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.

Be Social:

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: