NE Craft Brewers
Article By: Andy Crouch
One of the recent trends in craft brewing is the development of regional powerhouse microbreweries. A handful of these breweries now rank among the biggest in the country. Harpoon in the Northeast, Summit and Goose Island in the Midwest, Redhook in the Northwest, and New Belgium in the West all qualify. In an uncertain marketplace, these brewing success stories have a clear and stable future built upon core principles of strong distribution channels, effective marketing, and consistent and quality products.
Look a little further down the list of breweries by their size and you quickly reach a very different tier of breweries. For those breweries with less than 5OOO barrels in annual production, picturing the future is a luxury that is a bit too expensive to fancy. For these smaller breweries, which can even range in size down to a mere few hundred barrels per year, the little things count extra. With little room for storing ingredients, a late grain delivery can cause delays in brewing and thus delays in shipments.
The breweries are often run by a single person or by a small team of individuals. They brew the beer, run the bottling line, clean the brewhouse, distribute the beer, run the "marketing department", fix the damned bottling line, give tours with a smile, and turn off the lights at the end of the day. They toil with the equipment, stress over the inevitable hurdles, and at tastings bask in the warm glow of their supporters. These people are the true faces of craft beer in America.
This is the first in a series of articles on small craft brewers in New England. Each of these brewers produces less than 5OOO barrels of beer per year (by comparison, Anheuser-Busch produced more than 1OO million barrels of beer last year). These breweries are personality driven and these are the people behind the labels.
NEW ENGLAND BREWING COMPANY Opened in 1989 by Dick and Marsha King, the New England Brewing Company (NEBC) has experienced more than its share of ups and downs. The brewery was originally located in South Norwalk, Connecticut, and it expanded quickly to new markets. Like so many other craft breweries, the expansion was too fast and unsuccessful. Eventually, the original owners decided to exit the business. They sold the brands to their brewer, Rob Leonard and his partner Pete Seaman in August 2OO2. The brewery, which produces less than 15OO barrels per year, is now located in a nondescript little warehouse in a small shopping complex in Woodbridge, Connecticut, just outside of New Haven.
As a small brewery owner, Leonard is a jack of all trades out of necessity. Before coming to NEBC, he worked as a "brewer for hire" in a consulting capacity for several New England breweries. Soon he found himself driving all over the Northeast, from Cape Cod to Saratoga Springs, New York, to brew beer for other people. Eventually, he settled down as the brewer at NEBC. Now that he owns the brewery, he has to stay put and cover all the angles. He describes his job as being part brewer, plumber, marketer, and distributor.
The first thing you notice about the brewery is the enormous stockpile of aluminum can palettes lying around the place. Little appreciated in craft brewing circles, canning is at the heart of NEBC's business plan. While the practice of canning craft beer has blossomed in other countries, including Canada and New Zealand, American brewers have been slow to accept it.
Despite the prejudices of the industry at large, Leonard was intrigued by the idea of canning when he first read about it in a newspaper article. After doing some research, Leonard was convinced that canning was the way to go for NEBC. Leonard touts cans as a cost-effective way to provide a superior product. The aluminum cans are lined to protect the beer's flavor and provide an environment free from beer's arch-enemies: light and air.
Leonard also realized that canned craft beer fills a fairly unoccupied niche for active better beer drinkers - cans are portable in ways that bottles are not. Before canned craft beer, people enjoying the outdoors had severely restricted options: carry heavy, awkward and hard to dispose of bottles or tote along a 3O-pack of an otherwise bland, macro-brewed product. Beyond camping, bottled beer is also simply not allowed in many outdoor venues, including most golf courses.
To try one of
New England Brewing Company's beers is to put to rest any
doubts about the potential of canned craft beer. Crack open
one of NEBC's Elm City Lagers and you will be amazed by its
crisp, clean and powerful flavor. This brilliant, spot-on
German-style pilsner single-handedly proves the benefits of
canned craft beer.
HYLAND ORCHARD and BREWERY Located in one of New England's most charming settings for brewing, the Hyland Orchard and Brewery is a destination onto itself. The brewery, on the Damon family farmstead in Sturbridge, Massachusetts, is positioned between a functioning bakery and a popular fruit orchard. The three entities are now independently owned but function as a loose cooperative.
The brewery is owned and operated by Todd Sullivan and Tim Daly, two close friends who met while brewing together at the Mill City Brewing Company in Lowell. After working at several other New England breweries, Sullivan landed a job as the brewer at Hyland, working for the Damon family. While the location originally opened as an apple orchard, the family soon saw an opportunity to expand its tourist business by opening a microbrewery. When the family decided to exit the beer business, Sullivan and Daly agreed to purchase the brewery.
Unlike many smaller craft brewers who have to beg and plead to get the public to visit their warehouse environs, the Hyland site is wildly popular with visitors. The farm location is a favorite for families, allowing the adults to slip away to the brewery's tasting room while the kids enjoy the small petting zoo. Throughout the warmer months of the year, the farm sponsors festivals and concerts that attract thousands of visitors. The brewery sells its beer to the orchard owners who then serve it at the festivals. This on-site sampling system accounts for an impressive one-quarter of Hyland's annual production of 2OOO barrels.
Daly and Sullivan are particularly dedicated to serving their local market. When they took over Hyland, they pulled the brewery's distribution back from all of Massachusetts to the area near its home town. Sullivan believes the approach is paying off by creating a buzz about their hard-to-find product. "If you come to our town, then you get our beer," he says with a laugh.
Hyland's beers are all solid offerings, each with a characteristic crispness Sullivan attributes to the brewery's own fresh well water. The beers are not overwhelming in flavor or particularly challenging in complexity. While beer geeks might not get excited about Hyland's product line, each offering serves well as a session beer. I'd recommend, however, that you take care around the brewery's special release and playfully misnamed Dark Harvest ESB. Unlike nearly every other representation of the style, Hyland's ESB is unconventionally dark in color with roasted flavors. At eight percent alcohol by volume, the product is also far from the session ale style for which it is named.
Hyland's otherwise traditional line, Daly and Sullivan plan
to produce a sister brand, to be called Pioneer Brewing. The
Pioneer brands will allow the brewers to experiment with
different styles in special 15-barrel batches. Sullivan
envisions Pioneer as an "artisanal brewery", so keep your
eyes open for some interesting releases if you are in the
ATLANTIC BREWING COMPANY At slightly under 4OOO barrels of annual production, Atlantic is one of the bigger breweries on this list. And it is presently looking to expand its distribution, with new accounts as far away as Tennessee.
Opened by Tom Mafucci in downtown Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1991, Atlantic moved to its present comely rural location in 1998. In deciding to renovate an old abandoned farm house on the outskirts of town, Mafucci had a vision of making the brewery a tourist destination. With nearly 2O,OOO visitors per year, he has clearly succeeded. He designed the property to have all elements of the site, from the brewery to the small bar and cafe to the gift shop, in view from one central location. To maximize a visitor's experience, Mafucci schedules production to coincide with the hours most tourists visit the brewery.
The brewery's beers include your mainstay Maine ales, but with better structure and more distinctive flavor than other breweries. The brewery produces two particularly noteworthy beers, one for its origin and another for its unique place among the state's beers. In Mafucci's second year, a guy with a pickup truck loaded with blueberries stopped by the brewery and offered to sell him his stock. Not sure what he would do with them but intrigued by the peddler's cheap price, he purchased the lot. His brewer made the fateful mistake of suggesting that they juice the berries for their sugars and add it to a batch of beer. After four hours of hard work, the pair had juiced 4OO pounds of blueberries in a little Cuisinart. They had a terrible mess on their hands but the resulting beer proved popular. Fearing a return to hand juicing the berries, Mafucci found a supplier who provided the juice directly to the brewery and the Bar Harbor Blueberry remains one of the brewery's most popular offerings.
The second beer,
Brother Adam's Bragget Ale, is one of the best special
release beers produced in all of New England. At 14-percent
alcohol, this sublime honey-influenced beer is full of
character and ages beautifully. The beer is based upon a
recipe found by Mafucci in an old brewing book and modified
by his staff. Made in the fall from one ton of honey, the
bragget attenuates slowly and requires constant attention
until it is bottled. Mafucci recommends that the bragget not
be consumed for at least six to eight months after brewing,
and offers that even the earliest releases continue to hold
up many years later.
ANDREW'S BREWING COMPANY Andy Hazen is a workhorse of a brewer. From start to finish, he is a one-man operation. The former cabinetmaker is also a self-reliant Mainer through and through. He was originally an all-grain homebrewer who decided to take it to the next level when his friends expressed interest in his beers. He designed the 12-barrel brewing system himself and enlisted a local welder to help put it together. Hazen notes that when you live in Maine, you have to find some service to provide to others in order to survive. For him, brewing is the service he provides to his local community.
Located in the rolling hills of Lincolnville, Maine, Andrew's is housed in a renovated farmhouse next to Hazen's home. Finding the brewery is more than half the battle. Have no fear, however, as everyone knows about Andrew's. Also, be aware that due to some thieving souls, the brewery no longer has any signage to announce its existence to the visiting public. The only indication that a brewery exists in the farmhouse are the occasional keg deliveries in Hazen's front yard. And Hazen hasn't been quick to replace the sign either. While he welcomes visitors, you have to remember to clear a path for the busy brewer. Like many other unsung small brewers, running his 5OO-barrel per year brewery is a seven day a week operation for Hazen.
Watching Hazen run the brewery is a little like watching Willy Wonka run the Chocolate Factory. When I visit him during a bottling day, Hazen runs between the bottling line and the packaging supplies in a hurried yet methodical manner. He stands up bottles on the line, starts the machine, slides his way across the brewhouse to the packaging materials, and hand assembles the six-packs that will hold the soon-to-be bottled beer.
