As the brewing industry in New England continues to grow and mature, a series of events have grown up to support the industry. In a recent stretch, the Boston-area saw several major beer festivals worthy of reporting.
BOSTON BEER SUMMIT
For its fourth annual event, this festival grew to four sessions spread over three days. Held at the Castle at Park Plaza in downtown Boston, the Boston Beer Summit featured a range of beers from domestic and international brewers.
In its first year, the Boston Beer Summit proved itself a beacon for the renewal of craft brewing. Brewers attending the event gave off a palpable sense of excitement, and the wide selection of products available for sampling was unparalleled in the region. New England craft brewers proudly presented their best offerings, serving up samples of rare treats for beer lovers. One particular importer warmly greeted attendees with bottles of expensive lambic not yet available in the United States. My notes from the event were expansive and it left me with high hopes for future festivals.
The Boston Beer Summit's subsequent incarnations, however, have failed to live up to the lofty standard set by the first festival. This is not to say that the festival is not an important part of the city's brewing scene - it simply notes that the excitement for the event has waned. Fewer brewery representatives were in attendance, new or special offerings were scarce, and the attendees tended towards the drunker element rather than the beer enthusiast.
This year's Summit did produce a few notable experiences. Making its debut at the festival was the Cape Cod Beer Company and its two offerings, the Channel Marker Red and the Sharkstooth IPA. Born from the location of the recently closed Hyannisport Brewing Company, the seven-barrel brewery is now a package-only facility. Founded by Todd Marcus, former brewer at the Hyannisport Brewing Company, Cape Cod Beer distributes its beer to local bars and restaurants on the Cape, and produces 64-ounce growlers for sale at the brewery.
While it is always difficult to assess the quality of a beer in the context of a beer festival, I had a chance to sample Marcus' two offerings. The Channel Marker Red is a straightforward amber beer with mildly astringent flavors. The absence of a substantial malt backbone causes the beer to lack structure and it devolves into some messy flavors. Despite the extremely cold serving temperature, the Sharkstooth IPA seems to be a solid product. It offers a tangible but not overpowering hop bite and finishes with some earthy flavors.
The Boston Beer Summit also served as the setting for another highly anticipated beer launch. The crew at Brewery Ommegang released their Ommegang Witte Ale, a Belgian-style wheat ale brewed in time for summer enjoyment. The beer is a welcomed domestic challenger to the widely available Hoegaarden white beer. My initial tasting in the serving conditions of the festival was mixed. The beer possesses all of the eye-catching qualities of the style, with a luminous, cloudy and off-yellow color, and attractive, bulbous white head. The aroma is too delicate to enjoy at a festival, but it includes some light citrusy notes. With subsequent tastings, the Witte is a not a stunner in terms of flavor, but instead a soft, quietly complex beer ready made for summer. With the Witte's $4 to $5 retail price for a 750 milliliter bottle, Brewery Ommegang continues to demonstrate its considerable abilities to produce flavorful, Belgian-style ales at reasonable price points.
At the festival, I also spoke with Mike Labbe of the Concorde Brewery, which is now located in the Brewery Exchange complex in Lowell. Overall, he seems pleased with the move after a tumultuous year of fighting to stay alive. Along with Concorde's line of beers, Mike is also brewing for the Brewhouse Cafe, which is next to the package facility. Concorde recently released an oatmeal stout on draft and on cask. On cask, the beer is big in flavor with deep layers, ranging from light smokiness, to creamy hints, and finishing with deeper, roasted malts.
To my surprise, Concorde plans to continue the Rapscallion line of beers created by former brewer Dann Paquette. Labbe reports that Concorde plans to take the brands to the Connecticut market, along with adding new beers to the specialty portfolio. Labbe is presently formulating a sour beer for release in caged 750 milliliter bottles. The brewery expects to produce a respectable 4000 barrels this year. Though not inked yet, Labbe also expressed excitement about landing a contract with Joe Zadrozny, formerly of the Z Street Brewing Company, to bottle his beers.
The festival also offered me the opportunity to meet Matthew Steinberg from Offshore Ales on Martha's Vineyard. This little Cape brewpub is taking big strides with its Offshore Amber ale, with expansion throughout Massachusetts and plans for Rhode Island and Connecticut. Steinberg offered up a surprise bottle of his reserve Scotch ale, which had spent some time in whiskey barrels. The beer was full of wood-aged character and a nice balancing malt base.
Finally, I stopped by the Stawski Imports booth and sampled the Uteno Baltic Porter. While far from the great examples of the style, the Uteno is a solid offering. I spoke with one of the Stawksi representatives about the sad demise of the company's Okocim Porter, the standard bearer in the Baltic porter style. When I spoke to the company a few months back about the brand, the news was very dire. A source at Stawski told me that production costs coupled with the parent company's (Carlsberg acquired a greater share of the company in December 2002) desire to focus on higher selling products brought this classic to its end. "I understand people, breweries, want to make beer that sells," said the representative. "But Okocim Porter is not Miller, or Zywiec for that matter. It appeals to a select few, it's a treat, it's something special, it's not the next Corona."
