the camps that the “only reason for being a professional writer is that you can’t help it” and that tapping away here doesn’t pay the bills.

With that said, I expect 2009 will be a good year for beer writing and I have one large and a few small projects in the works for the new year that I look forward to completing.

I was reading my father’s copy of the Wall Street Journal this past week and it had a selection of famous and not-so-famous individuals giving their respective takes on their plans for the upcoming new year. In one of the blurbs, high wire artist Philippe Petit said something to the effect that his hopes, dreams, and wishes weren’t based on numbers on a calendar but about the fancy filling his heart on a particular day or even moment. While admirable, the end of the year offers people a rhythmic opportunity to routinely reflect on and reconsider their stations in life.

For the purposes of this site, I’ll keep my focus local on Boston and New England. I hope for the following things in the new year:

    -The opening of a new Boston area brewery focusing on smaller batch specialty beers of any variety. Having considered the efforts and successes of operations such as Surly Brewing in Minneapolis, I’m certain that this area is just begging for an upstart little brewery to come in and shake up the local scene. Just as there is plenty of room in Minnesota for both Summit and Surly to do business, and that any inclination on Summit’s part to rest on its laurels was chopped away by Surly’s emergence, the Harpoon Brewery could use some local competition to spice up and round out the local scene.

    -A Belgian beer bar and gastropub to open in the Boston area. Having traveled to a dozen or more countries in the last five years, I’ve been amazed at just how far the Belgian beer phenomenon has grown. I’ve seen Belgian restaurants, complete with solid beer selections everywhere from Australia to Japan and placed in-between. And while Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, New York, and other major American cities have at least one solid offering, Boston does not (beyond the Publick House, which is not a Belgian gastropub in its essence). As food and imported beer friendly a city as Boston is, this is a glaring absence.

    -For Paul Davis (formerly of Troutbrook/Thomas Hooker and Castle Springs) to finally get his damned lager brewery open in New Hampshire near his old stomping grounds at Castle Springs. I mean c’mon man, I’ve had to import cases of quality pils and dunkel from Pennsylvania to bide my time. I’m just hoping he hasn’t changed his concept to British session ales…

    -For Redbones to rebalance the price of its portfolio of beers. While the staff exodus and purported growing pains that sent trembles of fear into longtime regulars has generally subsided and the selection has vastly improved over early this year, prices remain substantially out of whack. While consumers understand that some contributing factors certainly have led to increased prices, Bones’ prices have grown out of whack with other similar beer bars. We regulars would like to stop by twice a week not every other month and we definitely don’t want to have to check the menu before ordering, only to find out we selected a $6 or $7 pint.

    -For local beer bars and brewpubs to offer more specialty events for smaller audiences. I’m also impressed with single varietal events elsewhere in America, from fresh hop fests to IPA and stout events to the barrel aged fest in Chicago. While I enjoy moderating panels at the BeerAdvocate events, the conviviality experienced at the smaller events, such as NERAX, is something I’d like to see more of.

    -Speaking of NERAX…I’d like to see NERAX get a new home and a greater sense of organization and direction. While I respect the atmosphere the organizers have long tried to maintain, it’s been clear since about 2002 that NERAX has vastly outgrown the Dilboy. Add to that incredibly long lines and wildly late opening times and it’s a surprise consumers still come back (I tried on the first night and skipped the rest of the fest). The NERAX North event, from word of mouth, shows that the Dilboy is not some magical place where real ale comes to live out its glory days. I’m not saying you need to rent out the convention center but how about a place that can actually accommodate the 50-100 extra people who would like to visit each night?

Until these things happen (and I start posting with more regularity), I’d like to highlight two quality sites I spent some time with this year. Beernews.org is an attractive site that is replete with information every ticking beer geek, myself included sometimes, could ever pine for. In the opposite direction, Stan Hieronymus and his family, theslowtravelers.org, left the comforts of home behind to travel across the country and then the Atlantic to trek the world in their RV. Although I don’t believe that I’ve ever actually met Stan, I’ve enjoyed tagging along on his family’s follies from Anchorage to Croatia and back again.

A Happy New Year to you and cheers to good beer in 2009…

Be Social:

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.

