Buzzards Bay Brewing: A Lager Experience Seven Years In The Making…

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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.

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

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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.

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The Busy Upcoming Week and Last Minute Great American Beer Festival Thoughts…

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Through a combination of events, things have been very quiet here in recent times (a scant 9 posts in two months or more, and most of that recycled BeerAdvocate Mag articles and columns). My law practice, which is my near full-time profession, has been extraordinarily busy this summer and early fall and it will likely continue for another month before it slows down. Despite all of the long hours, I’ve actually enjoyed the crush of legal work and the interesting issues I’ve been tackling. And last month I was named one of 25 “Up and Coming Lawyers” by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly, a nice acknowledgment of my work on behalf of indigent clients. Despite the crush of legal work, I’ve also spent a fair amount of time on the road this summer. When I wasn’t clocking long hours at the office or in court this summer, I spent nearly a month in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. Add to that the week I enjoyed in San Francisco early this summer, and I’ve spent an unusual amount of time on the West Coast. This has sadly come at the expense of travel through my home region of New England and this will be the first November in a few that I won’t be roaming around Franconia or Wallonia. During my travels, I’ve had the good fortune of meeting some very interesting beer people and exploring the respective brewing and bar scenes of Oregon, Seattle, San Fran, and Alaska. I’ve banked a lot of solid material and interviews (including with Dick Cantwell of Elysian and Geoff Larson of Alaskan) and I hope to find some time to write on these intriguing places.

In a few days, I’ll be off to Denver, with a brief stop in Colorado Springs, for my annual trip to the Great American Beer Festival. The festival has grown at an extraordinary pace in recent years, from a comfortable event in Currigan Hall to a massive beer carnival in the new convention center. The event sold out in record time this year and it promises to be the biggest event yet. And while I perhaps enjoy visiting the fest less than I have in the past, I am curious to see how the Brewers Association handles the growth of their chief money-making machine. I’m interested in seeing just how much Anheuser-Busch pushes its new American Ale, how consumers and industry folks alike respond to it, and whether there are any signs that the Brewers Association, with its stability and growing self-confidence, is preparing to show the big three the door. I’m also interested to see how regional craft beer organizations, including the Philadelphia Beer Week people, promote their local markets at an event more traditionally focused on promoting craft beer as a national product. I’m also looking forward to reconnecting with friends in the beer world from all parts of the United States and abroad.

And with any luck, upon my return I may have a few minutes to actually clear my notebook and write a few posts. Cheers.

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A 2008 Great American Beer Festival Preview…

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The 27th annual Great American Beer Festival will be held October 9-11, 2008, at the Colorado Convention Center in downtown Denver. More than 46,000 beer enthusiasts from around the world will attend the event, where they can enjoy 1969 beers from 432 breweries around the country.

As of this writing just three short weeks out from the festival, the Brewers Association is reporting incredibly robust ticket sales for the sessions. The Thursday night session is 57% sold out, a few tickets remain available at select outlets for the Friday session, the members-only session is sold out, and the dread Saturday evening session is 83% sold.

As I did last year, I wanted to provide attendees and other interested parties with a preview of things to come at this year’s event. As I’ve written elsewhere, my first visit to the GABF had a great influence on my development and interest in craft beer. And it all happened by dumb luck. I was in Denver to visit a friend and on a lark the friend decided to surprise me with tickets to the fest. At the time, I was just beginning to acknowledge and appreciate the difference between certain American beers. Entering the beautiful environs of Currigan Hall (long since replaced with the mildly soulless Colorado Convention Center), I had a transformative experience, the effects of which have lasted to the present day. As much as I enjoy the festival and Denver, I’m having a hard time believing that this will be my thirteenth visit.

GABFThe Brewers Association’s cornerstone event well-serves the general public and generates a huge amount of revenue for the association itself (an issue for another article entirely). The association has some changes in mind for this year’s event (hopefully they will include banishing beer pong tables from the convention floor). It has added a Beer Enthusiast Bookstore, which will sell beer-related books, several state brewing guilds will be pouring local beers to showcase their state’s breweries, and the “You Be the Judge Booth” will allow consumers the chance to sit down with a trained beer judge one-on-one to learn about judging beer styles. The association is also returning its popular “Beer and Food Paring Demos.” The association will also return its “Inside the Brewers Studio” interview series, which I hope will be audio or video taped for future viewing on the association’s website, as was done with the panels at the SAVOR event in Washington DC. As someone who participates in a number of beer educational events through the BeerAdvocate festivals and others, too often some interesting debates and discussions get lost to history, a real shame in our multimedia world where they would be all too easy to preserve.

Here’s a look back at my coverage of the last half-decade or more of Great American Beer Festivals.

The 2007 Great American Beer Festival”
GABF At 25 – The 2006 GABF
A look at the 2005 GABF
Revisit the 2004 GABF
The 2003 GABF
The GABF Turns 21 – The 2002 GABF

And for good measure, a detailed discussion about why beer writers shouldn’t participate in the Brewers Association’s well-intended Beer Journalism Awards.

And it won’t be all fun and games. After eyeing the program for a few years, I’ve finally signed up to attend the Siebel Institute of Technology’s Sensory Analysis Seminar. So while others are drinking beer for fun, I’ll be going to school for four hours…Overall, I look forward to seeing how the event further evolves as it becomes more of a business event for the industry. I’m also interested to hear about when the Brewers Association plans to dump its big brewery corporate sponsors, including Anheuser-Busch, SABMiller, and Molson Coors (remember, this is the Great American Beer Festival and I’ve heard more than a few grumblings on these international entries). I think it’s all about trying to stop those SandLot guys from winning all of the lager awards.

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