Despite a tough market for super-niche import products, the Stawski staff has not given up on the brand. "I myself wanted to start a petition somehow to let the brewery know that the people want it and the category of Baltic Porters needs it around to secure the standard of what a Baltic porter should be," said the representative.
After speaking with Lee Dancer, the Chain Account Executive for Stawski, there appears to be a glimmer of hope for the Okocim brand. She informs me that her company plans to send some representatives to Europe soon to attempt to convince the company to revive the brand.
ART of BEER FESTIVAL
Back for its second year, the Art of Beer Festival, presented by BeerAdvocate.com, solidified its role as one of America's major beer festivals. Combining a jaw-dropping list of rare or specialty beers with a rousing list of speakers, the festival seeks to improve upon the traditional festival model. "Attendees and brewers are getting tired of the same old BS at some of these so-called beer festivals that are merely mega-drunken-fests looking to cash in on the beer industry," said a news release from Todd Alstrom, co-founder of Beeradvocate.com, in his usual brutally honest and bombastic style. "Our fests create relaxed environments where attendees can truly learn more about beer, talk with brewers and other beer enthusiasts, and most importantly, help support the craft beer community."
On a painfully beautiful day in Boston, brewers, importers, authors, and enthusiasts leisurely mingled in the pleasant confines of the Cyclorama. The booths were well-attended by informed brewery representatives, and they spent a good part of the eight-hour festival interacting with their customers and fans.
Even in the face of the impressive selection of beers, it is the AOBF's speaker series which sets it apart from other events. The list included brewers talking about resurrecting eclectic and nearly extinct styles, brewery owners talking about the future of the industry, and authors talking about their love of German lagers. Beyond the typical beer talk, the series also offered several attempts at experimental performance art. Bob Johnson and Alan Newman told the story of their Magic Hat Brewing Company in a lengthy performance poem highlighted by a slide show.
To cap the evening session, Sam Calagione and his head brewer at Dogfish Head performed several numbers from their recent beer geek rap album. The group, clad in old school Adidas sneakers and jackets with hats crooked to the side, entertained the crowd with their beer themed raps, all while promoting the company's new product: a 40-ounce, bottle-conditioned malt liquor brewed with three select varieties of corn, all packaged in its own hand-stamped, Dogfish head brown paper bag. Try to find that at the Boston Wine Expo!
Some speakers clearly failed to meet the organizer's stated goal of raising the standing of beer in America. Speaking just 45-minutes into the festival, Boston Beer Company's iconic leader Jim Koch started his speech by noting that he had already had a few beers in preparation. With his trademark bottle of Sam Adams in hand, Koch then launched into a sprawling story about how Boston Beer began, managing references to homosexual pornography and a cat-eating man. While clearly a skilled and entertaining speaker, Koch continues to be a precarious force in the craft beer industry. In an unintentionally humorous aside, Koch took pains to point out how the big breweries damage the reputation of beer in America. Despite his participation in the Opie and Anthony debacle, Koch ironically mocked the big brewer's use of sex to sell beer. In a reference to the popular Coors television ad campaign, Koch said: "There's more to beer than twins - and it's not triplets." While delivering the punch line, Koch sprayed his double bock about the stage in an act of wild gesticulation.
All things considered, this year's attendees thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to sit in a structured beer classroom and learn from major industry voices, including Carol Stoudt and Garret Oliver. The Art of Beer Festival simply offers beer enthusiasts the opportunity to take their appreciation to the next level, without the concern of a festival devolving into a mess of inebriation. Combine the festival's hand-selected stable of beers, the open environment of the Cyclorama, and the opportunity to speak with and learn from brewers and importers, and the Art of Beer Festival continues to set an inspiring model for future beer festivals.
The Cambridge Brewing Company, the Boston-area's oldest brewpub, celebrated its 15th anniversary on May 15 with a packed party that spilled out onto the brewpub's patio. Celebrating over 5,000,000 pints served, the CBC rolled back its prices on its four original beers to 1989 prices, or $2.50 a pint. To help celebrate, brewer Will Meyer broke out 11 other eclectic brews, many from the cellar, for the party.
A strange balance of mildly roasted and tightly sour notes give this beer a strange aroma. The aroma is spot-on for barrel aged beers, with earthy, sweet hints and traces of underlying creaminess and depth. The flavor is actually slightly sour and tannic with less influence from the barrel-aging than expected from the nose.
This Belgian-style dark ale is one of Meyers' best and most challenging creations. It is mind-numbingly complex with a wild array of hard-to-define characters. It plays with all keys -balancing acidity, oakiness, and dull fruit flavors such as cherries and dates. The aroma is rich and full of hot alcohol and the beer manages a slightly tangy and intriguing finish.
Perhaps most fitting for top pint of the night was Meyers' special beer for the occasion, a slightly hopped up ESB. Meyers used Amarillo hops for this brew and there is a mild piney hoppiness throughout. At 4.8 percent alcohol by volume, the Anniversary Ale, served on cask, is a beer with such rich flavors that its low ABV is not the real reason for choosing it as a session beer. Meyers continues to do excellent work in promoting cask ale in America.