Andrew's beer is
straightforward, unassuming and entirely enjoyable. His
product line includes the St. Nick Porter, the Northern
Brown Ale, the English Pale Ale, and the summer seasonal
Ruby's Golden Ale. A celebration of the Amarillo hop,
Hazen's English Pale Ale is a delightfully balanced product
that neither over or underwhelms the palate.
CONCORD BREWERY In its short seven-year existence, the Concord Brewery has had four different names, three new owners and three separate homes. The name, which was originally the Concord Junction Brewing Company, refers to the brewery's first home in Massachusetts, where brewers developed the idea for the unusual Concord Grape Ale. After brewer Mike Labbe purchased the brewery from its original owners, he changed the name to Concord Brewers. After leaving its Concord home for Shirley, the brewery then became known as the Concorde Brewery.
Soon after taking over the reins, Labbe found that he preferred being a brewer and the brewery nearly closed. In the most recent twist, the brewery's accountant, David Asadoorian, purchased the brewery, rechristened it the Concord Brewery, and moved it to the Brewery Exchange complex in Lowell. To add another twist to the already convoluted story, the brewery produces a range of beers under three different brand names.
The brewery, whose beers remained fairly consistent during the frequent changes in ownership and address, now enjoys a new measure of stability and direction under Asadoorian. Concord produces nearly 4OOO barrels per year but the new owner is looking to double that amount in the near future.
For his part, Asadoorian never dreamed of owning a brewery. While working with small businesses during his career, he always kept his options open about starting his own business when the time was right. When the brewery literally fell into his lap, he picked it up and made several necessary strategic decisions to keep it open.
The brewery's historic location is another interesting chapter in Concord's story. While the brewery is attached to a restaurant in the complex, and its expansive operating space is a focal point for diners through large glass windows in the dining room, the brewery is not associated with the restaurant. The brewery's beer, of course, are the house beers served at the restaurant.
produces a line of solid ales under the Concord brand name,
two lagers under the Mill City label, as well as more
challenging beers under the controversial Rapscallion
moniker. This last brand, developed by a former brewer as an
artisanal line, has perhaps been the brewery's most visible
project. The three Rapscallion products, named Blessing,
Creation and Premier, have varied in consistency and flavor
from batch-to-batch, but have been widely lauded by beer
enthusiasts. As the operation stabilizes, the brewery plans
to expand and further promote the Rapscallion line and its
distinctive offerings. Asadoorian wants to promote it as
"America's sipping beer".
TROUTBROOK BREWING COMPANY At a mere 12OO barrels a year, Troutbrook, makers of Thomas Hooker beers, is a little brewery with a big reputation. It is a reputation that is both a blessing a curse. Brewer Paul Davis enjoyed great success at the "brewery in the clouds" at Castle Springs Brewing Company in New Hampshire. His beers won many awards, including at the Great American Beer Festival. His rocked both sides of the brewing dial, mastering lagers with his bold, flavorful Munich-style Lager, and producing one of New England's best India Pale Ales. But after five years at Castle Springs, he suddenly found himself out of a job. Well, for a few days at least. Davis finished his job at Castle Springs on a Friday and started work for Troutbrook the following Monday morning.
With his regular beers as well as his special releases, Davis has clearly picked up where he left off. The brewery's owners, including the affable Mike Altott, have complete confidence in Davis. They allow Davis to focus on the beers, while they each apply their own special skills to the marketing, distribution and business operation.
From his beers, it is obvious that Davis is not your typical East Coast brewer. "You can tell I went to school 2O minutes from Sierra Nevada Brewing," he jokes. The aforementioned IPA, which has resurfaced in a slightly tweaked version at Troutbrook, was laden with hop flavor. Not your average, weak-kneed pale ale with only a kiss of hops, Davis's offering set an early standard for New England brewers. Davis has also resurrected several other lost offerings from his days at Castle Springs. The Blonde Ale, the Old Marley Barleywine and the Munich Style Golden Lager are all based upon his old award-winning recipes. "Those beers suffered a death they didn't deserve," Davis concludes.
To see the incredibly tight working space at Troutbrook is to truly appreciate the hard work that goes into crafting the brewery's special releases. When I recently stopped by, Davis was busy hand-bottling a recent batch. On the Melvico hand system, Davis bottles a whopping four cases an hour. When I saw the mind-boggling size of the operation, I actually felt guilty about how casually I had consumed my last bottle of Troutbrook's barleywine the week before.
The brewery contracts about half of its production, but produces it's popular specialty line in-house. This line of beers, which includes higher octane lagers and ales, is a major focal point for the brewery. The brewery's bottles also serve as points of focus for consumers. The Old Marley, for example, comes in a striking cobalt blue bottle resembling a genie's magic lamp. While rubbing it accomplishes very little, I'm sure you will be plenty happy with what comes out of the bottle.