Be Social:

A Brief Recap and Review of the 2008 Great American Beer Festival…

The annual Great American Beer Festival has just concluded another eventful run in Denver and I just returned back to Boston after an early morning flight. During the trip, I spent time in both Colorado Springs and Denver, with attendance at two of the 27th annual festival’s sessions. This year’s incarnation continued to build upon the event’s successful history, if with some troubles. There is no question that with more than 2000 beers available on the floor from more than 450 breweries, the GABF remains an impressive logistical undertaking and a feat of coordination. This year’s event sold out for the second straight time and did so two weeks before the opening session. With all of its success, the festival stumbled in one critical area: crowd management. In giving access to the 46,000 people who attended the event, several thousand were forced to stand in line for more than an hour before entering the festival. Inside the convention hall, the festival was packed, even during the normally light Thursday session. Despite its gains, the GABF may have reached its tipping point in terms of population.

The festival gives attendees, especially those in the industry, an unparalleled opportunity to hob-knob with other beer lovers, brewers, and pub owners and this year didn’t disappoint. For those interested, there were countless side events and late-nights at the GABF’s unofficial headquarters at the Falling Rock. For my part, I especially enjoyed meeting Don Younger and getting to spend some time with my old friend Toshi Ishii of Japan (and England, Norway, and countless other brewing locales).

Beyond the usual events and overwhelming number of beers present, the festival this year appeared to lack a bit of the enthusiasm and sense of wonder that it has in the past. It’s a bit hard to put your finger on exactly the cause, be it the down economy or some other reason. In any event, brewers were in shorter supply at their tables and in attendance during the event itself than in years past. The focal point of the week appears to have shifted away from the convention floor itself and into the city and state more generally.

Without question, where the brewers left off, the burgeoning new media picked up. Bloggers were omni-present, with many reporting directly from the festival floor or the adjacent media room. For those who weren’t able to attend the event, you could read near-contemporaneous accounts from a wide variety of sources. I was particularly impressed with Draft Magazine’s work during the event, including its video interviews with a dozen or more brewers and other beer folks directly from the festival floor.

And while I’ll have more on the GABF here and in Beverage Business in the future, including on Anheuser-Busch’s strong specialty releases (excluding its oddly British ‘American Ale’), the Siebel Institute’s sensory evaluation course, and the somewhat surprising announcement of the return of SAVOR, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on the event. By the numbers, the BA handed out 222 awards out of more than 2900 beers entered in the competition, rounding out to about 7.5-percent of beers entered picking up a medal. Stop to think about that number for a moment. We often hear beer geeks complain about the GABF and nit-pick particular selections. But in the end, fewer than 1 in 13 beers received a medal and just over 2-percent received the much-coveted gold. When you think about the breweries that win multiple medals, fest after fest, questions about the judging process have to be laid to rest.

Attendance at the GABF by New England brewers, even where the Brewers Association’s Board of Directors is presently chaired by Rich Doyle, CEO and founder of the region’s largest craft brewery, continues to be poor. Of the 472-plus breweries in attendance, only 16 attended from New England. Of those in attendance, New England brewers managed to take home only 3 GABF medals, with Cambridge Brewing winning a gold in the highly competitive experimental category for its Arquebus, a bronze for Amherst Brewing Company’s Ryeteous Red, and a bronze in the aged beer category for Boston Beer’s Samuel Adams Utopias 2003. All told, New England brewers took home just over 1-percent of the total medals awarded. When you compare that to the impressive showings of a town like Philadelphia, let alone the Mid-Atlantic or California and Colorado regions, and New England’s performance is very disappointing.

As a final note, I want to extend congratulations to the winners of the Brewers Association’s Michael Jackson Beer Journalism Awards, including Lew Bryson in the Trade and Specialty Beer Media category. While I personally disagree with journalists participating in the awards, Lew is a good and thorough writer and I look forward to reading his winning piece.

Be Social:

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.

Be Social:

The New England Beer Rumor Mill Swirls…New beer bars in Boston, Lowell Beer Works, and A Shelton Goes AWOL

What follows is a host of smaller news items that I haven’t been able to fit into any particular place so I’ve decided to place this here until I can offer further follow-up and detail.

One Shelton Gets High and Mighty

Word is that one of the founders of Shelton Brothers has left his day job at the beer importing business. After years of helping his brother Dan scour the Earth in search of beer gems to bring back to the United States, younger (and handsomer to hear him tell it) brother Will Shelton started part-timing his own beer operations. Will started the High and Mighty Brewing Company, a contract brewery through which he brews under agreement at the Paper City Brewery in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Paper City, which is contained in the same building as the Sheltons’ importing business, allows Will to brew his company’s beers on its system and then separately market and distribute them. Will’s first four beers include Beer of the Gods, Two-headed Beast, Saint Hubbins, and XPA. After splitting his time between the two operations, Will reportedly has decided to focus his efforts full time on the High and Mighty brewing business.

