Beyond the larger breweries, smaller producers, often run by a single person or a small team, quietly focus on producing quality beers far from the limelight. There is no money for promotions and the owners and brewers personally work events and visit accounts in order to promote the brands
Several of these breweries only recently entered the Massachusetts marketplace and each is striving to get its story out there.
For this Six-pack of Local Breweries, I visit one-man operations, contract breweries, and some small craft breweries. Each of the breweries profiled here is distinctive, either for focusing on a specific style of beer, for their diminutive size, for their limited focus on producing a single beer.
FRANCONIA NOTCH BREWING COMPANY
Run single-handedly by brewer and owner John Wolfenberger, this brewery is a true marvel. In the modern age of craft brewing, brewers throw around phrases like "brewed by hand" and "hand crafted" to such an extent as to render them nearly meaningless. While it remains true that the brewing systems used by craft brewers pale in comparison to the industrial monsters in operation in macro-brewing facilities, the process hardly resembles anything you would qualify as hand crafted.
Regardless of your definition of handcrafted, there can be no argument about the setup at the Franconia Notch Brewing Company. Inside, the environs are so seriously cramped that many of the brewing implements, including the auger and the wort chiller, are suspended from the ceiling. With a brewery he built himself, there is very little automation. Without the benefit of electronic arms, Wolfenberger stirs the mash himself. Without the benefit of assistants or employees, Wolfenberger is a one-man brewery.
While Franconia Notch offers only a small portfolio of beers, Wolfenberger has strict rules he applies to the production of his beers. His two dueling flagship beers, the Grail Pale Ale and River Driver Ale, are straightforward interpretations of English-style ales. All of his beers remain unfiltered and manage to meet both the strict requirements of the German Purity Law and the standards to qualify as real ale. With the influence of his London days continually weighing on his mind, Wolfenberger also remains steadfastly dedicated to producing cask-conditioned ales.
Franconia Notch's Grail Pale Ale is a curious offering. The beer pours with a luminous orange color and offers an aroma of tangy citrus, reserved hops and lightly toasted malts. The flavor of this classic British-style ale is quite complex and a little hard to place. It's a pleasing mix of biscuity malt flavors and lightly bitter hops that slowly build into more pronounced bitterness in the beer's long finish.
TUCKERMAN BREWING COMPANY
Tuckerman produces only one beer on a regular basis, the enigmatic Tuckerman Pale Ale. The challenging and curious flavor profile of this beer draws influence from a variety of brewing methods - part ale and part lager, the pale ale confounds as it pleases. In its few, short years of existence, Tuckerman's Pale Ale has developed a cult following for quality and a reputation that comes from its limited distribution.
In the welcoming embrace of Conway, NH, and the White Mountains, Nik and Kirsten Stanciu decided to open their own small business. They quickly focused on starting their own brewery and immediately started writing a business plan and homebrewing test batches. During their experiments, Nik and Kirsten scored good results brewing a crossbreed product. Borrowing from many disciplines, the flagship pale ale is a curious take on the American pale ale style. The style-bending recipe uses English and Belgian specialty malts and four varieties of whole leaf hops, including American Cascade, British Goldings, and two secret varieties, one of which may be German Hallertau.
In an unusual twist on the common ale brewing method, the brewers lager the beer for a week at 32 degrees in horizontal conditioning tanks and dry-hop it again with whole leaf hops. When the Tuckerman Pale Ale is ready for packaging, the brewers inject a small amount of fermenting wort with German lager yeast into the finished beer to provide a secondary fermentation that naturally carbonates the beer. The resulting product is a dull, straw color, and possesses a slightly tangy aroma mixing citrus and wheat notes. The flavor remains dry and wheaty, revealing a mild, apricot fruitiness as it warms.
In contrast to the approach of the majority of craft brewers, Tuckerman has focused its efforts on promoting a single product from its earliest days. While the first plan included the Headwall Alt as the second offering, the popularity of the Tuckerman Pale Ale, which accounts for nearly 1OO percent of the company's business, precluded any real push for the sibling brand.
CAPE ANN BREWING COMPANY
The joint effort of brothers-in-law Michael Beaton and Jeremy Goldberg, the Cape Ann Brewing Company is one of the newer production breweries profiled in this article. Located in the heart of Gloucester, behind Beaton's real estate office, the brewery draws upon the town's rich heritage and connection with the sea. From the packaging materials, to the logo and the name of the flagship beer, Cape Ann Brewing closely associates itself with the local fishing industry and its courageous tradesmen.
Both Beaton and Goldberg arrived at the idea of opening a microbrewery by very different avenues. As a local businessman, Beaton believed Cape Ann, and specifically Gloucester, deserved its own beer. When Beaton purchased a building in downtown Gloucester, he knew that it would be the perfect place for a small brewery. Though he had the idea in mind, Beaton never acted upon it.
At the opposite end of the Atlantic seaboard, Goldberg was developing his own interest in good beer. Along with four friends, Goldberg participated in a quirky project that allowed him to visit 38 breweries in 4O days in a minivan. Captured on film, the beer adventure was chronicled in the documentary American Beer, produced and directed by Paul Kermizian. Departing from New York City in June 2OO2, the group traveled over 12,OOO miles drinking their way across America. Along the way, the cast met with and interviewed many of the pioneers and leading proponents of the craft beer movement, including Ken Grossman of the Sierra Nevada Brewing Company, Sam Calagione of the Dogfish Head Craft Brewing Brewing, and Fritz Maytag of the Anchor Brewing Company. Goldberg features prominently in the movie, taking part in some disturbing, yet hysterical moments and providing great comic relief.
After he completed the journey, Goldberg returned to Massachusetts and started talking about beer. When he admitted that he was intrigued by the idea of owning his own brewery, Beaton revealed his own thoughts on the subject. The partners eventually combined efforts to bring life to their respective ideas. The resulting product, the Fisherman's Brew, is an American Amber Lager brewed literally steps away from America's oldest seaport. The initial batches of this lager released right after the brewery opened were surprisingly fruity and almost resembled an American wheat beer. Latter releases have shown more consistency, with a mild caramel malt flavor mixed with touches of toasted sweetness.
NASHOBA VALLEY WINERY
With all of the attractions at the Nashoba Valley Winery estate, too few people note the little barn off to the side of the main shop and restaurant. Just beyond the simple exterior, the structure is home to Nashoba's own brewery. Amid the beauty of the estate, the winery and the new distillery, the brewery has been relegated to suffering the fate of the oft-neglected middle child. The system is manned by Ben Roesch, an intense guy with a resolute dedication to craft beer. A local, Roesch previously worked at the Wachusett Brewing Company and as the assistant brewer at the Cambridge Brewing Company before securing the head brewer position here.
While reserved on the outside, Roesch is a bit of a rebel on the inside. A while back, Nashoba was invited to attend a Boston beer festival focusing on extreme beers. While other breweries started dry-hopping their regular offerings with ungodly amounts of hops or throwing their beers into a whiskey barrel in order to make them extreme, Roesch went medieval on it all. Literally. Instead of simply tweaking a house recipe, Roesch decided to recreate an ale as it would have tasted in the late 13th Century. While modern ales ferment and condition an average of two weeks before consumption, Roesch brewed his Medieval Ale a mere five days before the festival. As historic ales were made solely from grain, water and yeast, Roesch added no hops to his beer. Without any natural or artificial preservatives, the beers were designed for near immediate consumption. The resulting ale was disturbingly murky, smelled like A-1 Steak Sauce, and was not particularly palatable. Roesch himself admitted that the beer was beyond its prime by the time he served it at the fest. Despite its deficiencies in the taste department, I give the brewer credit for having the guts and creativity to create such an unusual beer.
Beyond his occasional experimentation, Roesch plans to reconnect the brewery and the estate by using some of its fruits in his future releases. He hopes to cultivate some wood barrels to lay down a wheat beer on top of 3O pounds of locally grown peaches. He plans to inoculate the beer with a commercially available lambic yeast strain to create a distinctive, traditional fruit beer.
BUZZARDS BAY BREWING COMPANY
When the Russell family, owner's of the Westport Rivers winery, purchased a nearby 14O acre farm, they were toying with the idea of opening their own brewery. The Russell's originally intended Buzzard's Bay to function as an ale brewery. Within two years, a lager product started gaining headway as the brewery's flagship product, a position it maintains to this day. Before too long however, the brewery was offering eight different beers. Buzzard's Bay soon thereafter scaled back its offerings and focused on pushing the lager product. The decision paid off as the brewery won a gold medal in the European Style Pilsner category at the 2OOO Great American Beer Festival.
This future of this brewery tucked away in southern Massachusetts remains in flux. The brewery recently 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. The resulting products, which included a Vienna Lager, and India Pale Lager, and a Pilsner, 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, is now pulling double-duty as head of the brewery. There is also late word that Buzzards Bay is considering an all-lager format, which would make it the only such brewery (besides Anheuser-Busch) in all of New England.
It remains to be seen where the next few years will take Buzzard's Bay. With its over-sized 5O-barrel brewing system, it doesn't take long to churn out 5OOO barrels of Buzzard's Bay beer. In order to keep the system running, Buzzard's Bay has taken to contract brewing for other smaller operations, including Cisco Brewers and the Coastal Extreme Brewing Company. There is also talk of brewing some specialty releases, including classic German lager varieties. Now that's something I would raise a pint to.
COASTAL EXTREME BREWING COMPANY
Operating as Rhode Island's only craft brewery, Coastal Extreme is actually an amazing story. Run by four young friends, Brent Ryan, Mark Sinclair, Derek Luke and Will Rafferty, who met while attending Colby College, the partners raised money from family and friends and opened their brewery. What remains amazing is that not one of them had a single moment of experience in the beer industry. All four of the owners graduated with degrees in science, though Ryan also has a mathematical economics degree. What they lack in experience, the founders make up for sheer pluck. They entered the notoriously capital intensive industry at a time when other breweries were starting to close.
While at first the whole story sounds like a scenario destined to end badly, upon closer inspection Coastal Extreme is no fly-by-night operation. The guys made some smart initial decisions that saved them a lot of troubles. First, they carefully researched where to open their brewery. When they saw that Mainers and Rhode Islanders drank nearly the same amount of beer, they were intrigued. When they found out that Maine had almost 2O microbreweries, while Rhode Island had none, they were sold. Newport was an obvious choice and one that has served the founders well. While none are native to the state, they knew that consumers love to partake in local products, especially those associated with popular vacation destinations. While the Coastal Extreme name plays off their personal philosophies of living full lives, the Newport Storm brand is the one they push in public.
Once a week, the team pulls the brewing equivalent of an all-nighter by producing six batches back-to-back. The monster, 36-hour brewing process lasts from Tuesday morning until Wednesday night. Despite the wild name, the brewery's business operations are actually quite measured. In their brewery just outside of Newport, the founders produce mainly draft beer, along with limited numbers of cans, for their accounts, while contracting out the space-intensive bottling operation to a bigger brewery.