The Lowell Brew Works Adds To The Empire

After languishing for years under a number of identities, including some time as the home of the Concord(e) (Junction) Brewery (Brewing Company), the Brewery Exchange building of Lowell is now in the process of transitioning into the newest outlet of the Boston Beer Works chain of brewpubs. The Slesar Bros. Brewing Company (now minus brother Steve) is presently interviewing staff for the new location. Owner Joe Slesar informed me via email that the Lowell location was expected to take ownership of a new 40 barrel DME brewhouse. The former brewery’s equipment was removed and shipped to another brewery out-of-state. According to a request made to a local licensing board, Lowell Beer Works plans to take over approximately 2700 square feet of dining space on the second floor of the structure, which used to house various entertainment venues such as a dance and comedy club.

Although the brewery would not confirm it, a 40 barrel system is substantially larger than its other operations and is likely too large to simply cover the Lowell location. With a system that size, it’s likely that the Lowell Beer Works may brew beer for its other operations, including its new tap room at Logan Airport. This may also give the brewpub chain the opportunity to reclaim production of its IPA, which has been contracted out to Mercury Brewing on the North Shore for a few months.

Boston Area Beer Bar Buzz

The worst kept secrets in the Boston beer gossip world are that the owners of two of the state’s most popular beer bars have long been looking to expand their operations.

Daniel Lanigan, proprietor of the Moan & Dove of Amherst and the Dirty Truth of Northampton has long wanted to return to the Boston market and open his own place. A former worker at the under-appreciated Other Side Café in Boston’s Copley/Mass Ave district, Lanigan loved the location. For a few months, he was in negotiations to either purchase or takeover the Other Side Café and transform it into his third beer bar. The deal fell through early this Spring and Lanigan wasted no time in looking for a new spot. The rumors report now, entirely unconfirmed by this presently lazy reporter, is that Daniel is in negotiations to open his third bar across the river in Cambridge. While I won’t report the name of the rumored takeover target (because I can’t confirm it and because people would likely riot if they knew, how’s that for a tease?), the spot, if it works out, is centrally located (no pun or hint intended).

UPDATE: The location is confirmed and a deal is underway. At the request of Lanigan, I’m still deciding whether to post the name of the place. News of the deal is now the worst kept secret in the gossipy world of the Boston foodie scene as it has gotten back to me through four different sources at this point. In any event, you’ll learn the name soon enough.

In Brookline, David Ciccolo, owner of the Publick House beer bar has been in a tough battle with local regulators over his attempt to secure a license to sell alcohol in his recently opened store, Publick House Provisions. Reports from the front suggest that the state’s alcohol commission plans to issue the license but no decision on the owner’s appeal has yet been made public.

Ciccolo also recently opened up to Beverage Magazine (for which I write; this wasn’t my piece) about his plans to open a barbeque restaurant near the Publick House.

“We’ve taken over this entire building – 7OOO square feet – to open up a restaurant and gourmet beer store. Roadhouse Craft Beer and BBQ is a Texas barbecue restaurant featuring authentic pit-smoked barbecue and grilled fish. Here’s our two and a half ton cast-iron smoker; our chef found some good people to build it on a research trip to Texas. There’s where the butcher shop will be. Out the back will be Road House Catering, and all to-go foods will pass through this take-out window. High top tables will be over here. American craft beers with 4O draft lines (minimal bottles) will be the focus, unlike The Publick House’s 25O bottles.?

In an entertaining interview, Ciccolo also takes a moment to explain why the Publick House doesn’t sell any Harpoon products.

“Harpoon IPA was being made by Todd Mott as a summer seasonal. We’d wait every year with baited breath for that fantastic hop monster! Since then it’s been dumbed down, much to the disappointment of us hopheads.?

Over the years, they’ve honed their list to the best of the best. “Now we’re getting really picky,? says Ciccolo with a straight face. “We’ll work only with serious brewers, not companies moving boxes. We don’t carry Lindemans any more, and that’s saying something. I just couldn’t do it. You open one up and you smell that syrup and extract. We don’t carry Harpoon beer anymore, but their cider is one of the best. It breaks my heart that my backyard brewery won’t quite take the plunge into assertive, full-flavored beers. I only want them to make something good and flavorful and we’d love to carry it.?

Ouch…maybe Dave will like the new Leviathan line

There is much more to report on the New England beer scene, including the reported opening of a couple new brewing operations and an explosion of beer bars in Portland, Maine, a city that is arguably the best for beer in the region. But that’ll have to wait for the next edition of the rumor mill…

Be Social: